Depression as a Roguelike

Okay, let me say right off the bat that this entry is going to be nerdy. I mean, SUPER nerdy. Video game genre level of nerdy. That being said, even if you aren’t that level of nerd, I think this entry may have something to offer you that you can connect with.

My favorite type of genre of video games, I have finally come to realize, is a type of game called “roguelikes.” Hear me out. Stop rolling your eyes. I promise this will get to depression and mental health.

So, Roguelikes. They’re games in which you have to get to the end. My favorite all-time Roguelike – maybe my favorite all-time game at this point – is one called Enter the Gungeon. I cannot understate how obsessed I am with this one.

Games like this are designed for you to die. Like, a lot. A lot, a lot, a lot. They are typically very, very difficult games. What makes them a little extra special – and extra difficult – is that they’re never the same. The games often use a randomization procedure known as “procedural generation.” In these games, levels and bad guys will change. Layouts change. And while the game will follow the same certain pattern, it’s never the same run through the dungeon.

So, what does this Sisyphean-like task have to do with depression? Well…a lot, actually. Take Enter the Gungeon. You will die a gazillion times in this game before you make it to the final boss – and then all the secret final bosses – which is a different story. But, every time you beat a level boss, you gain these extra tokens. You use those tokens to buy better weapons for your next run. Then, you’re next time, you do a little bit better. You get a little further.

Even more importantly: The more you play, the more you learn the patterns. Like, this little bastard, who my kids call the Pinky Malinky enemy:


He’s blurry, but deadly

Pinky Malinky up there will fire a shotgun spread at you as you walked. The first time I ever saw him, I was totally taken aback. The second time, same. By the third time, I had it, and I rolled out of the way. 

Of course, that’s not to say that the knowledge of what he does makes me immune from screwing up. Every now and then, I’ll get distracting by dealing with another one of the little guys that shoot at me, and I’ll take a hit. But I learn. I always learn.

See where I’m going with this?

It’s kind of a weird metaphor, but it does hold. My favorite type of video game genre, Roguelikes, is very, very similar to how all of us battle mental illness. Consider the similarities:

  • No two days are ever really, truly the same – but you recognize the patterns.
  • Recognizing the patterns of a Roguelike level means you can learn how to better cope with an attack.
  • Once you learn the patterns, you have a better shot at defeating your enemies.
  • The bad guys appear in different orders, at different times, and in combination with different things, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t different.
  • Just because you know how to kill them doesn’t mean you always will. Sometimes you have a terrible day and get a Game Over at level one. Other times, you make it to the final boss without batting an eye.
  • Randomness plays an important role – but your skill often is what makes the difference.

Look, video games are an important part of my life. They’ve given me a virtually endless source of joy or entertainment, inspired the names of my kids, and taught me some exceptionally valuable life lessons about persistence and creativity. But I do really, truly believe that there are parallels between how we fight depression and how we play some types of games. I hope this helped to provide you with a valuable metaphor, and please let us know in the comments your thoughts.

Now, please listen to this kick-ass soundtrack:

Video games can help fight depression

When it comes to mental illness, video games often get a bad rap. There is a ton of talk in the media about how video games cause violent behavior (it’s not that simple) and how video game addiction is a real thing (it is, but not as big of a problem as some may lead you to believe).

Don’t get me wrong – video games can be very bad for your mental health, particularly if you overdo it and become withdrawn, ignore your real life obligations or substitute games for real world interaction. That being said, there is also ample evidence which demonstrates that video games can be really good for depression.

This Geek & Sundry article lays the case out nicely. It notes that different games can have different, positive purposes (MMORPGs can help people become more social, puzzles can help reduce outside distractions and deal with trauma, etc).

Additional useful information is in this Slate article, which discusses what happens to someone’s brain when they play video games:

In the past few years, multiple fMRI studies, including a seminal one conducted at Stanford University, have peered into the brains of gamers. Their results show that when we play video games, two regions of the brain are continually hyperstimulated: the region most associated with motivation and goal-orientation (often referred to as “the reward pathways”) and the region most associated with learning and memory (the hippocampus).

BUT, the article also notes:

These two regions of the brain, the reward pathways and the hippocampus, are the same two regions that get chronicallyunderstimulated, and that even shrink over time, when we’re clinically depressed.

In other words: Video game play is literally the neurological opposite of depression.

The key, according to this article, is to “play games with a purpose” – in other words, a positive goal. Doing so will alter your brain and encourage you to see the world in a whole new light. This, in turn, help rewire your brain so that you can better cope with depression.

There is also ample evidence that video games can help you fight depression. One 2018 study found that action games can help reduce depression. And a 2012 study found that a fantasy game designed specifically to fight depression could be more effective than visiting a counselor.

And all of this, of course, says nothing about the very positive ways which certain games show depression – and show people fighting back. And, after all, I’m a big fan of using media to show how to conquer depression!

