A gamer’s guide to depression

"Freya crescent" | Art by xnaxox. Used with permission.

I am left with oddly strangled emotions as I watch Limbo revert back to the title screen. This was a dark game. As someone who has experienced depression, I am not horrified, but rather relieved that someone else can express the difficult emotions that I have felt in the past. It might sound odd, but by playing a nameless boy who runs through a dark forest solving emotionally disturbing puzzles, I feel like I am not alone.

There’s something about actually playing a character myself, about walking, running, and sliding through a dark world, dying and getting up again, that is cathartic. This is different than watching someone go through numbing emotions in a book or a movie—when I play, this is me. I make the choice to go forward or stand still. Though my control is limited to where the game takes me; this ironic similarity to life does not escape me.

One of the hardest things about depression is facing friends who don’t understand what it feels like. It can be exhausting trying to explain that you can’t just “cheer up,” even if there is no particular reason for your sadness. Depression can be affected by events in your life,

In a game like Limbo, dark feelings are not shoved under a rug because they make people feel uncomfortable.
yes, but biology can also play a part. (Recent studies suggest depression is not, contrary to popular belief, caused by a “chemical imbalance,” but other biological factors are likely involved.) Regardless, it’s not something you can kick by plastering a smile on your face and pretending you feel fine.

I am encouraged by games that deal with this emotion; not only does it make me feel like other players might understand me better, it is refreshing to see depression being openly dealt with in a medium that I love; in a game like Limbo, dark feelings are not shoved under a rug because they make people feel uncomfortable–players are forced to deal with them.

There are games that deal directly with depression, like Loneliness by Necessary Games, a very simple “game” where you move as a solitary dot through fields of other dots that avoid you as the background gets darker and darker. Even a simple portrayal like this helps to illustrate how depressed and lonely people feel; some will react by avoiding the groups of dots completely and others will feel like they are constantly being left behind. More sophisticated games designed to battle anxiety include Depression Quest, Elude, and Flower.

Personally, I am most inspired by games that address emotional struggle less directly. One of these is Final Fantasy IX, a game that centers around a thief named Zidane. There is a scene in the game where Zidane stumbles off by himself (accompanied by the best song on the soundtrack, “You’re Not Alone,” a haunting, moody piece that perfectly sets the scene). At this point, Zidane has learned about his origins and is struggling with who he is.

His friends come to find him, but he pushes them away. When he tries to do the same with Dagger, she asks him if this is really how he wants to solve the problem.

Dagger: You try to do everything by yourself, don’t you?

Zidane: Try to understand… I don’t want to cause trouble to anyone.

Dagger: Aren’t we your friends?

It can be exhausting trying to explain that you can’t just “cheer up,” even if there is no particular reason for your sadness.

Dagger gives some pretty on point advice for someone who recently went mute due to her own depression. Zidane has always protected her and the rest of their party, but she reminds him that they look after him too, that they believe in him the same way that he believed in them. Eventually he comes to see the power of her words and realize how important his friends are to him, and that it’s okay to rely on their strength once in awhile.

Just like Zidane, during times of depression, my tendency is often to push away those closest to me. To distance myself and be alone in my sorrow. I do this because a) I don’t want to be a burden to my friends, and b) wallowing is easier than asking for help and explaining that I am going through an emotional time (as a stoic person, talking about how I feel is something I hate doing). Also, there’s that risk of opening up, being misunderstood and made to feel guilty for emotions I cannot control.

The thing is, when I let people help me, it makes the struggle so much easier to deal with. It’s hard to open up, it’s hard to reveal weakness, and I think this is something I will always struggle with doing. But God made humans to live in community for a reason. Friendship is invaluable for a reason. And video games that define this in a believable way make my A-list and remind me that I am not alone.


This article first appeared in Gamechurch.

Allison Alexander

Allison Alexander

Art Director at Geekdom House
Allison is like Galadriel, offering wisdom where needed but turning treacherous as the sea when competitive games are involved. She manages Geekdom House's arts initiatives, including their magazine and choir. She spends the rest of her time writing, playing D&D, and exploring Hyrule, Middle-earth, or a galaxy far, far away.
Allison Alexander

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