Therapy by game development
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I make games. Most of the time it’s so that I can earn a living by selling those games but very occasionally the act of making a game can have a very significant meaning to me.
For no real reason that I can fathom I managed to sink into a pretty deep depression around about the 20th of December 2016. This happens to me from time to time. I’m usually good at recognizing the signs early on and can prevent further slumping into the abyss but this one caught me by surprise and took hold before I knew what was happening. I still don’t know what the cause of it was but last year was not a particularly good one so maybe it was just an accumulation of lots of little things and my brain just decided it was enough and wanted to take a little holiday from reality.
The way depression takes me over is a lack of will to do anything. Sometimes getting out of bed is hard enough but summoning the energy to do anything productive is hard. It all just seems so pointless. I also get very argumentative and would literally argue with anybody about anything through anger and frustration. So, when it happens my poor wife suffers through it too. She’s very supportive though and I’m not sure what I’d do without her.
As I said, this episode struck home around about the 20th of December, just a few days before Christmas which is usually a happy time in our house. I gave into it for a few days, I didn’t have much choice but somewhere in the back of my repressed brain there was a solitary voice screaming as loud as it could to be heard. This voice was trying hard to snap me out of it, to crawl about of the deep black hole before Christmas hit. Christmas is just a day like any other but it has a symbolic meaning for family and I wanted to be there for my wife rather than needing her to look after me.
I needed something to take me completely out of the depression zone and into somewhere a lot safer, something that could distract me completely. The only thing I could think of was to make a game. If you follow me on twitter (https://twitter.com/xiotex) then you will know that I’ve been working on a series of games called ‘Caretaker’ one was released earlier in December and the other was still in Early access (http://store.steampowered.com/app/426240/). A sensible me would have said to carry on with the game that was in early access but I knew I needed to do something that didn’t matter so I decided there and then to create something completely new.
The idea was simple, throw all my efforts into this game and to not give my brain one second to even think about being depressed. The problem is of course that when you are depressed it’s hard to even get excited about tiny things let alone make a game. Thankfully that little voice that had been screaming hard to get attention seized its chance to smash through the wall that the depression had erected, grabbed the idea of creating a game and ran as fast as it could with it. This was enough to give me the energy to get up and finally do something and on the 24th of December I started a new game.
I’m not going to lie and say it was easy, on that first day I had to force myself to work, to sit at the Mac and type lines of C#, but that little voice was still there running as hard as it could against the pull of the depression. Soon momentum took over and before I knew it the depression was becoming less and less. On the night of the 24th when I finally went to bed I found myself looking forward to getting up on the 25th to continue working on the game. I had to remind myself it was Christmas day.
Because I’m quite vocal on twitter and I needed a reason to keep going I decided to video each milestone in the game’s development. I told nobody the reason the game was being made and just presented it as it was. I’m still working on the game, mainly because it deserves to be completed but also because I’m just having too much fun working on it. If you’re interested to see how it progressed, you can find all the videos so far stitched into one here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ISApK1B_S8
It’s by no means an original game, that wasn’t the point of the exercise. In fact it’s actually based on two of my all-time favorite games Uridium and Nemesis. Once it’s finished I’ll release it – hopefully Steam will kindly give me an AppID to do this.
I’m not going to try and claim the depression has fully gone, if you suffer from depression that’s never going to be the case and there are days when it tries to take hold again – yesterday was one of those days. Making this game managed to help me get out of the deepest I had experienced in a long time and my way of doing it worked for me. It’s not going to work for everybody and I’m in no way suggesting it will.
In some ways, all I’ve done is avoided the depression by effectively ignoring it. Sometimes that’s what it takes for me. So when somebody asks me in future why I make games maybe I’ll have the courage to admit that I need to, that they save me from myself.