On a personal level? I’ve found video games to be a very pleasant distraction at the moments where I am down. They can, however briefly, take me away from my troubles and give my brain space to breathe and recover. I get the temptation to drown yourself in a video game when you are down, but the truth is that this accomplishes nothing. If you use video games as a way to reorient yourself to the real world, it can help get you to where you need to be. Maybe that’s why I tend to like open world games that provide a big escape – games like Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto 5…err, I mean, Mario Kart. Let’s go with that.

As always, I welcome your thoughts below. Have these experiences been yours? What video games do you play when you are down? Let us know in the comments!

The incredibly sweet tribute to a mental health hero in Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I’ve written about video games before, but never quite like this.

Yesterday, I was watching this video on Zelda: Breath of the Wild (awesome game, by the way). In the course of watching, I came across this:

For those of you who don’t watch the video, here’s the basic gist: Link, the game’s hero, walks to the edge of a Proxim Bridge in the game. He is confronted by a character named Brigo, who stops you from jumping off of the bridge and says things to get you to stay put. He even offers to stay with you to keep you company.

Okay, kind of random, right? Brigo is likely inspired by Kevin Briggs:

Kevin Briggs.jpg

Briggs is a fascinating man: He spent decades working for the California Highway Patrol, which he retired from in 2013. During much of that time, he patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge, and by his estimates, stopped over 200 people from jumping to their death.

This is a truly kind tribute to a man who clearly deserves it.

If you want to watch the entire scene, it’s below:

Climb That Mountain: Celeste, the video game that just made me tear up

As you may know if you have already read this blog, I have previously written about video games and their attempts to tackle the weighty issue of mental illness.  I now have a new game to add to that group: Celeste, an incredible platformer that tells a powerful story.

Warning: Story spoilers below

First of all – and maybe most importantly – Celeste is an absolutely incredible game. It stars Madeline, the pixalated heroine, who is seeking to climb Celeste Mountain. You jump from obstacle to obstacle, beating levels, meeting new characters and advancing to the summit. The game’s mechanics are simple but there is so much meat on it’s bones. The more you play, the better you get, and new mechanics are introduced with each level at a perfect difficulty curve.

As the story progresses, you find out more about Madeline. She is driven to the point of depression and wants to climb the mountain seemingly to prove something to herself. Madeline climbs the mountain, overcoming obstacles along the way, but after a couple of levels meets one of the game’s main villains: The “Part of me” that makes enemies out of friends, alters the environment and tortures Madeline. She has the same avatar as Madeline, just more evil looking. It’s clearly a metaphor for the part of each person that hinders us all, drives us mad and generally is our own worst enemy.

On a different side of the spectrum is Theo, who Madeline meets while she is climbing the Mountain. Theo is on a journey too, but for different reasons. They are yin and yang: Madeline is goal-oriented. Theo wants the experience but seems adrift and lost.

The game breaks up it’s platforming by telling a story via conversation and dialogue. That led to what I would say are the most powerful moments I’ve experienced with it so far, including these snippets of dialogue after Madeline spends a level saving Theo from a monster of her own creation:


That leads to this incredible description that I know will ring true for many:


Even more impressively, the story is told via gameplay. At one point, Madeline’s Part of Me stops a gondala, causing Madeline to have an anxiety attack. Theo – who has some experience in dealing with this – makes Madeline imagine a feather that is kept afloat by her exhales and inhales, and the player simulates the breathing via controller inputs – thus stopping the anxiety attack. In another level, Theo – who is a little selfie-obsessed – must be thrown into an eyeball in order to complete a level.

Another metaphor: I’ve never died in a video game more than I have here. In the last level I completed, I died a whopping 335 times. And no, I’m not the greatest video game player in the world, but this is normal here, I swear. Indeed, as the game reminds you at one point, in-game deaths are good! They provide for learning experiences and bring you that much closer to your ultimate goal of beating the level. The message here is clear: Learning comes from pain. Pain brings you closer to where you need to be. And as long as you don’t give up, you can get there.

I’m not done with this game. But the exchanges above legitimately brought tears to my eyes. They reminded me what a powerful medium video games can be. This game made me feel validated as someone who suffers from depression, and I highly, highly recommend that you check it out if video games are your thing.

I never thought I’d care so much about a platformer. This game is worth exploring.


4 Video Games that portray mental illness

As I’ve discussed before, I’m a video game nerd.  Hardcore.  And, as someone who is a bit obsessed with eradicating stigma that is related to mental illness, I remain fascinated by public portrayal of depression, anxiety and addiction.

Video games, I believe, are art.  I define art as the ability to make a profound emotional impact on a person.  As such, the portrayal of mental illness in video games – and indeed, humanity – continue to fascinate me, and make me think.  The good news is this: Video games can often describe the human condition in a more thoughtful and complete than many movies and television shows.  That line of thinking inspired this blog entry: How does video games portray mental illness?  How accurate is that portrayal?

