Building empathy and self-healing: Game development as an awareness and healing tool
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I'm tired and I don't want to talk about it. Laying down on the sofa and scrolling around Netflix seems to be all I can do. Nonetheless, I can't pick anything. All possible options look dull. Any physical movement seems like a waste of energy. I resign to watching the color white on the wall instead.
That's how I felt for a large portion of the past year, a crippling apathy followed me everywhere. I didn't want to leave home even though I also didn't want to do anything there. "Want" actually may not be the right verb here, it wasn't a matter of willingness as much as everything seemed devoid of purpose.
This apathy, though, was not a worrisome state for me. I've been there countless times. It felt familiar, like an old friend or the flavor of a whisky brand I used to drink. Every year or so, I had felt that same way for a good six months. It may not be normal normal but it surely wasn't strange. It was what it was. Everybody gets the blues sometimes, right? Right. So that must be what everyone else also feels like too.
This time, however, I decided to do something different. I'm a game designer by trade but I was working as a producer back then and felt awfully deprived on my creativity. As a result, if I could not be creative at work, why not to try to be at home? It might even make the apathy go away faster, who knows.
That's when I decided to start Rainy Day and make it about a fictitious day during a very real apathetic period.
Designing the feels
I’ve played plenty of interactive narratives up to that point and something that I missed in most of them is the lack of, well, interactivity. Most of them are great stories but quite linear in structure, with large walls of text before each option that then in turn lead to another large wall of text. Maybe it's because I'm impatient or maybe it’s because English is my second language so reading large chunks of text often feels like a chore. I also understand why people use this structure; the narrative feels more like a fleshed out story and the linearity is essential to maintain a pace. With a linear story you can pace out the beginning, the climax and the ending as you wish, nothing strays too far from your original plan.
But that wasn't how I felt. I felt like a mess. I felt like I kept spiralling in fruitless circles of my own lack of interest. Nothing felt like a climax. Everything just felt equally bad. So I decided to take a different approach to convey that, even though it could compromise the pacing.
When I was in this state of mind, a normal day felt like an eternal maze. I would linger between thoughts of activities, barely starting any or feeling awful while doing them. The feeling of being lost and overwhelmed was something I wanted to recreate so I used two strategies for this.
First, there is no clear path to take. You know you need to go to work, but do you really need need? Which option seems more in tune with going to work: taking a shower or making coffee? Perhaps neither. Maybe you should call in sick. You never know how the story will unfold and you don't know the result of your actions. This sounds like a bad game design choice (no clear feedback for actions? That's crazy!) but I believe it worked in this context because not only because it reinforces the how you feel in this state of mind but also because no single action will make you lose. All actions sum up and may result in making your state of mind worsen, which will rule out some actions or lead to certain endings, but never will one wrong click lead to game over. Instead, it is always a path of triggering bad choices, and every bad choice is immediately represented by a change in the background (more of the background change in the next segment).
This additive system was accomplished by tracking the protagonist’s anxiety levels. Every choice you make, every action you take, or try to, will not only add time to your "lateness" but can also influence your state of mind. For instance, taking a shower looks like a good idea, right? In the shower, you have a emotional breakdown which adds a lot of anxiety to the character. After this collapse, the protagonist comes to terms with the randomness of life and has anxiety points subtracted, so you actually feel better after the shower. There are instances like that during the whole game and the anxiety count influences how the protagonist sees the world, which action is available and, in some parts of the game, if your anxiety is too high, can directly lead to a game over. You can reach game over pretty fast if you chose many actions that trigger anxiety, but some of the actions that are the larger source of anxiety can also bring relief. Sometimes. The 3DS passage does exactly that. If you win, you get a lot less anxious, but there is just a small, random chance of winning and losing makes you even more anxious. Good luck with that.
Some of the unknown results may take you back to some passage you have already been to before, which enforces the idea of loops. This isn't as frustrating as one would think. I believe it is because all pages that host loops have different content after certains visits. New options may be available, and sometimes even more or new text. You may be back where you started but this time you can go somewhere new.
My second strategy to convey the messy headspace was to give players a lot of choices, many of them with unclear results. The abundance of indiscernible choices creates and highlights doubt and, therefore, reduces confidence in any of the options. This leads the player to feel less confident about choices taken and maybe even a little confused. Doubtful and insecure, the Player is brought closer to the protagonist.
