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What If Horror Is Your Safe Place? by Alicia Brunskill

More often than not, stressful or potentially triggering content in videogames is signposted to players so that they can avoid it or prepare themselves.

However, can these kinds of titles bring comfort to some gamers? And if so, how?

It goes without saying that there will be a range of player reactions to any given videogame, although feeling comfort might not be one of the responses you’d expect to hear described by people playing titles which are more commonly perceived as stressful.

So, what could be behind this alternative perspective? In this piece we’ll discuss a few possible reasons such as, how tense events in these titles might provide an outlet for emotions in daily life, how videogames can be a safe place to explore emotions from themes that can cause stress in our lives, without the judgement from others, and how experiencing stress in an environment where you have a level of control may feel comforting in comparison to less predictable real-life pressures.

screenshot from the game: a girl lies in an open coffin surrounded by flowers

One videogame that falls squarely into the category of games that have the capacity to shock or induce feelings of tension in players (but would perhaps not be readily considered to provide comfort) is the recently released title from Wired Productions, Martha Is Dead. Although, on closer inspection of the themes presented in this videogame, perhaps we can see how some people might find this experience an opportunity to channel certain emotions from their own lives vicariously through the main character’s journey.

Giulia, the protagonist in Martha Is Dead, is struggling to come to terms with the death of her twin sister whilst also dealing with complex issues of childhood trauma and mental illness. The game is set in 1944, wartime Italy, which also brings into the story the increased stigma associated with mental illness from that era. As a consequence of this mix of circumstances, Giulia experiences a range of emotions while she navigates her way towards the truth about what happened to Martha.

screenshot from the game: a body lying on the bank of a water bank lays in the flowers just out of shot

Some players might be able to take comfort from being able to experience their own feelings alongside Giulia; perhaps empathising with the events in the game, or perhaps finding catharsis for similar emotions from unrelated events in their own life. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean not finding portions of the game unsettling or stressful as well. Yet even in these moments it might be possible to find comfort, perhaps in the liberty to explore your own feelings and responses to these themes in a private, non-judgemental, and safe setting.

Another point of view to consider is that for some people, childhood, adulthood, or both, can be a fearful experience, so fear and stress can feel familiar. The familiarity of these emotions might make it feel comforting to play a stressful game; at times, perhaps even more so than titles made with the goal of consolation in mind.

Equally, for some of us, in real life there may be pressure from others to feel a certain way about an event, or it may not be possible to examine our own response thoroughly due to a variety of reasons. Videogames like Martha Is Dead can offer a means to process these emotions where otherwise there might not be the opportunity. What they can also provide is a way to face potentially difficult feelings with a level of control that doesn’t always exist in real life.

For example, if the emotions brought about by playing the videogame feel overwhelming you can pause the experience. Similarly, you can stop to examine feelings as they arise before continuing with the story and revisit themes in subsequent playthroughs, moving at your own pace. When you lack control over a situation or how you are able to give an emotional response it can feel cathartic to take control over a situation that produces similar feelings. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how this might be a comforting experience for some players.

two children walk arm in arm down a lane (black and white photo)

Whilst the ideas we’ve looked at in this piece are perhaps not the most common responses to the kind of content that appears in games traditionally considered stressful, they are all perfectly valid reactions. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to consuming this kind of media, so feeling comfort certainly has a seat at the table.


Alicia Brunskill

Alicia writes and edits videogame and tech reviews for Rapid Reviews UK and articles on various topics on Vocal. As a private tutor, she also teaches French and Spanish to secondary school students. When she’s not writing or teaching, she can be found playing videogames, running or walking her dog.

Skills utilised:
News

Dealing with grief – advice and video games that explore themes of grief

The ongoing situation in Ukraine is affecting so many of us, inside and outside of the country itself.

