By Louie Dy (2021) and Mark Teo (2023)
Disclaimer: This article reveals information related to the games featured. Be warned that the following games deal with sensitive issues related to mental health. Reader’s discretion is advised.
With blood, sweat, tears, and — most importantly — code, video game developers can create nearly anything the mind can conjure. Blue hedgehog that “gotta go fast”? You got it. Battle royales with 99 non-computer opponents? Done. Cockfighting with free healthcare? Easy (if only free healthcare were that simple in real life).
Indeed, video games are an avenue for wondrous, fantastical, and visionary thought. One of the ways video games can transcend being just an escape from reality is by taking the real-world head on in its own roundabout way. Games can take on the most serious of topics such as mental health (MH), and, through the medium it is in, amplify the core messages of the push for MH awareness, which are
1) it is real
2) it is a problem
3) something must be done.
Games are effective beacons of reality because their often fantastical premises serve to highlight the realities the game portrays. With that, here are some free video games (links at the end of the article) that deal with issues of mental health:
1. Doki Doki Literature Club!
It’s a free visual novel (specifically a dating simulator, or dating sim) where you can write poems with pretty girls to earn their love. Nothing sinister about that…right?
At first glance, this game deals with idealistic scenarios where a group of girls all fall for the same guy. It gives the player options on who to spend time with akin to other dating sims based on the poems you write. It has everything — from the set-up to the dialogue — to make you feel like you are playing yet another run-of-the-mill dating sim. What this game fails to mention, however, is the presence of mental health issues among everyone you could possibly date, eventually manifesting in horrible, horrible ways. Let’s just say it was tagged as horror for a reason, unless you ignored the content warning before downloading it. With the plot greatly in contrast with the cutesy aesthetic of a dating sim, the game depicts real mental health issues in chillingly true-to-life ways, showing how there are really no easy answers to such an issue as mental health, with characters giving insightful commentaries, such as the following:
“Everyone has a story. You may not know what someone is really feeling on the inside. Many people who are depressed won’t even bother telling the world about it. They don’t want attention, because they’ve already given up on the inside. Their feeling of worthlessness is so overwhelming that they don’t even want people to tell them otherwise. Depression comes in many forms, but that is one of them.”
“Just, if you think you know someone struggling with depression… You can help just by treating them like they’re a good friend. Spend time with them, even if they don’t feel like doing much. And remind them that they always have something to look forward to. Making plans in advance, letting them borrow something, or even just saying ‘See you at school tomorrow’… All of those things can help your friend make it to the next day.”
“As for you… You don’t struggle with depression or anything like that, do you? Because you, too, have people who would want to save your life. Maybe they don’t express it every day, or maybe they don’t even know how to. But people do feel that way. I promise.”
2. the static speaks my name (Free Game on Steam)
More of an experience than a game, the static speaks my name puts you in the shoes of a certain Jacob Ernholtz getting through a day of his life for roughly around 10 minutes.
Never a good sign when this is the first thing you see in the game as good ol’ Jacob
By doing what seems to be Ernholtz’s daily routine, one begins to notice a few things are…off in his home. A truly great example of “show, don’t tell”, the static speaks my name weaves this richly layered narrative of the depths of a man’s turmoil. The developer, Jesse Barksdale, had this to say about the game:
“My intention was to create an experience with an emphasis on story, character and emotion, not gameplay. Kind of a right-brain game. To create something that made you feel like you were someone else, but not as an escape. Most games are kind of escapes from reality and I feel like this is maybe the opposite? Like it’s an attempt to replicate that rawness that we all sometimes experience. I honestly am not sure if I accomplished that, but that was my intention.”
3. Yume Nikki (Free Game on Steam)
Yume Nikki (ゆめにっき, lit. Dream Diary), also known as “Yume Nikki: A Story Without A Story”, is a special game in itself by the fact that there are no words at all — no plot, no dialogue, no ‘enemies’, no ‘game over’.
These elements are more than enough to portray the game’s psychedelic message through the soles of a person with depression. While you’d normally expect to have fun with games, this game, on the contrary, inebriates you thoroughly with sadness and depression. In fact, many other games were inspired from this award-winning indie game.
The game presents with the main character, Madotsuki, waking up alone in the room, unable to go out except to the verandah. That, along with several other motifs and symbolisms, show the Japanese concept of a shut-in, a hikikomori (引き籠り). Madotsuki has two choices: to go to bed and sleep (and hallucinate), or to go to the verandah and commit suicide. The game only ends with her demise.
Will you sleep through your endless dreams? Or wake up and end it all?
Aside from themes of isolation, there are also themes of violence, anxiety, sexual abuse, body horror and dysmorphia, and separation of dream and reality.
Disturbing unmoving hands and a disturbing phallus monster that rubs the rails…
In other words, the point of the game is not to start at the beginning, overcome the game’s challenges, and reach the end, thereby achieving victory. The point of the game is to experience it, meditate on it, and theorize about it.
Links to the Games!
- Doki Doki Literature Club: https://store.steampowered.com/app/698780/Doki_Doki_Literature_Club/
- the static speaks my name: https://store.steampowered.com/app/387860/the_static_speaks_my_name/
- Yume Nikki: https://store.steampowered.com/app/650700/Yume_Nikki/