I recently made a game that is very personal to me. If you haven’t I would like you to go play it.
In earnest, this game didn’t start out as the un-game it eventually ended up as.
As part of an internalised knee-jerk response to seeing a video about presentational ‘juice’, I wanted to take the concept and play around with it to see if the idea of OTT presentation had any real merit beyond the unscientific and entirely subjective realms of “it feels better”. And so, I thought about the idea of taking Space Invaders to illogical and exaggerated extremes. After all, I found it rewarding to strip Asteroids down a few layers with Press Space, a game that has turned out to be my personal favourite of the ones I’ve made.
But along the way, I became aware of a few interactive titles that made me rethink my own game development for a while.
Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy, opened my eyes in a delightful way. The game actually played to my occasional need for confirmation bias on the subject of games, and that their interactivity is the one strength they have over other entertainment media, but it also tugged on my previously-thought-to-be-dead heartstrings. I smiled to myself with a tear in my eye at the beautiful (and ever so slightly tragedic) thing that had been shared.
It was at this time I heard about Zoe Quinn’s title, Depression Quest. As a sufferer of depression myself, this inspired me; what would I personally do to portray my experiences with depression? And threw some ideas around regarding a non-violent first-person adventure that I may yet still make; when SLaVE is finished. Whenever that will be.
More inspiration came with a Twitter friend’s own ungame-about-depression, A Game of Cat and Mouse. Although an interesting inversion of a similar-themed Wario Ware game, my initial thoughts were to the tune “this isn’t really my kind of thing”. To which the response, in question form, should always be “in which case, what is my kind of thing?”
And so my thoughts returned to how I would put my own juicy spin on Space Invaders.
To me, Space Invaders was the original video game about anxiety and depression: the player is, wave after wave, faced with an increasingly-claustrophobic wave of unrelenting challenge that echoes everyday tasks that, when cast aside or swept under the rug, mount up and overwhelm a sufferer. And, if the concept of ‘juice’ is about game ‘feel’, then the answer came very clearly to me; as depression can become the inability to feel good, even about one’s favourite things, then my ‘juicy’ Space Invaders could strip away this ‘feel’-enhancing stuff to that same end.
My clone game would then serve as a vehicle for my very own interactive experience about the subject.
TW: Trigger Warning starts off with the full works. Particles fly from defeated enemies, firing is fast and frenetic, colours are bright, the screen shakes and blurs with the action. All in the name of that modus operandi that is Indie Game Juice™; presenting to the player the impression that every achievement, no matter how minimal, is significant.
Of course, the more I crammed in there, the more options it gave me to take away from the player. I had plans, to make the game eventually a dull grey slog with low movement speed and very little of the presentational finery still there. And I would do this by making the player fail. Repeatedly.
“Wave complete” is the simple message that gives a player in no uncertain terms, confirmation that they have done as intended; the borrowed interactive vocabulary that is Shoot All The Things. Such is life, one finds themself in a familiar situation, and they know how to deal with it. And here, it feels good – even when I ramped up the movement speed and attack frequency of my UnInvaders. And it still feels good to know that You Have Set The High Score after 5000 points, despite any lives lost to get there.
Except, the game doesn’t end at 0 lives. The same as real life goes on after failures. But those failures can mount up, and if repeated too often can have a real impact on the way a person feels. At -1 lives, my own personal favourite flavour of juice is removed and the screen blur is no longer present. This is subtle enough that nobody has thus far noticed it.
At -5 lives, the screen no longer shakes when things are destroyed. If the player hasn’t seen any negative onscreen messages at this point, they will do soon. And also, the colour is slowly draining from the playfield with each life lost.
By -10 lives, the game is colourless. It is not fun any more. Minus thirteen sees the score inverted into the negative. Ever feel like everything you’ve worked for up to this point has been for nothing? That everything you’ll ever achieve in the future will be ultimately futile? That’s depression, how I experienced it.
More happens. Player movement is impeded to a small area in the center of the screen, meaning it eventually becomes absolutely not possible to clear the screen of enemies. And if it were, the game stopped congratulating them a while ago.
The game’s coup de grace occurs when the game is at its dullest, quietest and least fun point; when nothing is left for me to have taken from my captive audience but the ability to function at a shooting game’s base level, and the player ‘tank’ is unable to retaliate. Silenced to all who would ask “what’s wrong with you?”, the words don’t happen. You can’t explain. You curl up and try to ignore the fact that your motivation as a person is stripped to the point where you are letting life itself shit all over you.
Of course, there are some messages after this about depression. It has been said that they seem like empty platitudes, but they are in fact advice I wish I could’ve given my twenty year-old self.
Not my proudest moment, but 3/4 through making this game I had to have a bit of a cry. To myself, as I was alone in the house whilst making it. I had dredged through decade-old memories in order to find a way to present how it felt.
But what I can be proud of, is that in my own way I utilised game interactivity to deliver an emotional narrative. All via gameplay, too — not a single cinematic cut-scene or break in game flow is employed to deliver any of it. Some of it is direct interaction, such as the impeded player movement; most of it is in player feedback terms, such as the lack of particles or the dulling-down of explosion effects; and some of it is incidental, such as the sound becoming quieter over time.
I have said before that games create their own narrative. Certainly, this one does. A bold experiment that turned out well, I would say.