Unwinnable: Games About Anxiety

The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne (Lemonsucker Games, 2016)

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.





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.