(Content Warning: discussions of anxiety, mental health)
It’s difficult to find games that address anxiety in a way that isn’t demoralizing, dehumanizing, or both.
‘Just, Bearly‘ avoids many tropes of the shy awkward protagonist narrative, instead approaching it with an earnest humility that passionately demonstrates the ways strangers intimidate us, without being overly resentful, resorting to dehumanizing story beats, or ascribing ulterior motives to everyone around our hero.
‘Bearly’s setup is a simple one, a day-in-the-life glimpse of what it’s like to live with pressing social anxiety. It’s an exploration of the ways in which navigating even the moment to moment events of daily life can often feel like a Sisyphean endeavor.
Bumping into people, opening a door the wrong way, accidentally answering the wrong question, these things build up in a way that starts to make us feel dysfunctional. Some of these vignettes are humorous, but only in a way that serves to remind us of those days we’ve experienced where the only options left are to laugh or to cry.
There’s a disarming undercurrent beneath the reactions of others, responding the way you’d expect when confronted with a stranger uninitiated with local customs or turns of phrase. No one here moves with malice, simply confusion, a subtle reminder of how we all experience sonder and our own internal narrative of ennui, as if we were little bewildered roombas, bouncing off each other in the dark, trying to find our way home.
Even outside of interpersonal interactions, it seems our protagonist’s subconcious knows no bounds for small acts of self-sabotage, critiquing the way you check boxes, send friend requests, or even the ways you try to talk to others. Each small misstep feels like a formidable setback, piling up until the weight is far too much, and once you momentarily let go of the boulder for relief, it starts to all slide back down hill. It slowly rolls away, crushing all the good will you’ve built up with yourself over time using a carefully perfected daily routine.
But just as things start to seem bleak, the introduction of your optimistic Bilby counter-part is what helps the work stay on track towards healthy self-actualization. In a refreshing twist, at no point does our Bear take advantage of their friendship by offloading his emotional labor onto the Bilby, they begin to relate and run into one another, forging a close connection despite the Bear’s doubts. Their relationship serves as the wind in the proverbial sails of our protagonist, a gust of affirmation that gently steers towards the horizon. It’s a helping hand for our fuzzy avatar to restore balance, take the reigns of responsibility, to grow beyond insecurities and once again stand tall with courage in the face of daily difficulty.
Daniel Roberts has created an incredibly earnest expression of what it’s like to be socially clumsy with a surprising level of robust polish and delightfully striking crafts-visuals that pop out. It’s surprising that the game hasn’t seemingly caught on outside of Australia, given it’s universal narrative and unique presentation. There are few ’empathy’ games that successfully convey their message without coming off as hamfisted or downright eye rolling, but ‘Bearly’ does so elegantly.
For a game about seeming awkward to people, the UI and design of the game is anything but; GameMaker is quickly surpassing Unity as the folk-art engine. Roberts has displayed mastery over the form, producing an exemplary work that comes across composed without losing itself to cynical indulgence. ‘Bearly’ sets you up for a gut punch it never delivers, instead leveraging that tension to paint a memorable snapshot of the margins, showing us the gaps in our life we can seal with friendship, determination, and a little help as we need it.
After many trials, and the extra (literal) push from the Bilby’s friendship, you realize that backsliding and losing all progress isn’t the only option for our ursine friend. ‘Bearly’ isn’t about clawing your way to the top or having other people fix your problems, it’s about taking things on with confident humility, to own your flaws without succumbing to them.
And you stumble, you always will, we all do, but it’s a reminder that mistakes do not define us, and that we are so much more than a sum of our actions.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice