The Games that Guide Us – Night in the Woods and Depression

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Much like anxiety, depression as a mental health consideration has entered the public consciousness to a greater degree in the past couple of decades than it has in the more distant past. Also, similarly to anxiety, it is obvious that depression has existed in humans for much longer than we have had the words to describe it or the tools to diagnose and treat it. A somewhat common perception seems to be that anxiety and depression go hand in hand enough that they are often mentioned together in conversations regarding mental health. While there can be some degree of observable correlation there, the two conditions should be considered separately in terms of how they affect an individual’s perceptions of and reactions to reality.

The topic of how mental health affects how a person perceives and interacts with the world around them is one of the central concepts expressed in the game Night in the Woods. The plot of the game, written by Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, revolves around Mae Borowski, a 20-year-old woman returning to her hometown of Possum Springs after dropping out of college for initially undisclosed reasons. During the course of the game’s narrative, Mae experiences a number of interconnected mental health issues that result in her version of reality being affected. While there are a number of games out there that also use altered mental states as a narrative tool, Night in the Woods uses a combination of the narrative representation of Mae’s mental state alongside adventure game exploration and platforming in order to allow the player to participate in the overarching depression that constantly layers atop Mae’s reality.

Depression in the Loop

There is more to the state of having depression than simply being sad. This may seem like an obvious statement to those who have had either direct or indirect exposure to depressive disorders in their various forms. However, the use of ‘sadness’ and ‘depression’ as interchangeable terms is still one of the single largest mischaracterizations of the condition that remains prevalent today. True depression is tricky because it isn’t really one single thing. It is as if someone took sadness, melancholy, despair, and hopelessness and layered them on top of each other like some kind of malevolent lasagna with a nice heaping spoonful of numbness in between each layer like ricotta laced with novocaine. And just like one would imagine, taking a bite of this abomination would leave one at a loss as to how to describe each of the various flavors contained within, and the truth is that each person can experience the phenomenon very differently. I won’t ever claim to represent the entirety of the human experience, but I can at least describe how my own experiences line up with how something is presented in a medium.

In terms of how the game plays, Night in the Woods is a fairly standard adventure platformer. There is no combat outside of a few minigames, so the core of the gameplay revolves around navigation, exploration, and conversation. The gameplay experience is framed by the passage of time, so once Mae has done specific things over the course of her day, that day ends and the next begins. There are a number of things that remain static throughout each day, such as the placement of Mae’s parents and their availability for conversation. Therefore, the core gameplay loop can be seen as something along the lines of ‘wake up, talk to Mom, explore the town, talk to friends, do some kind of event scene in the evening, go home, talk to Dad, go to sleep’. While this does not necessarily continue ad infinitum, it is how somewhere between eighty to ninety percent of the game operates.

This is what I consider the initial primary tie-in to the experience of having depression. In my own experience, depression has manifested as a sort of autopilot. There is the feeling that days and weeks can go by but that nothing will ever really change. The same cycle of ‘wake up, do thing, do next thing, go to sleep, repeat’ would continue to define existence until I made an active effort to change things.

The player can participate in this process by choosing to have Mae seek out interaction with others. Some of Mae’s frustration comes from the fact that once people start to see her as someone who has depression, those people cast everything that she does or says into that version of reality. While Mae does have several deeper problems, she doesn’t really talk about them in any real capacity under the assumption that no one will actually believe her. Instead uses the conversations the player initiates with others as a way to try and alter her day to day experience, if only for a moment. This ties into a trick that depression can play on us in which we diminish our own experiences and magnify the experiences of others. We who have experienced depression first-hand are generally seen as good listeners simply because we don’t think that we have anything more interesting or important to say than the person we’re talking to does. Hearing about the interesting experiences of others, therefore, can make our day more interesting because it’s something that happens outside of the looping same-ness that we believe our life is stuck in.

Themes and Visualizations

While both narrative and gameplay are equally valid ways to impart an experience to the player, my normal approach is to focus on the ways that the gameplay draws the player in and aids in creating an experience that would not be possible in another medium. In a game that is mostly narrative, however, it can be hard sometimes to separate gameplay themes from narrative themes. I had initially struggled with how to talk about this and had to put a lot of thought into the sort of analysis I wanted to do here. The realization that I came to is that to disregard the ways that the narrative themes tie into the gameplay of Night in the Woods would be to disregard what makes the game special and worth talking about in the first place.

Much of the gameplay that accompanies Mae’s days in Possum Springs is based around platforming and exploration. Initially, Mae’s exploits are limited to the ground-level streets and shops of the town, as well as a small underground area. When any attempt is made to have Mae try and get to higher-up areas, the player will find that she can just barely not jump high enough or else there is some obstruction that seems to be in the way. In fact, through much of the first part of the game, any attempt to get higher up in the town are met with arbitrary obstructions that Mae is unable to cross. Some of these seem like they would be simple to get around, such as a construction barrier that, in theory, a person could just move around (if one were not stuck in a two-dimensional plane of existence, of course). Others seem a little frustrating, as there are a couple of times that it appears like Mae could get to where she wants to go if only she could just jump a little further. Of course, as the player finds out, those areas are blocked off because the narrative is not yet ready for Mae to be there.

