Games for Mental Health, Part 3: Knock, knock, knocking on Depression’s Door


David Seelow, Ph.D©

                Please Knock on My Door shares several similarities with Depression Quest and Elude in its attempt to give players an experience of deep depression. Like Depression Quest, the game is story driven with a branching narrative that allows players some input into the protagonist/avatar’s behavior and the game’s ultimate outcome. However, these decisions points, indicated by a blinking white diamond on the screen, are even more limited than those offered in Depression Quest, and more mundane. For example, should you make a sandwich or a full meal? Should you play games on the computer or chat with someone? Please Knock on My Door does visualize depression to an extent, but much more concretely than Elude. More important, the games share with the other two games about depression the representation of depression as a daily struggle, an almost hour by hour battle with one’s inner demons.

          The protagonist is a black block- something like a Lego character from one of the Lego movies. You move the character around his apartment using the arrow keys and make decisions hitting the enter key. Basic controls for a basic life. Most of the game play takes place in the avatar’s apartment which is presented partly from a top down 3-D perspective like looking at a rental property on Zillow, and partly from a side perspective as if the 4th wall of a performance space had been eliminated. The character moves between a kitchen, living room and bathroom, making the minimal decisions indicated above. Should I have him take a quick shower, a regular shower or skip it? A third person narration voices the character’s thoughts in a deep, news anchor type tone. Your objective is to get through the work week and reach the weekend. It is a simple goal, but one that captures the daily struggle of depression effectively.

Screen Shot of the Kitchen, Please Knock on My Door (Lavall, 2017)

          The story is minimal. Each day’s goal consists of getting the character out the front door and to work by 7:30 am. “For now just aim for Saturday.” Once the front door opens the screen fades to black and you appear at the office. The character/avatar’s office is a desk with a computer, a small To Do Notebook on the left, a larger diary addressed to the protagonist’s father in the middle, a group of post it notes on the right. You learn little about this character. The father seems to also have suffered from depression, but to what extent and why we do not know. The main interlocutor at work is Will. The big event- a presentation with Will- is botched because the protagonist forgot a key paper. He also has an infatuation or interest in a co-worker Amy but does not act on his affection. Overall, the day’s events drag, and game play is slow, not relaxing, just slow, which simulates the daily drag of depression. Depression dampens one’s enthusiasm and makes workdays, even non workdays seem endless, at times. On the other hand, Samuel Beckett achieved this effect of dullness or boredom much more successfully on stage. Nonetheless, the game allows for a potentially productive discussion on how people cope with boredom. Unquestionably, idleness can result in people making some very unhealthy decisions.

          Another partial limitation concerns the minimal story and design. In many ways, the protagonist and his blocked in, circumscribed environment- the apartment and office cubicle, remind me of Chris Ware’s graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon, 1995), which also represents depression. Ware’ story is much more layered, more interior and multigenerational, giving rich characterization a short video game cannot, almost by definition, muster. Similarly, Ware’s innovative graphic design and layout adds a dimension to the reader’s experience that games on depression lack.

          This brings me to a paradox or challenge for game’s about depression. On the one hand, Zoë Quinn and Michael Lavall draw from their own personal experience of depression and those of people they have spoken with. Yet, both Quinn and Lavall are creative in a way their protagonists are not. In trying to represent an “everyman” of depression that speaks to as many people as possible such games’ insistence that depression can afflict anyone necessarily miss opportunities to individuate and enrich certain experiences of depression. Clearly Robin Williams was not “everyman”. He achieved the pinnacle of success in two different professions- acting and comedy, but also suffered debilitating depression. In the future, games about depression and anxiety will need to expand their scope to achieve the success of other media like film or novels.

          As a final comment before moving on to applications of the game, I turn to the game’s voices. The designer speaks eloquently of his objective and in differentiating the voices of depression through colored text. The designer’s observation on his use of different voices and font colors is worth quoting at length:

          The feature I’m the most proud of is the design of the two voices talking to the   player as they play the game. The first voice uses white text and represents the      healthy version of the main character. I used this voice to verbalize the thoughts    and reflections of someone who has gone through depression and later tries to        understand how they could feel so terrible. I chose this character since I felt like       it would help players, both those with and without personal experience with       depression, to think about the illness and reflect about what it does to a person.