All those decisions sound like the total opposite of accepted game design rules. I know that. What will result from this is frustration. I know that too. But isn't that the whole point of this game?
Setting up an environment
Since this is a digital narrative and not on printed media, I could use anything HTML could provide me. I decided I really needed a way to express how the protagonist was feeling, how anxious they were. I could use a traditional health or something direct like that but that didn't make any sense in this game. Most of the time, when feeling this way, not even you can tell for sure how bad you are until something more dramatic happens. I decided the most elegant approach was a subtle one: changing the color of the background. It starts as a very comfortable shade of green and as you get anxious it slowly morphs into a less pleasant shade or yellow and then to a very disturbing reddish tone.
The blurred text was also a subtle translation of the lack of focus in this mindset. Many players said it felt like the thoughts were forming while they were playing and if they didn't pay attention to the thought, it would run way. I could not think of a better description for this feeling.
The illustrations were also a very important aspect of Rainy Day. It was important to feel melancholic, not exactly sad and centaintelly not joyous. Amora B. is a friend of mine who has an amazing art style and has insider knowledge of the issue. Although she generally does more uplifting art, I thought she could add a lot to the project. Just because most of the jobs you are doing streer your work to one direction, that doesn't mean you don't know how to make a turn.
The sound was the last ambient item to be added. We live with an overload of stimulus these days and, if you played Rainy Day, I bet you did it with a bunch of other tabs opened too. In the beginning, Rainy Day didn't had anything besides visual stimuli. While only one sense was being stimulated (vision) it is easier to drift away from game. I decided to add the rain effect to improve the ambience but I didn't want to become too "gamey”. Just some rain, traffic, and café environment sounds, to make the player feel as if they were there.
The sound turned an otherwise ok interactive story into something closer of a full experience. Adding the ambient sounds with rain, traffic and white noise not only made it more interesting as an experience but also strengthened the relatability of the story.
It is raining today.
It really is, I can hear it.
The weight of each choice
Some people asked me after playing: "What was I supposed to achieve"? Well, I don't know, what are you supposed to achieve in your life? Rainy Day didn't start as a game, I didn't plan it to have a goal. Instead, it was supposed to feel more like a simulator. You are supposed to replicate your own life expectations and make choices while Rainy Day shows you what would have happened if you were in this apathitic state. You think the most important thing a person has is their job? So go there. You believe having a little fun in important? You have a cellphone and a 3DS. Are you an Agent Cooper type of person that gives yourself a small present everyday? There are a lot of coffee situations in Rainy Day.
The thing about giving this amount of freedom in the choices and having the loop structure is that no single ending would fit all journeys. Considering most paths, I came up with four endings that made the most sense. They are all possible results of a day dealing with this crippling apathy and they are all different outcomes for the different choices. After playing the game as yourself, the existence of the different endings offers an incentive to replay the game as differents forms of yourself or even as an entirely different person. I believe this helps the player to practice empathy.
Another very common question from players that have played Rainy Day for a while is, "Is there a good ending?", which I'm always tempted to ask back, "Is there any good ending for anything? When you get to work safely, do the curtains come down and the applause goes up letting you know you just reached a good ending for that struggle?" I don't reply with this because I'm not a pretentious prick but it’s still a lingering desire and a constant belief. Still, "good" and "bad" endings are much more a matter of perspective than anything else. We as audiences are used to seeing closure in this moral value scale because that's how we are used to see it in fiction (both games and movies), but the fact is things are not inherently that simple in real life.
Is there anything else in our lives other than the sourness of failure and the bittersweet disappointment of success? That is a very Zöe question that could be asked in this Zelda way (BoJack Horseman reference here) "the learning experience of failure and the fulfillment of success?" It's still the same question with the same topic but with a different outlook of the same situation. That's the thing about the particular problem Rainy Day brings to the spotlight: you don't get to have other outlooks. Ever. Unless you get out of this self-sabotaging way of thinking. Which is not an option in this experience.
Each of the four endings are different and each one of them takes you somewhere and makes you understand something, but really, which one is better: feeling like shit at home with nothing to do or feeling like crap at the office where every task seems meaningless? There is no good ending when you feel like this, you first need to get some help.
