Games about loss, memories and mental wellbeing

Video games are a powerful medium for not only displaying characters and narratives dealing with difficult situations, but providing the player a degree of interaction and agency. This can be via decision making, leading to branching storylines and multiple end states, such as in the supernatural, slice of life, Life is Strange series, or in Quantic Dream’s sci-fi ethical robo-drama, Detroit: Become Human. Other narrative-heavy games prefer a more visceral approach, for example, forcing you into violence in order to progress the narrative. One example is the Last of Us franchise; a post-apocalyptic action-adventure series that deals with the darker parts of humanity and probes how far one would go to save the people they love. The second entry, Part II, in particular compels the player to commit vengeful cold-blooded murder, and sends the player down a dangerous downward spiral alongside the main character, Ellie. The power of these games is to put the player directly into the shoes of the protagonists, and thus feel emotionally invested. For the player, who may have never seen what it is like to feel the cold rage of revenge, severe teenage angst, or intense loneliness, among a myriad of other emotions, video games are thus transportive and educational. In particular, video games that tackle situations affecting LGBTQ+ characters, those with disabilities, marginalised groups etc., can be eye-opening to the player. Processing intense and complex emotions can help the player deal with problems that affect them in real life, for example, the loss of a family member, or the breakdown of a relationship. Focussing not just on the negative, but video games that paint positive depictions of say, raising a child or coming out of your comfort zone and discovering new things about yourself, should also be noted.

Grief, the response to the loss of a close bond with someone or something, is a common topic in story-led video games. Excellent games such as Oxenfree, Gone Home, and Firewatch, all deal with loss and how the protagonist comes to term with life after such an event. There is no one video game genre that is preferred to tackle this emotional response, instead it ranges from first-person exploration, to third person action, and everything in between. Genre is irrelevant – what is relevant instead is how the developer utilises gameplay to support and enhance the story, and vice versa. Any dissonance in this when dealing with difficult topics, can lead to a poor experience. For example, in a game that foremost is dealing with grief and sadness, having the player murder innocent human beings for experience points would be odd, albeit, context is everything here. Tone and dissonance are musical terms but they are often used to measure the coherence of a good story, much like a good melody should be consistently one thing or the other, not a disordered packet of noise.

Recently, there has been a greater focus on mental health issues permeating storylines in video games, naturally spurned by social media’s breakdown of barriers and greater vulnerability; being depressed or going to therapy is no longer something to be hidden or pushed down. Instead, stories of people talking about their issues and working through them, understanding themselves better, are now at the forefront of our social lives. Not just in video games, but in TV shows and movies too; the binarisation and labelling of characters as “the bad guy” or “the hot girl” are beginning to melt away, and instead reveal that everyone is in fact a person and is susceptible to change. One storyline from the hugely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe show, Loki, takes a villain character, and throughout the course of six episodes, breaks down what it is that motivates him, what his fears are, and shows that even a “bad guy” is not all bad, but can change, and doesn’t need to stay in a category that both himself and society have repeatedly validated for him.

Image credit: Dontnod Entertainment / Xbox Game Studios

The Life is Strange franchise of video games, beginning with the eponymous game in 2015, has repeatedly attempted to overtly question and bring to light more extreme topics such as teenage suicide, racism, and gun violence, among others. The 2019 video game, Tell Me Why, led by LiS developers, is unique for featuring a transgender man as the lead protagonist. Refreshingly, while the game does directly place Tyler, one of the two protagonists, into situations where he is misunderstood and disrespected for his gender, his personal story is not given the Disney treatment, nor is it ignored; it’s accepted and the video game instead dwells on the issues rising from coming back to the village where his mother died, when both Tyler and his sister Alyson were young children. The game touches on grief in many different ways; dealing with the loss of a loved one, and in the case of both siblings, conflicting feelings towards their mother. Tyler felt that his mother seemed to not accept him when he began to explore and understand his transition, while Alyson remembers things differently. Loss also manifests in the background storyline where both siblings have returned to their childhood home to pack it up and sell it, unearthing memories from their past. Additionally, there is the loss of a relationship that never manifested in the siblings’ lives, since both grew up separately, as Tyler was incriminated for the crime and was sent to a youth centre until he was 18, where the story begins.

Tell Me Why is unique in how it tackles loss because it highlights the mercurial nature of memories, in that, they are not fixed. For one thing, every time you recall a memory the storage process is susceptible to change, and hence can alter the memory. Additionally, your subjective perspective at the time of the memory acquisition will most certainly be different to any other party at the event, such as a brother and sister remembering the death of their mother. Memories are also vastly affected by emotion, in a large variety of ways, such as affecting attention selectivity and increasing the likelihood of permanent consolidation. Tell Me Why‘s central mechanic entails a telepathic connection between siblings, such that they are able to view each other’s perspective on the same memory they had growing up. In certain cases, the player has to decide which memory they want to believe is the truth; this decision affects your relationship with your sibling, as well as determining the emotional state of both Tyler and Alyson at the end of the game. There then, is another depiction of grief; that of memories lost. Memories that you might have been sure were the ground truth, but were in fact skewed by your emotions at the time, and even your emotions during recall. Tell Me Why supports the player to contemplate their own memories of a traumatic event, isolate and cleave the emotional component, probe it and try to determine the path from that memory to your reactions or behaviour in the present. Finding that link and understanding it goes miles towards positive self-introspection and your mental wellbeing.

