Unwinnable: Games About Anxiety
Winning isn’t the point of these games, as there’s no simple way to “win” against anxiety.
Two recent games, The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne and Raik, attempt to capture the paralyzing spiral of anxiety disorder. Both feature young women as protagonists, and both are short and largely experiential (in other words, interactivity usually boils down to advancing the narrative and picking A or B). Despite the similar subject matter, the two games take different approaches to portraying mental illness with different results.
The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne is the “gamier” of the two. The titular protagonist is an American student attending college (or university, as they call it) in the UK. Samantha is hungry, and it is the player’s job to make some oatmeal for dinner. At the top of the screen is a hunger meter, and if it fills up, the player loses. Seriously, that’s it: open the door, walk down the hall, enter the kitchen, make some oatmeal, and walk back.
It’s a simple task, and the game acknowledges how easy it appears to be, but it is made complicated by Samantha’s social anxiety. The game begins with her huddled in bed with a laptop on her knees. The narration explains that she spent the last few hours waiting for her neighbors to fall asleep, so as to minimize the chance of human interaction. Interestingly, you never see Samantha’s face. It’s always out of frame or obstructed by an object. Maybe this is to make Samantha more of a blank slate so that the player can better relate to her, but my guess is that the omission mimics the self-minimizing feeling of anxiety, of wanting to block out your head and just disappear.
The visuals are bright and cheerful. There’s some light animation, but most of the game consists of static shots of cartoon-y, hand drawn domestic scenes. Similarly, the game’s tone is light and at times gently humorous. As you make mundane choices -- how quickly to walk down the hall, whether to greet the students in the kitchen, what to do as the microwave runs -- Samantha peppers her experiences with self-conscious asides. “Look at me, making choices, like an adult,” she says after deciding which flavor of oatmeal and how many packets to eat.
At the same time, the game respects Samantha’s pain. There are several choices where the “correct” answer is completely arbitrary. For example, choosing one type of oatmeal flavor will increase Samantha’s anxiety, while choosing another won’t. This is unfair game design, which is probably the point. Anxiety, after all, isn’t fair. The game also completely inhabits Samantha’s point of view. When she first steps out of her room, the hallway wobbles and shakes, and walking to the other end seems practically impossible. When she enters the kitchen and sees two other students, their whispers sound conspiratorial, as if they were talking about Samantha. A mundane task is turned into a sensory assault.
While Samantha Browne tells a straightforward story in a straightforward manner, Raik plays with structure, language, and perspective. It’s a Twine text-adventure told in two different languages: English and Scots. (Turns out there’s a lot of debate on whether or not Scots can be considered a separate language, which as an ignorant American, I’ll refrain from commenting on.). The Scots portion is about a woman living in modern-day Edinburgh, while the English portion is a deliberately cliched fantasy adventure. You can switch between the two at any time, which leads to some interesting contrasts. As the fantasy protagonist embarks on a heroic quest to save her homeland, the modern-day protagonist makes breakfast and catches an X-Files episode before cycling to work.
Raik’s creator, Harry Giles, has spoken about how the Scots language relates to Scotland’s larger identity and relationship with England, which I again won’t comment on out of ignorance. I will say, however, that reading about familiar experiences in an unfamiliar language provides an entirely new perspective. Similar to Samantha Browne, mundane tasks like taking a shower or responding to emails become confusing, disorienting, anxiety-inducing. Getting through the day with anxiety can be painfully slow, and reading the Scots portions is similarly slow -- at least for an English speaker.
Also similar to Samantha Browne, there are several unfair choices with entirely arbitrary solutions, in which choosing the wrong option causes the protagonist’s condition to deteriorate. A failure in the modern-day portion leads to an increase in panic, which corresponds to a loss of HP in the fantasy portion. The dual perspectives highlight how minor slip-ups can feel life-threatening to an anxiety sufferer. For example, a conversation with your boss is equivalent to facing off against a cave-dwelling demon. There are also moments where there are simply no good choices, and every option leads to an inevitable increase in panic/loss of health, which again conveys the uncontrollable nature of anxiety disorder.
Both Samantha Browne and Raik feature lose states, in which the protagonist succumbs to anxiety and suffers a panic attack. This means that both games also have win states: Samantha enjoys a nice mug of oatmeal, and the Scottish woman returns from work, while the fantasy hero saves the world. Winning, however, isn’t the point of these games, as there’s no simple way to “win” against anxiety. Instead, both games communicate personal experiences about struggles with mental illness. Perhaps the fact that these games exist is a victory in and of itself.