Hi, my name is Carolyn, and I have General Anxiety Disorder. It’s a bit cliche for an opening, but extremely apropos. My mental health often gets the best of me, as it does with many others who also suffer from mental illness, and the last few weeks have been particularly rough for me. It’s easy to feel exiled or alone when caught in one of these lulls, and desperately looking for a way out I did what many others do. I turned to video games.

Anxiety is hardly fun to deal with in real life, so it’s hard to imagine it as an exciting game mechanic- but that hasn’t stopped indie developers from dedicating games to its many unnerving intricacies. While I have an anxiety disorder and was able to play these games, it’s worth noting that they very explicitly describe anxiety and panic attacks, feelings of depression, and suicide. If you suffer from these thoughts or may be sensitive to them, I recommend discretion in reading further, or in playing these games.  For the purposes of this article, I’ll start with the mild representations of anxiety first and move on to more severe representations as we go on, so if at any point you feel overwhelmed, know that it is okay, and you are likely at a good stopping point.

 

Breathe

Breathe is a very brief, very straightforward game that introduces the simplest and most basic symptom of anxiety: the inability to breathe. The game is played from a first person perspective with the only input being clicking the left mouse button to breathe in, and clicking the right mouse button to breathe out. As you gain steady control of your characters breathing you begin to walk down a hallway, slowly coming upon a few select anxious triggers. Upon seeing each object (an alarm clock, phone, and door), your character loses composure and is forced to stop moving until you gain control of your breathing again. Depending on your ability to do this, your character can lose control to the point of audibly gasping for air, something that felt frighteningly close to home during those harder-to-control panic attacks.

It’s brief, not too discomforting in the grand scheme of things, and does a good job of communicating the most basic level of what living with anxiety can be like: how easy it can be to lose control just by coming across a select object, and how in the worst of situations it becomes essential to drop everything just to try and get yourself together again. It’s not necessarily a particularly thrilling game, but it does a good job communicating what dealing with anxiety can be like, albeit on a very simple level.

 

Anxiety OKAY

Anxiety OKAY is a Twine game which keeps things just as simple as Breathe, giving the player two options at any given point during the short story: continue your day, or give up. When mousing over the option to continue, the words immediately warp from a more rational option to an option heavy with emotion. “Get dressed” turns into “put on your mask for the day”, and “enjoy [your friends] company” turns into “Be the most awkward person in the world fuck do you see yourself how can they stand you every weekday like this”. It sounds almost overdramatic on paper, or perhaps even silly, but as someone who routinely degrades themselves following every minor social folly it was almost relieving to see that others do it to the same extent that I do, even if it is overdramatic.

It’s not wholly realistic; part of what makes anxiety, depression, and many other mental illnesses so hard to cope with is the distinct inability to give up. Part of what perpetuates my ongoing toxic inner dialogue is often the fact that I must get through my day, and that the option to crawl in bed and hide doesn’t exist when bills, family obligations and the rest of life waits at my doorstep- but while it may be unrealistic, it’s that exact dissonance that made Anxiety OKAY feel so safe to me. The game lets you give up, and upon deciding to step away from whatever it is that overwhelms you, you’re congratulated for trying, told you’re believed in, and that it will be okay.

This was the first moment one of these games almost brought me to tears.

 

Raik

Raik is where things start to get a bit darker, and much more interesting. Raik is another twine game, but this one is told in two different languages: Scots or English. What makes this interesting is that you play through an entirely different experience depending on your language of choice. In Scots, the story takes place in the modern era as a young woman struggling through constant panic attacks, while in English the story parallels as a young adventurous woman trudges through a cave fighting monsters and narrowly making it past dangerous and life threatening obstacles. The juxtaposition of being paralyzed by overwhelming inane fear, and being violently murdered by real and tangible dangers was an incredibly clever one.

Raik covers an intimate battle with time that’s very much a part of every free day I have. At one point in the game the protagonist is tasked with simply wasting time until dinner. She doesn’t have anything particularly exciting waiting for her at dinner, and this battle isn’t about the inability to wait for something appealing. t’s about not knowing how to get through your day. You pick from a series of tasks to kill time and hope that they don’t trigger a panic attack; game development, cleaning the house, or simply taking a break to eat some chocolate. Again, this is the confrontation communicated in Scots- this segment played in English pits the protagonist against a slowly lowering ceiling, covered in menacing spikes very intent on killing her. Every wrong move that your protagonist makes in modern times inches her closer and closer to a panic attack, with her fantasy counterpart coming closer to death.

Staring at the clock as you try and fill up your free time with every available task you can think of, and praying that what you choose won’t be the one thing that tips you over the edge into full on panic is unfortunately very, very real. It’s why I often feel more comfortable working than I do relaxing; I’m almost more relaxed doing something that keeps me busy than having the time to look at the clock and actually think. It’s one of the many points communicated by these games that I believed I was alone in struggling with, and was very comforted to find otherwise.