The Impossible Task

There is a concept that doesn’t get talked about as much as many of the other symptoms of depression called ‘The Impossible Task’ which refers to the one thing that should be relatively simple, straightforward, or routine but which someone in the grip of a depressive episode is absolutely unable to accomplish. The task itself is very non-specific and often varies from day to day. It’s not a question of desire, as the person often wants to perform The Impossible Task. It’s just that depression places an arbitrary mental block to even starting the task at all. Sometimes the task is of huge importance, like starting a job application or paying a credit card bill. Sometimes the task is relatively trivial, like going to the post office or washing the dishes. The important part of The Impossible Task is that it’s something that isn’t totally understood by someone who has never experienced it.

In Night in the Woods, those seemingly arbitrary blocks to Mae’s upward exploratory progress represent The Impossible Task. To most people, walking around a construction barrier might seem like a pretty straightforward solution, but at the time, it isn’t something that Mae can do. It’s impossible for her, and while the mechanical reasons behind it have to do with her being locked into two-dimensional movement, that lock in her scope of interaction demonstrates the mental blocks that depression can place in our thought processes. There are other similar boundaries to Mae’s improvement as well. One of the most direct examples is the Guitar Hero-esque minigame that the player endures on the evenings that Mae meets up with her friends for band practice. In these scenarios, Mae is handed a bass guitar and expected to play a song she has no experience with. By extension, the player does not get to practice these segments or re-do them after the fact. In fact, the only minigame that Mae is able to repeatedly play is a top-down dungeon explorer on her PC called Demontower. This has no practical application outside of Demontower itself, and in that sense it does represent the times where our brains latch onto instant gratification and constant distraction as opposed to putting effort into the things that might benefit us in either the short or long term.

The Little Things

After all that can be said about the ways that Night in the Woods interprets depressive thought processes in its game mechanics, are there any ways that the game represents positive steps that can be taken to combat those thought processes? Narratively, the game does provide Mae with the kind of conversations with her friends that reveal that everybody is concealing their own unique sets of issues and that only by talking about mental health out in the open can we begin to normalize the process of seeking help and treatment. This is an important thing to mention, even if it falls squarely on the narrative and not specifically the mechanics. However, the mechanics themselves also present elements that tie into the idea that depression is not a hopelessly endless feedback loop.

Even though Mae’s upward progress has boundaries to it that seem artificial and sometimes very singular to Mae, if the player keeps persisting in exploring upward, those barriers eventually do shift and eventually go away entirely. This contributes to slight changes in Mae’s situation, though in many cases these changes only happen through exploration and persistence. In one notable example, Mae can climb into a second-floor storeroom and find a family of hungry rats that have made their home in the town’s parade decorations. From here, the player can have Mae engage in several acts of petty theft in order to obtain food for said rats. There is no actual direct reward for this in the mechanics themselves, but there doesn’t really have to be. The payoff is in leaning to appreciate the small things and to realize that sometimes, finding something else to care about external to oneself is one of the first steps in pulling oneself out of the depression feedback loop.

Bringing it Together

Night in the Woods is a game that operates on several levels. There are many examples of narrative metaphor and symbolism that I did not dive into analyzing, even though they do tie into the gameplay itself. After all, the story begins with Mae literally falling into an actual dark and dangerous pit even as her mental state is in the process of spiraling downward as well.

Ow.

However, the analogies really shine when they can be pieced together from little things that the game slides in under the surface. Mae’s road to an improved mental state isn’t accomplished through large, earth-shattering revelations (even though those exist), but more due to the increased frequency with which she looks up. For me, this is illustrated the best when she is able to climb to the rooftop that one of her old high school teachers, Mr. Chazokov, utilizes as a makeshift observatory. Here, she can literally look up at the stars, and in doing so opens up some of the most interesting conversations in the game both from the perspective of the player and of Mae herself. Once again, these conversations may not have direct benefit in the game or even the narrative at large, but they do offer insight and the chance to for Mae to appreciate something infinitely larger than her own issues and lack of momentum.

Even though the narrative does not end by allowing the player to solve all of Mae’s problems, I think it’s much more effective for it. Depression, after all, is not something that can be easily ‘solved’, and as I say in many conversations I’ve had about mental health, sometimes there is no ‘better’. Sometimes there is only the slow, steady road toward developing healthy coping mechanisms and forming bonds with people who are genuinely positive influences. Sometimes, a person falls down, but that doesn’t mean that all progress is lost. In Night in the Woods there isn’t really a set of situations that will result in a ‘game over’. While on one hand that can remove a certain sense of urgency from most of the scenes in the game, on the other hand this lack of finality reinforces the idea that falling down a few times doesn’t mean failure. It doesn’t invalidate any progress that’s been made before. It just means that there’s been one bad day, and tomorrow has the potential to allow just a little more upward progress. Sometimes, internalizing that thought is the real path forward.

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