Image credit: Dreamfeel / Annapurna Interactive

If Found is that other rare video game where the player is dropped into the life of Kasio, a transgender woman, who returns home to rural Ireland following the completion of her degree in Dublin. Strain in Kasio’s life stems from her family’s difficulty in accepting her transition, from both her brother and mother. Over Christmas-time Kasio forms friendships with a clique that accepts her, emotionally and physically into a large decrepit house where she processes her familial estrangement. The narrative perfectly encapsulates the mental torture that comes from people you love unable to accept you for who you are. We explore confusing relationships and follow Kasio into a deep depression. The loss here emanates from Kasio’s breaking bond with her mother, who on the flip-side, feels that she has lost a son.

The gameplay of If Found is that of a visual novel, with the only interaction of the player being the erasure of diary entries after they are read. Thus, as the story progresses, with each diary entry we learn more about Kasio’s story but also delete, metaphorically, the memories as they come. This comes to a head at the positive ending of the game where Kasio begins a new diary, where the mechanic flips from deletion to creation. Forgetting about trauma is perhaps unwise, since there are no lessons learnt, but this is not what If Found is trying to do – it isn’t a mental block, but a mental refocussing. Just because those memories form part of us does not mean they define us. We don’t need to focus on them, but accept them. It makes more sense for us to focus on the things that give us strength, that’s what bolsters our mental wellbeing, rather than stepping onto that familiar downward spiral, as tempting as it may seem. The physical act of erasure reinforces a positive change in Kasio’s life.

When games tackle themes like those above, with minority perspectives, they begin to evolve from an idle plaything, a time-killer, into important and powerful art that has the ability to have a profound impact on how we think about other people. Beyond simply thinking of them and us, labelling individuals stereotypically, but as people with impossible to guess problems, and render judging futile.

More and more games are reaching mainstream appeal that feature complex, emotional themes. While games like Tell Me Why and If Found do excellent jobs of selling a perspective, others can fall flat. The Medium, a psychological horror game, follows the story of Marianne, a medium with the ability to walk into the spirit realm and talk to souls on the other side of life. Throughout the game, the player meets souls that are in emotional turmoil, as well as the main antagonist: a creature that was born from a traumatic incident affecting one soul named “Sadness”. An interesting premise and adequate gameplay unfortunately do not negate a cack-handed approach to one extreme topic, that of child sexual abuse. Surely this is something that should be talked about, but not as a reaction to the act, but as an investigation of the abused/abuser’s psyche. The Medium instead dwells on the horror of it all, categorising the abuser and abused into easily labelled jars, without any sort of analysis. There is no character growth and hence little interest in the plot. If you have nothing to say about child abuse other than it is really bad, maybe you shouldn’t throw it in your story as just another bad thing that happened. It would have been far more interesting to understand the perspective of the abuser, or even better, show how the abused dealt with the fallout, and managed to survive past it.

Image credit: Doublefine / Xbox Game Studios

Thankfully, there are plenty of games out there that do deal with emotionally-heavy topics with a subtler touch. The wonderfully bright Psychonauts 2 disguises itself as a mid-2000s 3D platformer, but in fact in its gaiety manages to address a vast array of mental health issues, as well as become a huge advertisement for self-reflection and behavioural therapy. Enemies in the game are called “censors” or “panic attack”, in which the protagonist Raz, part of the psychic peacekeeping espionage agency, is given all the tools to fight these bad thoughts off as he ventures through character’s minds. The game is at once hilarious and also unafraid to stand up to physically confronting mental issues. The game’s central narrative may be similar to a Pixar movie but it is in metaphor that it excels; Raz has all the tools to fight off all his mental struggles, in the same way that everyday, you and I possess the mental strength to understand, analyse and move past all our negative mind-states.

Image credit: Extremely OK Games

Video games are anything but similar. There are so many stories out there that will give you a fresh perspective on life, in addition to the few I’ve listed above. Night In The Woods, a graphical adventure, follows Mae, a college dropout dealing with the breakdown of her mental health. Celeste is a tough-as-nails 2D platformer that manages to tell an incredibly important story about depression and anxiety, that resonated strongly with me. Gris is an achingly beautiful odyssey contemplating sadness, literally and metaphorically bringing colour back to one’s life. Finally, What Remains of Edith Finch is a masterpiece of storytelling, an affecting game in which the player wanders through the Finch household, reliving the interesting lives of its now passed on denizens – while each story ends with tragedy, it is in the joy of life that Edith Finch pivots the focus.

So go, explore and seek out video games that challenge your worldview. Find something that puts you in the shoes of someone you thought you could never understand or even someone you previously judged unfairly. If you are looking for validation that your mental issues are real, and there are others that have gone through the same thing, games can help. For me, the message of Celeste, the downward spiral of The Last of Us Part II, have stuck with me ever since I played them, and I often think about them when I’m on the verge of the void. I understand myself better, I now have tools to deal with a breakdown, even if I sometimes fail. If nothing else, video games like these have taught me that talking to someone you trust about your issues always helps, be it a friend, a partner or a therapist.

Thank you for reading, and if you are experiencing mental health issues, please seek help. Here are plenty of links that you can visit. Personally, I have found that free counselling and using a BACP certified therapist have helped me greatly.

PSA: Trans people in the UK face huge levels of abuse and inequality. Research from Stonewall in 2018 found that two in five trans people have had a hate crime committed against them in the last year, two in five trans young people had attempted suicide and one in eight trans people had been physically attacked by colleagues or customers at work. If nothing else, I recommend exploring the Stonewall website.