Games for Mental Health, Part 2 Elude: Searching for the Bluebird of Happiness

David Seelow, PhD©

          Like, Depression Quest, Elude’s objective is to raise awareness of depression. It seeks to help parents and friends of a depressed person understand the illness better and encourage those who suffer depression to find treatment. Unlike Depression Quest, Elude, “…is specifically intended to be used in a clinical context as part of a psycho-educational package to enhance ‘friends’ and relatives understanding of people suffering from depression about what their loved ones are going through.” The difference with Depression Quest being that Elude’s “intended to be used in a clinical context.” This difference both is and is not important. As I discussed in part one of this blog, Depression Quest can be used effectively in both a clinical context and a psycho-educational setting. However, unlike Depression Quest’s’ more personal or anecdotal approach to design, Elude, a product of MIT’s Singapore Gambit Game Lab, uses a research based design. The design team included psychiatric research consultant, T. Atilla Ceranogla, M.D. from Harvard Medical School. To use games’ as an effective treatment modality or ancillary treatment, more evidence based design games are essential. These games, in turn, need to be assessed in a rigorous fashion just like any other approach for treating or making an impact on depression must be.

          The other striking difference between these two games are the core mechanics. Depression Quest is an interactive fiction that uses straightforward albeit second person narration. It is text heavy. Elude is a platformer game of sorts, and almost entirely visual. The only text in Elude occurs in quotes, and a few philosophical quotes, which I will discuss momentarily. Furthermore, Elude speaks about depression abstractly through metaphors, a point discussed by one of the designers Doris Rusch (2012). Rusch believes metaphors “expand games’ expressive and experiential scope.” The game space becomes and emotional landscape for the player. Like Gris’s abstract approach to grief, this metaphorical approach to depression is both artistic and evocative. In fact, the two go together.

Screen Shot of the Happy Mood

          The game’s governing metaphor is the forest. You play a generic young male character trying to climb out of the forest toward the sun and avoid being dragged down by tendrils/vines and forest growth into a dark underworld. The play space or emotional landscape is divided into three zones and these zones are metaphors for moods: above the forest in the sky is happiness or joy, below the forest is the dark undergrowth or sadness, and the forest itself is normalcy with its range of moods existing between the two extremes of joy and despair. This spatial metaphor extends to color with the sky bright blue and the undergrowth black.

          You could easily interpret these three zones as Catholic metaphors as well. The sun is heaven or Dante’s Paradiso, the dark Inferno, and the everyday struggle is Purgatory. Even deeper, the vertical axis represents the deep mythic reality of the axis mundi; a tree or mountain at the center of the earth where you can ascend to paradise or descent to the underworld.1 Movement in the game takes place principally on this vertical axis. As you climb upward jumping from branch to branch- your goal, leaves from the tree become the platforms you jump from (literally jumping for joy) in reaching heights of greater happiness. Yet, these platforms become increasing harder to navigate-and no sooner do you climb upward then you are dragged back down, and once in the underworld ascent is exceedingly difficult. The fall from happiness is sudden, and unexpected; this signifies depression’s sudden sneak attack on a person’s emotional being. The hell of depression.

Screen Shot of the Sadness or Depressed Mood

          Rusch explains the overall object of the game in the following terms:

                   The core conflict of the game is thus the struggle with depression itself the tendency of one’s mood to drag the avatar down into the black pits of sadness and desperation. The game’s objective is to tap one’s (limited)potential for happiness and spend as much time out of               depression as possible. Of course, the player has only partial control over that, making it clear that depression is mostly not a matter of choice or (lack of) skill. At some points, a depressive phase can be avoided and the  time spent in the dark hole can be cut short a little, but there is no way to              circumvent depression completely.

The game’s mechanic of slowly climbing, occasionally jumping, often falling, and always struggling perfectly enacts the game’s theme.       

          The game begins with such a quote, “Remember sadness is always temporary. This too shall pass.” The quotes are a kind of meta commentary on the game. Reaching these moments of joy are possible only though the help of birds. In the game, powerups- Mario style, are earned by picking up particles or star like dust emitted by a bird’s song. As traditional symbols of freedom, birds are an excellent bridge to happiness. It is a powerful metaphor about the need for help and assistance when fighting depression, but these powerups require at initial effort by the player. Help does not come knocking on your door to borrow from the game I will discuss in the next blog, but if you try and get through the day, and you do not give up, there is help and therefore hope

          The game has two possible endings. These endings resonate between two famous quotes, the only real text aside from the 3 or 4 philosophical quotes sprinkled throughout the game. One quote comes from novelist Graham Greene, “Everyman dies- not every man really lives.” This does not mean a depressed person does not live, but the quote indicates that life requires living- movement, and effort no matter the struggle because inertia, paralysis will eventually suck one into to a black hole ending in suicide. The second quote comes from French philosopher and writer Albert Camu, a prominent existentialist. “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” Inner strength and fortitude, often discovered through help of others, or even, the game suggests, art, brings a depressed person back from the precipice to begin another slow climb in search for the bluebird of happiness.

Applying the Game

          The game can be played in a clinical environment, a psycho-educational setting, or traditional education setting from high school through college. Asking players to identify what the metaphors mean to them as well as having players identify their own metaphors for emotional states can be very therapeutic. What does depression look like to you? How would you symbolize sadness? What color? What object? Who can help you get over the darkness?

          As with Depression Quest, the game’s role playing aspect creates empathy and experiencing the state of depression can have a powerful impact on one’s understanding and treatment of depressed individuals. It also clarifies, in the co-designer’s words, the ‘reality’ of depression.

              “The game further enables players to explore new identities. A game that puts you in the shoes of someone who is living with depression could help alleviate social stigma because players would experience for themselves that being sucked into the ‘black hole’ had nothing to do with their skills or strength of character.”

That is a key point for both the depressed person and friends of depressed individuals. Clinical depression is a disease, everyone is susceptible and successful treatment is elusive.

          Asking clients or even learners to draw how depression feels also helps make its elusive character concrete. Both endings of the game end with different lines etched across the screen. Ask someone to draw or plot their moods across a week or month’s span and that will help make the depressed state and its relationship to other moods concrete.

          Finally, the game’s open design embodies and essential truth that clinical depression does not end. There is climb up, the hanging on, the fall and climb back up. More than anything, Elude lives up to its name- ultimate meaning, like a cure, eludes one’s grasp, but the ability of the game to produce empathy for and emotional understanding of the rhythm of depression is a game with genuine positive impact.

***In part 3 of the series, I will discuss the game “Please Knock on My Door.”


The axis mundi refer to the center of the earth. Mythic systems most often represent this center as a tree or mountain that runs from earth to the upper world, and, at times, to the underworld as well. Examples of an axis mundi would be India’s Mount Meru, ancient Greece’s Mount Olympus, the Temple Mount, the Tree of Life etc. The most significant research on this mythic concept was conducted by the renowned historian of religion Mircea Eliade in many of his books, but most succinctly in “Symbolism of the Center,” Images and Symbols, trans. Philip Mairet. Princeton University Press, reprint edition, 1991.

Works Cited

Elude, Singapore-MIT Gambit Lab, 2010, designers: Doris Rusch and Tay In Ing.       

Rusch, Doris. ‘Elude’ designing depression., May 2012, DOI: 10.1145/2282389. Retrieved 4/15/2020.

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