Getting out there
In February or something we almost finished Rainy day. Almost. The thing is I started to feel better and looking back to the game made me remember of all that not very nice period. I can't say development was paused, but before that I worked on Rainy Day almost every weekend and after that I worked one or two hours per week. If I opened the game in that week at all.
That is not all bad, right? You feel better, you move on. It doesn't matter if you released the thing or not as long as you are in a better place than before.
Since this game was so personal, I also felt a certain fear of rejection of releasing it. If it draw too much criticism, I also would be under criticism. My whole life would be a big red target. It wasn't something I worked on as a part of a team, it wasn't a project about a subject I thought it was cool. Even though I'm not the protagonist and much of them were based on other people's experiences, I still had too much in common with them to be comfortable with all sorts of criticism. I also feared this game could hurt my professional career in some way, tear apart something it took me so long to build. That was really scary.
In July, I realised I wasn't in such a better place than when I was when did Rainy day if it was fear that was keeping me from publishing it. I decided that to actually close the wound I had to publicly release it, no matter what happened after that. So I worked a bit more on the balancing and the connections between the passages and got ready for release.
Two months now after release, Rainy Day has around 170 thousand accesses. This is crazy. But besides the surprise on how the game got popular, two other interesting things happened when I released Rainy Day.
First, a lot of people who played it said they really identify with the protagonist. I had the feeling I wasn't the only one that felt that way, but I also thought not many people would share that feeling of inadequacy, lack of purpose and self worth. The amount of people identifying with the story got me completely off guarded.
A lot of close friends too, whom I thought had the most happy and interesting lives. Hmm. That was weird. So despite all the happy, cheerful faces on Facebook and Twitter, a lot of people feel like that? Many of my friends also? The ones that looked like they had all their shit figured out? That was interesting but also quite scary. How many more people suffer from these issues and don't talk about them? How many also feel it is something silly, small and that will eventually go away?
Though most people related in a personal level to the protagonist, there were some that said they really didn't feel that way but knew someone who did that they didn't quite understood before. And the game made them closer of understanding of how it felt. A digital narrative slash game made them feel closer to loved ones in a way they never felt before. That was an amazing outcome and the feedback I got was simply overwhelming. Being able to help so many people understand this issue is just amazing. I have no words to describe it it.
The second thing and even more surprising to me was that both players and media were discussing Rainy Day as a depression story.
Wait a second.
I was sure Rainy Day was about a general kind of sadness, mixed with social anxiety and the everlasting apathy. That's was all I saw in it, and if you download the actual twine game you will see all variables I use are called anxiety or time. But depression? I never said depression. The disclaimer when you end Rainy Day doesn't even cite depression. I have been dealing with this for almost two decades now. Are you guys sure about this? Like, really sure?
The only way I could face I have been dealing with depression for all this time was to make a game how I felt and publishing it. If I haven't had done Rainy Day or haven't pushed the publish button I probably would never acknowledge or accept that what I felt was indeed depression. I'm really grateful for that. I have since seeked professional support which have made everything much more bearable. It isn't like all my live mysteriously got sorted out, it feels more like now I feel apt to capable to deal with everything that have been happening and don't feel quite drained out like before. If making Rainy Day and having people playing it and sharing their stories have not saved my life quite surely improved its quality significantly.
So though there are ideas and processes in this text on how to build interactive narrative, I believe the main take away is to make games about how you feel. Well, remember when Neil Gaiman said that when you are an artist, you must do art? No matter what happens or how you feel, you should most definitely create something with it or about it. Rainy Day was that and, by doing it, I not only was able to feel better about myself during a difficult time and create an experience to help others understand how it feels. I also learned something about me I didn't know before. Something I had for a long time and I didn't even realised it since I just worked around it.
If you are a game developer, I beg you, make games about things that matter to you and friends. If you feel great, if you feel blue, if you want to propose to you special someone, doesn't matter just make games. It may just feel like only a release valve while you are doing it, but when you revisit it afterwards you may learn something new about yourself, something you didn't know before. Games can be your family album or diary some years from now, with vivid representations of your life in different times. Or you can even, maybe, get diagnosed about a serious problem you didn't knew you have.❤