Whether you live in Ukraine, in surrounding Eastern European countries, or thousands of miles away; whether you have personal ties to the conflict zone, ancestral relations or no direct connection at all, the feelings of collective stress, despair, anxiety, sadness and, indeed, grief are universally valid. To make matters worse, we are, of course, still in the throes of a global pandemic, which can amplify feelings of loss and grief both directly and indirectly.

Video games can offer escapism from reality, but can also be an invaluable tool for informing and educating – be that through first-hand reliability or perspective-broadening appreciation. Alex Thompson works at UK charity Marie Curie, whose incredible work helps people with terminal illness, and believes video games can play a vital role in helping players deal with, process and understand grief.

“When it comes to dealing with grief through the lens of video games, I think there are two ways to look at it,” says Alex.

“One is directly, in the games that tackle themes of grief and grieving head on. I played Spiritfarer last year and that is a really insightful video game that deals with themes of grief and grieving. It’s so varied in the different ways that the characters tell their stories. You take on the role of a palliative care worker, but the ways in which each character that you interact with deals with their situation, the impending climax of their journey is really interesting and different for each character. Spiritfarer is really powerful in the ways in which it forces you to interact with those characters who’re each experiencing grief and loss in their own ways.

“The other side of using games in relation to grief is pure escapism. That might be playing something that has nothing to do with grief, but that allows you to switch off and get lost in a big RPG or even something as simple as Tetris. It’s well – documented that video games can offer respite from the bad stuff going on in your life, which is, of course, really helpful for people’s mental health.”

Alex says he believes having more serious conversations around death and grief can be made easier when playing video games, because the medium itself helps to balance focus. “I’ve used video games myself for that exact purpose,” Alex continues. “I’ve played a lot of the LEGO games with my sister because that’s something we can play together. At the time, she wasn’t really into video games, so we were able to use these games as a space to chat and hang out. We were able to chat about some of the stuff we were going through at any given time, and it was easier to do so while playing games than it might have been in public. That’s one of the beauties of video games, it’s a really flexible medium.”

5 video games that explore themes of grief

It goes without saying that any video game that brings comfort in trying times is worth playing with escapism in mind. The following five video games are thoughtful and expressive in their approach, as they deal in and around themes of death and grief.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched on March 20, 2020, which, for many people around the world, was when nationwide quarantine and lockdown measures came into place in response to the ongoing global pandemic. As such, millions of players sought respite in this virtual version of paradise in the face of an increasingly challenging reality.

Moreover, as many people lost loved ones at a time when regular funeral services had been disrupted because of the pandemic – attendance numbers were significantly reduced, social distancing measures were put in place, singing was banned, for example – many Animal Crossing players sought to create their own tributes to lost loved ones in– game. At a time when real world exploration became impossible overnight, players used the game’s cemeteries to host in– game services and vigils for lost loved ones –  poignant tributes that are still popping up in– game today.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn 

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, or Final Fantasy Online as it’s less formally known, is a sprawling MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game) that lets players create and customise characters by virtue of an extensive customisation suite – altering everything from name to race, gender, appearance, starting class and more. Quests and missions, as well as an overarching narrative provide structure for players keen to progress the game’s story, however many players use the game as a virtual playground for simply meeting up and hanging out in. As such, much like Animal Crossing above, grieving players used Final Fantasy Online to host in-game funeral services for friends who’d passed away in real life over the course of the global pandemic. Moreover, players have erected points of interest around the game world in memoriam of lost loved ones – which allows friends who don’t live in the same country to pay respects from afar by way of video games.

Journey

Journey is a beautiful, pensive and thoughtful indie game about a traveller roving the vast desert, sometimes on their own; other times alongside other players online. Denied the ability to speak via voice chat, players converse exclusively via their actions as they help one another overcome obstacles in the game’s sprawling sandswept world. While not explicitly centred around death and grief, Journey’s narrative explores death, coping with grief and being able to live with loss. In a talk delivered at the Games for Change conference in 2014, Jenova Chen, the creator of Journey, said he’d received “thousands” of personal stories from players who’d used the game to help them cope with the loss of a loved one –  so powerful and cathartic is Journey in its handling and delivery of its themes.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a touching adventure game that sees two young siblings exploring a fantasy world in search of a cure for their sick father. Players assume control of both brothers at once – with each one directed by the control pad’s respective left and right analogue sticks – as they work together to overcome puzzles, defeat trolls and aid various players littered across the game world. Death and grief are omnipresent themes throughout the brothers’ journey, as are themes of struggle, suicide and wellbeing.

Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer is an intriguing indie adventure game where players are tasked with managing the needs of the recently deceased on a boat journey across the sea. While befriending and helping the spirits, the player character, Stella, learns of their backstories, their plights and struggles in reality, and how they came to be in this situation. Despite the fact death and grief are core themes in Spiritfarer, the game’s narrative is often lighthearted, feel good, and funny, with many aspects of the spirit’s lives (and deaths) open to interpretation and therefore relatable in the real world. The ending is a real tear-jerker, but that only serves to elevate Spiritfarer in storytelling terms.

Skills utilised:
Crisis Hub

What Remains After ‘Edith Finch’ – by Harry Stainer

After my Grandad’s funeral I went into his old bedroom and as I looked around the room, I spotted many of his belongings – his fake Rolex watches, his books and old fishing gear, a hat he always used to wear on holiday.

For a brief moment I am brought out of this sobering day and into fond memories of him, and the stories his friends told me of him as a younger man – only to be snapped out of it a second later. Looking at these objects it reminded me of playing ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ a few months earlier. It dawned on me how much the game illustrated a profound understanding of the grieving process and helped articulate all of the thoughts and feelings that come along with such a traumatic life event.

Death is something that those who play video games are incredibly used to; if you’re Nathan Drake and you miss a jump ahead of you, the punishment is the loss of a character’s life, only for you to succeed the same jump a few moments later after your checkpoint has reloaded. It’s a constant threat in most of the games that we play, but it rarely holds any true consequences. However, in ‘Edith Finch’ that is not the case; you can’t die in Edith Finch but its story asks player to think about the messy nature of death and how grief has a habit of staying with us long after someone has passed.

One of the central plot points of the game is how the Finch family believed that their family were cursed – that all the losses in their family were caused by something that was out of their control and this was the reason they all met their demise. As the plot unfolds and you go through each room in this house, discovering how each Finch came to pass, it dawned on me that this ‘curse’ wasn’t just literal. For me, I always interpreted this curse as the collective grief that hung over the Finch family    – these losses are not something that they can just be free of and they have stayed with long after the have tried to move on and, in Ediths case – leave the house. This curse illustrates that there are no beginnings and no endpoints to loss and more importantly, shows how a loss can completely consume you and feel like a curse when you can’t find a way to move forward or come to peace with it.

As you go around the house Edith will comment on objects and parts of the house that bring up memories for her. Anyone who has been in the home of someone they have lost will understand the melancholy mood swings when seeing their handwriting on a note or an item that they used to wear everyday – it showcases how objects can tie us to moments and the people associated with them and although this can sometimes be hard – it also keeps a part of them with us.

However, despite its melancholic nature there is a lot of salvation in Edith Finch and the way it confronts the messy nature of our relationships. Loss isn’t ever neat; the whole reason we are returning to the house in this game is because of how unresolved our protagonist’s feelings are with all the ones that she has lost. Trying to understand how you feel about loss can take time and Edith Finch often feels like a story about that very theme. In the game’s final moments Edith states the line:

 ‘If we lived forever, maybe we’d have time to understand things. But as it is, I think the best we can do is try to open our eyes, and appreciate how strange and brief all of this is’.

This line offers us some kind of acceptance from Edith, an acknowledgment that the grief doesn’t go away – it’ll always be a part of her, and she won’t always be able to understand the messiness that comes with it. As we grieve, we grow around loss and finally begin to appreciate other things in life again. It’s a bittersweet way to end a game, but it rings true to all those who have been through this experience.

