I want more depressed characters. Honest to god, cannot function, struggling to find the motivation to continue living, depressed. And I want them in video games.
But specifically, I want them in video games that are not about depression.
When I was interning at The Fresno Bee last summer, Rory Appleton, the video game columnist, played what looked like a very stylized point-and-click game. I asked what it was. He replied jokingly “Depression: the Game.”
It was actually Apartment, and it involved the main character walking around his quiet apartment just after being dumped from a serious relationship. There was “this weird depression button” you could click that would let the player hear the main character’s self-depreciating thoughts about the break-up, or his emotional state. Rory loved it, much like he loved That Dragon, Cancer, a game revolving around a couple dealing with the diagnosis and eventual death of their son, which he reviewed in January 2016 .
The conversation between depression and video games is not a new one. Rory praised these games for tackling tough subjects, saying titles like these “aren’t played, they’re experienced.” There are multiple studies that show games can be used to help people with clinical depression. The rewarding nature of games (you finish a puzzle, you get a trophy) is very healing to those that struggle with mental illness.
Game developers are continuing to redefine what games can talk about, and I’m glad that they are. I hope games like Apartment and That Dragon, Cancer, continue to challenge what “games” can be.
These games, however, are about depression. That’s not what I want.
I want a warrior who struggles to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
I want a mage to have days where they go silent for hours at a time, and their companions know to let them come to when they’re ready.
I want a hero who, when asked how they are doing, replies honestly, candidly: “Like shit.” There’s no specific rhyme or reason. They’re fighting this battle every day, and some days are harder than others.
I want fantasy games like Dragon Age to have a companion who is regularly depressed, and not just because someone they loved died, or they had a shit childhood. I want a game where mental illness has nothing to do with their environment.
Depression isn’t the trophy you to get to prove your life is significantly worse than everyone else’s.
I want RPGs like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto to have options in the character creating process that explore what it means to be depressed in a world that exists with or without you, much like the real world does.
I’m not saying there have never been depressed characters in games before, or characters who seem depressed. There are characters like Noctis from Final Fantasy XV, who spent part of the game mourning a lost loved one, or Cullen Rutherford who spent the better part of Dragon Age: Inquisition battling severe PTSD. Both of these story arcs go through a range of emotion and touch upon themes of depression, but they don’t quite address what it means to be depressed. And they don’t deal with what it means to be clinically depressed in an otherwise functioning world.
I don’t know of a single game where depression is as normalized as having super powers, or being a mage, or a god-like warrior. I don’t know of a single game where a character explicitly states they suffer from mental illness.
Depression is not exclusive to tragic backstories.
When I first started to recognize I was depressed, I spiraled into this whirlpool of shame and guilt. I had no right to be depressed. Everything was fine. I had a family that loved me, a roof over my head and food in my fridge. Even when times were tough, and believe me, there were times where things were very, very tough, I tried to rationally tell myself that I still had all the things I needed, and that I had no right to be feel this way.
At the start of my spiral, I hadn’t gone through a major life crisis, or lost someone monumentally important to me, or anything that the narratives of current storytelling said gave me the qualification to be depressed.
Three years ago, I moved out of my parents house and to a new city, starting my journey towards my degree. This caused plenty of financial and emotional stress. I couldn’t pay tuition. I had no experience in journalism, and I couldn’t get the internships or jobs I needed to further my career. I couldn’t pay my bills. I could barely afford to get a coffee with friends.
I used to come home from my classes, sit on my bed, and stare at the wall until I fell asleep. There were days I could not function.
Four scholarships, three internships, and lots of coffee later, I’m in a better place. But even now, with graduation around the corner and my whole career ahead of me, I feel the echoes of those waves. Those waves have the power to completely decimate me. And that starts a whole new spiral of guilt and self-hatred: You have everything, I tell myself. You still have no right to feel like this.
It’s taken me a long time to realize the truth about depression: it doesn’t give two shits about your accomplishments. It doesn’t care how many scholarships you received, or how many articles you wrote, or how successful you are.
The truth about depression is this: sometimes, it just happens. Sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It just is.
The video game industry could create a very meaningful impact for its audience.
Media representation matters in regards to race, ethnicity, and sexuality. Why wouldn’t it apply to mental illness? The video game industry has an incredible opportunity to give players agency on something that’s already so hard to talk about.
Video games offer very unique narratives. They give players an active part in their story. You don’t just observe a video game, you experience it. In role-playing games, you can easily create a character that is a total self-insert. This puts more power in the gamer’s hands. They’re not just playing a character, they’re directing an extension of themselves.
Video games, on a purely technical level, require you to move. The game cannot function if you do not progress your character. The real world will continue without you, but your narrative will not progress if you do not move.
That’s why depressed characters in video games are so important to me. If those characters can face all the same battles that I’m facing, and still move forward, then so can I.
If that warrior who struggled to get out of bed did it anyway because his friends were counting on them to fight, even when it feels like iron chains are tethering his very bones to the earth, then so can I.
If that mage who goes silent some days is given space by her companions, who know how and when to tell her that she is valid and loved and important, can continue alongside those companions in their ongoing quest, then so can I.
If that chosen hero can say they’re struggling, hold back tears, and still find the courage to fight the demons who threaten their world’s existence, then so can I.
If they can do it, then so can I.