CONTENT CAUTION: This article deals with themes of trauma and other sensitive topics.
There is a current debate taking place in the discourse on the meaningful weight behind design decisions around the portrayal of trauma and melancholia, both about whether or not it’s an appropriate story to tell and how to tell it. Most of us have known someone who’s been in a struggle against their inner demons, and sometimes writers can take the exploration of these stories a little too far.
Many games have arguably tried, and at times succeeded to varying degrees in tackling this heavy topic, so without further adieu, let’s get into the thick of it.
Firstly, it’s important to recognize most games for what they are, mass consumption oriented entertainment art, incorporating the very baggage that besets the commercial nature of the industry at every level. Sometimes this can result in mutual benefit; commercial success and the demands for concessions made to accommodate it somewhat serve as the butcher’s knife for design’s dirty work in which not everything makes the cut. The value of what is or isn’t excised is a topic that has been hotly contested for decades, especially within PC gaming as a platform. We’re obsessed with the notion of the auteur’s lost vision, the idea that the audience is somehow robbed of a greater game in exchange for short-sighted pragmatism or due to simple needlessly costly incompetence. The truth is, as usual, much more complicated than the mere snubbing of an original concept thanks to the inability of teams or publishers to understand the gravitas of an idea, rather it is an inevitable outcome of any group project that the practical realities of implementation prevent lossless translation to the medium.
Sometimes, good ideas never make it to fruition intact, other times bad ideas manage to slip through untouched, leaving a less than satisfactory result or a generally poor reception. The scope of such a discussion is far beyond the purview of this piece, instead we’ll be focusing on current design trends at play in recent memory.
A popular criticism laid at the altar of discourse is that we commodify and thusly trivialize the harsh realities of traumatic events or conditions, be it depression, psychosis, anxiety, or myriad other issues that people grapple with in reality day to day. It’s easy to manifest any malady or deviation from the norm into a ghastly ghoul or otherworldy demon in order to perform a narrative exorcism; it’s an experience that’s easy for those who have never faced these issues, either in their own life or in a loved one’s, to consume, feel the effects of, then disregard and get on with their lives. Ideally, they walk away with not only a rich experience via an elegant narrative, but increased empathy for their fellow human beings, but more often than not the emotional resonance quickly evaporates within the cacophonous cloud of daily rapid-fire attention stimuli. Even with these outcomes in mind, the clunky handling of a specific scenario can often do more harm than good, and there is plenty that has been said on the topic of how representation must be handled with care if one doesn’t wish to perpetuate myths or falsehoods in the public consciousness and negatively impact the perception of these issues.
In answer to this criticism, there has been a rush of nu-wave attempts at presenting these topics without dressing them up in grim macabre hyperbole, taking a kinder, gentler approach via means of twee pastels, exotic gorgeous locales, and other more accessible visual presentations that don’t rely so much on slaying the physical representation of one’s inner turmoil and instead offering the opportunity talk to our inner monsters, reason with them, to find a meaningful solution that doesn’t rely on raw cynicism or violence. Often regarded as a softer, more effective empathetic touch, it is debatable how meaningful that distinction actually is, or if kindness and understanding of the issues is indeed the desired result. Enlightened media does not have the Hallmark of pretension, rather it all too often seeks to perform for the consumption of the voyeur.
The unfortunate nature of these conditions or experiences is that they are often violent- violent to experience, violent to be present for those struggling with them. It is a fight, sometimes to the death, that many people have lost at their own hands or the hands of others, and while there are varying degrees of severity and myriad personal experiences, unwarranted reductionist soft approaches can often be just as destructive in their message through patronizing mindfulness that places the onus of care on the self, offering an illusion of meaningless absolution wherein the protagonist never really learns anything, comes to terms with their struggles, or finds any effective coping strategies for the issues that haunt them.
It’s these pastel twee explorations that too hamfistedly try to use an enlightened approach to render mental plights into a theme park, a place for the audience to pay their ticket cost in order to gawk at the strange, exotic caricatures safely contained in the confines of the exhibit that cannot truly reach out to harm the audience, and thus, by extension, never meaningfully impact them. When low hanging narrative fruit is served, it’s the audience that finds itself on the menu, offered mind numbing content that paralyzes them with short-lived emotion like a venom, reducing them to a gelatinous mass ripe for subsumption by the very attraction they came to dine upon. The act of dehumanizing another can, itself, become dehumanizing to the perpetrator.
Silent Hill is often regarded highly for it’s portrayal of a man trying to come to terms with his actions and the loss of the normalcy of his life. His petulant naive ignorance serves its purpose so extensively that it prevents him from seeing his own part in the world he has found himself in- lost perpetually in his own self-pity until he finds the resolve to confront himself. The writers were primarily able to achieve this through the lens of Jungian analysis entrenched with strong symbolism that telegraphed the journey to the observant player, the voyeur who is trained to have an eye for subtle clues that often guide insightful narrative. The successful narrative that accomplishes a meaningful portrayal of these conflicts does so through a method that is tantamount to alchemy, using disciplined self-reflection to boil off the flaws of a protagonist and leave a shining will that finally finds the way.
Sometimes the inability for a piece to earnestly present the subject matter in a productive light is due to evading censorship or the attempt to implant a subtle narrative within an otherwise easy-to-grasp package for a more mainstream audience. The counter-productive twist of hiding a heartfelt portrayal of issues in an otherwise shallow performance is that while you may reach more people, few will appreciate it, and it’s unlikely that those for whom it would be relevant will ever find it amongst the insurmountable tropes put in place to keep the piece desirable for large audiences or to maintain the threshold for monetization. It’s one of the many reasons why so few essential works rarely make it to widespread recognition, and only the most hamfisted approaches reach the primacy of discussion, leaving the vast majority of people with distorted perspectives of problems that demand larger attention spans and thoughtful analysis than they’re willing to invest in a piece that, at first glance, appears as deep as their navel.
This isn’t to say that this approach doesn’t give meaningful results, an expert performer rarely grades themselves on mass reception, instead slipping in masterful subtleties intended not for the general audience, but for the one with the trained eye. In the silence of the audience’s reception, the prowess of subtlty speaks volumes to those who would listen, and this will forever remain the narrative strong suit of interactive media in a way that would make the finest examples of film blush.
Far too often have we rendered our trauma into decorative symbolic flowers of ice cream, a fattening luxury of no real substance past hedonistic self-indulgence for the other. What distinction can you make with regards to a decadent chocolate cake versus supple twee melancholia? One could even argue that the prior displays more intrinsic talent, given baking is a notoriously difficult field that requires the incorporation of disparate elements to create a complex whole, as opposed to the breaking down of complexity into only its most easily digestible and palatable forms.
It’s vital that we address how we are enabled by the non-threatening and sweet confectionery presentations of shallow visual metaphors, how we are enticed into spiritual complacency which we then hold up as an exemplar of artistic achievement. We owe ourselves greater champions of narrative, and many walk amongst us, as unseen as the issues that they explore.
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