I found Edith Finch a hard game to find conclusions from in my initial playthrough – it leaves you to pick up the pieces and form some sort of opinion of the events that have happened. In the time after my second playthrough of ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ the conclusions I have taken from it is that the stories, objects and memories we have about our loved ones tie us to them. We can find comfort and understanding from them, knowing that these things can make us cherish the ones we had, and within the messiness find peace.

There is no timeline to stop grieving and if you are struggling, there are bereavement counselling options available. Reaching out for support is a very positive step to help overcome the distress you might be feeling. At a Loss is a useful resource for helping people who have had a bereavement find the support they need.


Harry Stainer

Marketing and Operations for Grads In Games, freelance writer, book person on Instagram & occasional scriptwriter

Skills utilised:
News

An Interview with Sketchbook Games on Lost Words: Beyond The Page

We sat down with the wonderful people at Sketchbook Games, who are #LevelUpMentalHealth Partners with Safe In Our World, to talk about Lost Words: Beyond The Page. Let’s take a little dive into the inspirations behind the game, and the deeper meanings embedded within the development.

 

The Interview

What were your inspirations behind Lost Words: Beyond The Page?
We took inspiration from films like The Labyrinth, Never Ending Story, A Monster Calls, games like Ori, Child of Light, Night in the Woods and a range or still images, music, adverts, videos and more! We try to draw inspiration from as a wide a pool as possible.

We thought that the interactive platforming diary moments were very unique, what was the thought process when deciding to go this route?
It all started as a mistake during a game jam which led me to me seeing the character stood on the sentence in the middle of the screen and I thought, “Hey, that’s really cool! I’ve not seen that before”, which led me to pivot and try it out.

How did you feel when developing Lost Words: Beyond The Page?
Lots of different ways over the course of development! Getting the opportunity to make our own game was very exciting but there were also lots of challenging moments and everything in between.

A story of Love and Loss can be difficult to get right, I personally felt that this story felt close to home and nailed every part of the process, how did you manage to represent grief so well?
Rhianna Pratchett wrote the game and drew from her own personal experiences, having experienced a lot of loss in her life over the last decade. The also asked the rest of team about their own experiences and everyone drew from those for their respective areas of the game.

The art and design are lovely, from the diary pages to the water-coloured fantasy adventure, what made you choose this style?
Lots of research and seeing what we thought would fit the game, character and narrative. Watercolour is a really beautiful style so it was a hope it would help the game to stand out well too.

What piece of advice would you give to developers that want to go out and make a game?
Get started! Staring is often the hardest bit. Then when you’re going you can improve, learn, iterate, test it out on people and keep doing all those things as you go.

What do you want people to take away from the experience of playing Lost Words: Beyond The Page?
We really wanted it to be a beautiful and moving, but ultimately uplifting experience, so we hope that’s what people feel!


 

Skills utilised:
News

An Interview with Bradley Smith, Co-Creator of Ruya

We talked to Bradley Smith, of Miracle Tea Studios, about the inspiration behind Ruya, and the importance of the themes embedded within it.


The Interview

 

So, what was it that set you on the path towards game development?

“I had a kind of unconventional bohemian hippie upbringing where creativity and a DIY punk mentality was encouraged. There was a lot of freedom. Some might argue too much. Both of my parents are self-employed and run businesses which I think is a reason why I’ve ended up doing that too. A family friend from Ipswich who carved his way into the games industry from the working class world was definitely an influence, he ended up with the first indie game on Steam.