Oh, and spoilers below.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm


This one is the prequel to Life is Strange, one of my favorite games, made by Square Enix.  It is a walking simulator  in which you follow Chloe, the main character, as she battles her way through high school and falls in love with Rachel, the previously unseen character who plays a pivotal role in Life is Strange.  

I firmly believe that Chloe is suffering through some major depression symptoms.  Her father has died a few years before and her mother is dating a man who she openly despises and fights with; both of these experiences can lead to depression.  She drinks and does drugs often enough to have a regular dealer to whom she owes money. Her best friend is gone, and not communicating with her at all.  She comes across as angsty, but it’s more than that.  Her quotes, thoughts and actions are often self-destructive and reflect a young woman in pain.

To me, this is more than just a teen being a teen.  She’s miserable, she fights with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend, her family has financial issues, and she is clearly discovering her sexuality.  These are all symptoms that lead my to believe that Chloe is suffering from depression.

What makes the game more relatable is the game’s treatment of Chloe.  In the start of episode one, she is petulant and miserable – not the greatest portrayal.  However, as the game evolves, she becomes a more sympathetic character, and a multi-layered one at that.  You see her hopes, dreams and ability to connect with others.  And, by hearing her thoughts, you can hear all of the truly heartbreaking things she is thinking and saying to herself, about herself.

You intrinsically want Chloe to be better, to have healthier thought patterns and make better decisions.  And, in that sense, I hope that the game can give people a better idea of what it is like to live a life under duress, as Chloe clearly does.

A Night In The Woods


Disclosure: I’m only part way through this one

A Night In The Woods is a platformer. You play as Mae, who has just dropped out of college and returned home.  I’m not very far along this one, but where I’ve gotten to, strange things are happening in her hometown after she reunites with her friends.

The college drop-out part is interesting.  Again, I’m not far in, but thus far, Mae has refused to talk about what happened to her in college, aside from saying that college “didn’t work out” or some variation of that phrase.  She reconnects with old friends, who all have their own battles:

Mae, the protagonist, experiences depression and anxiety, which sometimes create dissociative states during which she becomes completely disconnected from reality. It is implied, though never directly stated, that Gregg has bipolar disorder. His poor impulse control gets him into bad situations, and at times these factors impact his feelings of self worth. Bea and Angus both struggle with the consequences of abusive pasts and their relationships with their families.

As has been noted by Kotaku, the game’s creator’s have both discussed their own battles with mental illness:

The game’s creators have spoken candidly in the past about their own mental health struggles. Scott Benson, who animated and illustrated the game, has type two bipolar disorder. Programmer Alec Holowka runs the Everybody’s Fucked Up podcast, which aims to break through stigma around mental illnesses by interviewing people who have experienced them. (Bethany Hockenberry, the writer of the game, was unable to meet with Kotaku for an interview.)

This game is different than the standard platformer in a few ways, but chief among them is that it allows users to make dialogue choices that affect the game.  This puts you in the driver seat and gives you the perspective of Mae, thus ensuring that you get a first-hand look at what it is like to live a life with depression.

As I said, I’m only a little way into this one, but I’m very curious to learn more.

Please Knock On My Door

Disclosure: I haven’t played this one.


This is the portion of the blog entry where the games start getting a touch more obvious.  In Please Knock On My Door:

Please Knock on My Door is a simple game about a person living with depression. The protagonist, a blocky, inky-black character, lives a fairly standard life: Wake up, go to work, come home, repeat. The days are punctuated with mundane tasks like making a sandwich or showering, but each one carries extra weight as it drains — or bolsters — the main character’s mental fortitude.

The game’s art style is simple and stripped down, forcing players to experience the emotions of the game, not be overwhelmed by its graphics, and the focus on simple decisions and how draining they can be gives players the experience of depression, and the added knowledge that each decision made can weigh on a normal human being.  In that sense, it seems to concentrate on giving players the sense of just what a burden living with depression can be.

Depression Quest

Depression Quest

Disclosure: I haven’t played this one either.

Gee, I wonder what this game is about?  From the website:

Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression. You are given a series of everyday life events and have to attempt to manage your illness, relationships, job, and possible treatment. This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.

The game was designed by Zoe Quinn, who faced a slew of death threats for her efforts.  Charming.

As for the game itself: You live the life of someone with depression, making what are relatively mundane decisions about living life.  That being said, in the game, happier decisions are often grayed out, forcing the player to experience life as through someone with depression.  The game is told through a series of text decisions.  In that sense, again, it tries to get the user to experience depression from a first-person perspective.

These are just four, and there are certainly many more.  Any other games you’d like to share?  Let us know in the comments below!