 

Depersonalize Me

Depersonalize Me hit me harder than anything else on this list. It’s another game that boils anxiety down to easy-to-understand game mechanics, greeting the player with a bright pink brain background complete with a recycle bin and garbage can lying on top of it. As time moves forward thoughts begin to appear on screen represented by light or dark clouds, light clouds for positive thoughts, and dark clouds for negative thoughts. The idea is that you recycle the thoughts that keep your brain happy and healthy, while throwing the negative thoughts away. Straightforward in concept, but harder in practice; drawing yet another familiar parallel to struggling with mental illness in the real world.

Things start out slow, a natural way to introduce you to the game’s mechanics. For the first minute or so the player is shown positive thoughts exclusively to reinforce the concept or recycling positive thoughts as a means to keep you grounded.  Once negative thoughts are introduced, however, the established mechanics begin to warp. Negative thoughts run from your cursor, making them hard to catch, and when you drag them to the garbage can to throw them away, the can runs from you as well. As the game goes on and negative thoughts become more frequent it becomes harder to come back from them, forcing you into a panic as the music slows and screen dims and grays out. The game mimics repressive thoughts well, showcasing just how hard it is to get rid of them and what little impact “just thinking positively” can have when forced into a less than ideal mindset.

Many of the negative thoughts tend to lie on the vague side, but as I progressed I felt them becoming more personal, and found myself relating to them more. The game began making me anxious unlike any of the previous games on the list, and one simple negative thought displayed on screen was the tipping point that brought me to tears.

“Is my anxiety eating my memories?”

While each of the games had their notes that rang true and hit close to home, there was nothing that caught me quite off guard like this did. It was an experience I was sure I felt alone in, that I suffered through and no one else would quite understand, and here it was laid out in front of me.

When you spend every waking moment worrying about the mundane, it’s easy to forget the things that are important. Daily I find myself lost in the middle of a sentence, unsure of how I got there because the back end of my brain was too busy processing something irrelevant. Plans I make earlier in the day disappear in my mind the second any misgiving I make can take their place, conversations and actions flush out of my head sometimes as quickly as they occur; what was I doing? What was I saying? There was something I wanted to do, wasn’t there? Forgetting things is normal, sure, but when you spend half of a day just trying to remember what is is you wanted to say or do and can’t manage to do anything else, that’s when it feels like your memories are being stolen from you by a beast you can’t control.

As the words glared at me from my computer monitor, my shock and tears came not only from a place of terror, but of relief. I may have been instantly taken back to that feeling of being mentally adrift, but now I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt it. I may not be able to control the beast, but thanks to the developer making a game like this, I no longer feel as though I’m the only one struggling with it.

That’s the takeaway here. These games may not be fun, their gameplay may be unconventional, and there may have even been times where they forced me to face a part of myself that made me incredibly uncomfortable- but they made me feel understood. They made me feel less ostracized, less afraid, and helped ground me in reality. I’m not the only one feeling these things, having these experiences, or struggling to get through the day in these ways that seem so trivial- and neither are you.

In the words of Anxiety OKAY: It will be okay.

Thank you for trying today.

I believe in you.

  • Anxiety is a word I don’t remember hearing in my entire life until the last five years or so. I never took the time to look up what it means until now. I don’t know if we didn’t have the vocabulary before or if people just didn’t feel comfortable talking about it. Being unable to breath is a serious difficulty.

    We might have called anxiety nervousness. Anxiousness was a good thing. Like nervous excitement. It seems to have developed as a catch all term, that according to Wikipedia is especially prevalent in the U.S., affecting upward of 30% of people.

    I wonder if anxiety was diagnosed 20 years ago or not. I’m sorry I cannot contribute a better comment. I want to demonstrate that I read this piece. 0 comments is a reminder of a callous, disaffected society.

    • Louis

      I think 0 comments is more a reminder that this website is so unknown that it only has like two frequent readers.

      • I doubt it. I think readers just don’t have the basic decency to treat authors with dignity. It also goes both ways. A lot of authors say they don’t want comments and do not comment (although this can be a way they protect their ego from the fact that they do not receive them.) Apparently our species is pretty much ****ed by own genes.

        There are not that many video game related print websites. Many established ones are floundering right now too. I certainly don’t know of any that talk at all about small scale private works. This site doesn’t really cover anything much either.

    • MM

      Yes. I was actually going to comment (back when it was published) by suggesting a site with tutorials about this subject, neurohackers dot com but.. then I thought I shouldn’t, possibly for the same reason you mentioned of perhaps not “demonstrating I’ve read it”… I guess that’s anxiety too. =/

  • Sam Rizzo

    “Is anxiety eating my memories”

    That hit me so hard in an unexpected way. My heart dropped into my stomach.