The combination of seeing that growing up, while being immersed in skateboard and alternative subcultures, naturally gave a pull towards the independent game scene. There’s a lot of commonalities in the indie scene that resonated with the type of person I am and the way I was raised. I love the DIY attitude and the genuine need to express something poignant that some developers omit. Making games quickly became an outlet in my adolescence, especially at university. It’s always been very personal for me. It’s typically how I’ve worked through certain neurosis or insecurities. I guess it’s a form of self-therapy at this point as I’m often trying to understand or turn negative thoughts in my psyche into something positive – a philosophy I learnt from straight edge music. Tom and I formed Miracle Tea shortly after graduating in 2016, we’ve been making small intimate games ever since.”

Tell us about the main objectives of Ruya and how the game is structured. 

“Ruya is a meditative puzzle game with emphasis on simple pattern recognition, it leads players down a somewhat solipsistic path. In Ruya, you’re solving puzzles in her own personal dreamscapes where your goal is to eventually wake up. It’s presented in such a way where Ruya is giving little pieces of herself away in order for her children to flourish by spawning flowers. Those flowers temporarily mask her antlers, which are figuratively and literally the depressive weight upon her shoulders. At the end of each level, these get washed away to reflect a temporary fix.

Ruya is ultimately about mothers that put everything into their children to deal with their own depressions, while being a game that mothers are likely to play. By gradually solving the solutions to puzzles in Ruya’s psyche you come to access her lost memories. Those memories are based on real observations from my own mother during times of grief. A lot of the nuances and meaning in the game most people wouldn’t ever fully register, but it’s the kind of thing we designed to be felt in a subtle way.”

What is the theme of the game, and the inspiration behind it?

I grew up very close to my two sisters and mother. When we were setting out to make Ruya, we had the intention to make a game for all the important women that have been in our life. The inspiration for Ruya will vary depending on who you ask in the team as each team member embedded different parts of themselves. Aside from this, one of our intentions was to design a game that aids sleep. In turn this was a theme that carried through into Ruya’s design. I’ve had an ongoing battle with insomnia that was particularly difficult throughout my early 20s and it was something I was keen to explore and understand more. There’s a handful of spiritual themes in the game too which is perhaps reflective of an existential time in our teams lives. We were consuming a lot of Alan Watts and Ram Dass during development and that naturally bled into the design.

What are the inspirations behind the visuals of the game?

I really like the artist Philippa Rice – she’s a big inspiration for sure. Just before Ruya was created, I lost my Nan, who was an influential and strong figure in our family dynamic growing up. She was also a very spiritual woman, which perhaps lends to some of the ambiguous themes in the game. I think the impact of her life was what led to a lot of the visuals and tone of the game. It was only until my partner at the time pointed out to me during development “do you think the visuals are about your Nan?” where it really registered that maybe something deeper was going on in my subconscious. It wasn’t something I was aware of, but the big wave of creative output at the time probably should’ve been a sign.

Alula is currently in the works, will these games link in terms of mental health?

Yes, for sure! In all of Miracle Tea’s games we try to embed a deeper societal issue to comment on. Alula explores the idea of loneliness and how an individual might learn to overcome that. Alula attempts to evoke feelings of what it means to be alone and how small or big that can make you feel depending on your point of view. One issue we’re exploring is the idea of people being more connected now than anytime in history, yet loneliness seems to be a rising epidemic. We are trying to make a game that illustrates to players the concept that people can do great things as individuals, but when moments are shared with others it can make for a more authentic human experience. In Alula you find yourself alone on an island receiving notes in bottles asking you to fulfil certain obligations. Slowly overtime you will come to know who’s sending the bottles and why. All of Miracle Tea’s games are set in the same universe meaning Alula comes from a similar place to Ruya.

As a game developer, what would be your main take home for players of your games?

If our games offer you some time to reflect, lower blood pressure, chill you out or make you think inwardly, then I’m happy. Beyond that, it sounds idealistic and pretentious, but if a game we made changed how someone viewed or interpreted the world for the better I’d be deeply content with what that means. That’s something that Miracle Tea is trying to carve out in video game history that I feel we’re yet to achieve. If that never happens, I’m okay with that, it’s fun trying!