….

          The second voice is the embodiment of self-doubt, self-hatred, and a complete    disbelief in that anything can ever be better than what it currently is. It is        represented by red text and takes over the narration during the game’s second     week, where it gives the player insights into how the mind will twist any situation      into it’s most negative interpretation. Players have explicitly told me that, by   experiencing the narrative of the red voice, it has helped them to better ‘check          themselves’ when their own thoughts lapse into that dark mindset. By using        both the white and red voice I was able to show players two sides of the same mind, and how a person’s outlook on life severely colors how they think about          any given situation they end up in.

This dual voice narrative does convey both the social expectations of a depressed individual: “Don’t miss work,” as well as the persistent self-doubt, but the voices are an artificial division within a depressed person. Depression is not a thought disorder like schizophrenia, and depressed individuals speak with a voice that lacks certainty and authority, but it is not a divided voice. Non texted based games struggle with representing interiority, so the idea of splitting the voices as Lavall does makes an admirable effort at representing a character’s interior monologue.

Applications

          The game is suitable for high school, college, psychoeducational groups, and counseling sessions. It’s slow pace will present a problem for younger students habituated to the accelerated pace of First Person Shooters and the like, but game play ranges not much longer than a couple hours, so it can be played alone at home, in a class or with a counselor. In writing this blog during the Covid-19 pandemic when stay at home orders are in effect for many   states, the game’s setting has real valence.

          One’s home is often a haven, from the travail of everyday life. During Covid-19, one’s home becomes a shelter from the circulating storm of a potentially deadly virus. At home, one can bond with family members and share the comfort of and care for each other.  In Please Knock on My Door, the imperative “I just can’s wait to go home,” the home serves as such a refuge. At the same time, one’s home can also be a prison. As time passes, the Covid-19 pandemic pushes people to psychological limits as one cannot venture outside the four walls, and freedom becomes unfreedom. For a person subject to domestic violence a home can become a torture trap. The same rings true for a depressed person. Home can easily become a prison, and failure to go to work can bring disaster and despair. Failure to leave the house isolates one in a state of self-doubt, and potentially unmitigated negativity.

          Consequently, one of the most effective interventions with a depressed person is to have that person rearrange their most important living space, – a bedroom, an office, a dorm room etc.  Environment often reflects mood and the drab space of Please Knock on My Door reflects depression but ask the player to imagine their own space in a way that reflects only positive thoughts and images. This can be done through drawing or, for gamers, using Minecraft or even Lego in an actual counseling office or elsewhere. I can distinctly remember how the simple act of taking books from boxes and putting them onto a bookshelf proved helpful to me.

          Like many branching narratives or story based games, Please Knock on My Door has multiple endings and the ending the player reaches reflects to a degree his or her choices throughout the game. The designer defines the “good ending” as the protagonist’s reconciliation with his dad and moving to a new apartment where he sees 4 trees outside his window. The four trees as opposed to the singular tree seen from his original apartment signifies a new outlook. This explanation picks up on my claim above that rearranging one’s environment can help alleviate depression; however, there is a caveat, especially with regards to moving residences. Depression has an internal thrust- part brain chemistry and part our thought processes, i.e. negative self-talk, so physical movements in space do not dispel depression. However, understanding the relationship between inside and outside is crucial to helping someone through depressed states.

          The mixed ending shows the self-struggling but imagining a future scene by the sea with friends. In the bad ending the self gives into the red voice and moves toward suicide. Reading a designer’s thoughts like reading those of an author holds interest but should not close off a player’s perspective or interpretation. Depression on the clinical level will most often be a mixed result at the end of any week. Ask the player to talk out the different endings, but more important, ask the player who he or she wants to knock on their door at a moment of deep despair. The answer becomes the biggest step toward opening the door to brighter future. Conversely, if you know someone who has isolated himself or herself and might be suffering from depression you need to be the one that knocks on the door. That’s imperative!

Notes

1. Developer’s comment on a Steam discussion forum December 27, 2017, https://steamcommunity.com/app/613450/discussions/0/1620599015889821161/.

Works Cited

Please Knock on My Door. Video game. Levall Games AB, 2017.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.