Skills utilised:
News

Dealing with grief during the Coronavirus – by Antonela Pounder

Grief is such a strange emotion, as I’m finding out first-hand. A kind of suffering that at times, can feel incredibly overwhelming and confusing. One minute you’re coping, the next you find yourself barely able to type up an email or take a call. Every day is a huge challenge, one of which unfortunately takes time to understand.

My Dad was a huge inspiration to me. I loved him so much. Those that see my social media posts know how much he meant to me and how much he encouraged me in life. I never wanted to disappoint my Dad and he was ultimately one of my biggest fans. I speak in the past tense as today marks 2 months since I lost my Dad to COVID-19. We didn’t get to visit him in hospital, say goodbye or even give him the funeral he deserved, because of the world we now live in. I still don’t think it’s completely sunk in as a result. But one thing’s for sure, life without him is very, very strange.

I’ve been on this a surreal rollercoaster ride since and while still on this journey of grief and healing, I now feel strong enough to put pen to paper and talk about how I’ve coped, in the hope it might help someone who finds themselves in a similar situation. Either that or help those who know someone who is grieving. If only in a small way.

SAFE SPACE

We’re surrounded by COVID-19 news, it’s impossible to avoid. For most people, it’s hugely overwhelming but for those who have lost a loved one to this awful virus, those feelings are off the scale. Something that has helped me hugely over the last few weeks is having a space to talk to friends and colleagues where any talk of COVID-19 is avoided. At 505 Games, we have a group chat and an internal Discord server, where we’re encouraged to talk about anything and everything, except COVID-19. It’s a space where we can share funny memes, cute animal posts and basically just talk as a group of friends. We also use the space to organise gaming sessions together when time allows. (Games have helped me hugely over the last few months, more so than ever before.) Having a space where we can discuss the positive things in life has helped hugely. It’s a space that has had the power to make me laugh and smile on multiple occasions, which I’ll take as wins. I encourage you all to create a safe space for your friends, family, and colleagues. A space where any talk of COVID-19 is off the table. Give yourself a break from reality.

TALK TO THOSE YOU TRUST

It seems obvious but talking to those who are willing to listen has helped me stay afloat. Those that know me well know I’m a huge advocate for 121s in the workplace. An opportunity to talk openly and honestly about anything and everything, to someone who might be able to help if needs be. We’re all busy people, but it’s more important than ever to check in on those around you. The 505 Games family will probably hate me for highlighting them here, but I’m not sure how I would have coped without their support over the last 2 months. My ex-Line Manager and President in-particular have been incredible. They checked in on me on a frequent basis, even before the passing of my Dad. These calls helped me mentally, more than they’ll understand. I’m a strong believer as a Line Manager myself in giving your staff the time and space to talk about anything, regardless of whether it’s related to work or not. 121s build loyalty between staff and ultimately strengthen relationships. If you’re not doing these already in your workplace, I’d strongly recommend you consider them. They’re invaluable. Talking has been the best form of medicine in my case.

TAKE TIME OUT TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF

Allow yourself to take time out if needs be and overcommunicate with those around you so they know how you feel. Cry if you need to, log off your PC and step away from work temporarily if things get too much. I’ve had to, on multiple occasions. Thankfully 505 Games have been incredibly supportive in this whole thing and have given me the opportunity to heal. If you find yourself in a similar situation, you have to look after yourself. Now more than ever. Keep active but rest when you need to. This is so important. Don’t bottle anything up and please reach out for help if you need it. Take time to acknowledge the pain you’re going through. The grieving process has a number of stages, from denial, to anger, to acceptance. While I’m not at the acceptance stage yet, I know ultimately that’s where I’ll be one day. And if you’re also going through a similar situation, you will too!

We live in such uncertain times. Take care of yourselves and keep checking in on those around you. It makes the biggest difference.

Skills utilised:
Stories

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