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Game Review: “When The Darkness Comes”

April 29th 2024

Written by Yedda Lam

“When The Darkness Comes”, developed by indie creator Sirhaian, is a poignant exploration of mental health wrapped in the guise of a psychological horror game. Free on Steam, this title diverges from commercial gaming by focusing on impactful narrative and thematic depth rather than profit. This is not just a game, but a journey through abstract dreams and dark, thought-provoking nightmares. The game operates as a “walking simulator”, using straightforward controls to navigate through 14 chapters, each representing different aspects of depression, anxiety, and the pursuit of hope. As a player, you are led by a narrator—also the developer—who guides you through these surreal environments. His presence is a constant one, sometimes instructive, often reflective, enhancing the immersive experience. The narrative initially masquerades as comedic, but it quickly descends into darker territory, revealing its true intent—to depict the struggles of mental health issues. The game cleverly employs various elements such as glitches, dark color tones, and occasional jumpscares to maintain an unsettling atmosphere.

Here are some chapter highlights that were most impactful to me:

  • Chapter 3 – Market: Designed to simulate social anxiety, this chapter intensifies as players navigate a crowded market where closeness to others triggers overwhelming whispers and a visual red alert, mimicking the panic and suffocation felt in social settings.
  • Chapter 4 – Forest: Here, players encounter a woman who, regardless of the chosen dialogue, ultimately asks to be left alone, symbolizing rejection and the complex interplay of needing help yet pushing it away. She reappears throughout the game, inaccessible and asking for help, illustrating the trapped feelings of depression.
  • Chapter 5 – Light: A path barely lit on the edges, where players must carefully navigate without falling, encapsulates the anxiety and fear of moving forward into the unknown, a metaphor for life's uncertain journeys.
  • Chapter 6 – Poem: This chapter features a path illuminated with a poem, where the narrator's whispers add a chilling layer to the empty yet oppressive environment, representing the internal torment of depression despite outward simplicity.
  • Chapter 10 – Breathe: Set in an aquarium, this chapter starkly juxtaposes encouraging reminders to breathe against a backdrop where a fish appears dead, critiquing common oversimplifications of mental health struggles.
  • Chapter 11 – Dream: Initially peaceful, this chapter abruptly shifts into chaos, symbolizing the fragile peace that can be disrupted without warning, a common fear for those with anxiety
  • Chapter 13 – Meaning: This chapter presents a stark existential query: "What is your purpose in life?" with choices like creation, fame, money, happiness, and knowledge. No matter the selection, a nihilistic message appears, reflecting the cynicism one may experience when facing mental health issues.

 

One of the game's most striking features is its multiple endings, influenced by the choices players make, echoing the game's broader theme of consequence and choice in the face of despair. The “Bad Ending”, for instance, presents a grim yet powerful message on the permanence of some decisions, offering a sobering reflection on the finality of certain actions in real life. Beyond its gameplay, "When The Darkness Comes" stands out for its accessibility and its artistic flair. However, it could benefit from providing more extensive mental health resources, considering its deep engagement with sensitive topics. This addition would support the game’s educational potential and its goal of aiding those who might see their struggles reflected in its chapters. Finally, “When The Darkness Comes” is a significant achievement in indie gaming, masterfully blending psychological horror with real-world issues. It challenges players not just to engage with a game, but to think deeply about life, choice, and mental health. This game is a must-play for those interested in seeing how video games can transcend entertainment to offer meaningful, life-affirming messages.

 


Child of Light Review by Arkana Fuentes - Pilafidis

Date: February 12th, 2024

Child of Light, a platform role-playing video game released by Ubisoft Montreal in 2014, introduces players to the captivating tale of Aurora, a young princess grappling with the loss of her sister and mother years prior. As her father falls ill, and the kingdom faces impending disaster, Aurora awakens in the mystical world of Lemuria, accompanied only by Igniculus. Together, they embark on a quest to restore balance, encountering puzzles, enemies, and allies that shape Aurora's journey.

In this emotionally resonant narrative, Child of Light explores the universal theme of coping with loss. Aurora, despite her youth, exhibits remarkable resilience, maintaining a positive outlook, self-belief, and fostering social support. The game not only reflects the challenges of dealing with trauma but also emphasizes the importance of seeking help and collaboration.

The script contributes to the game's unique charm, featuring poetic dialogues that convey metaphors and life lessons. Characters engage in conversations that add depth to the narrative, enhancing the overall storytelling experience.

A significant highlight is the music, with Aurora wielding a flute that plays a comforting melody, infusing optimism not only into the character but also resonating with the player. The game's overall musical composition further immerses players into the enchanting world of Lemuria.

Child of Light masterfully weaves together its story, script, music, and challenges, delivering a lesson on resilience without oversimplifying its complexities. The game acknowledges Aurora's genuine emotions in the face of loss while guiding her—and the player—along a healthy path of progression.

Rating: 4/5

Available on: Nintendo Switch / PC / Wii U / Xbox One / PlayStation 4 / PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 /


Night in the Woods Game Review by Connie Guo
Date: February 12th, 2024

 

Night in the Woods is a 2D, narrative-based, beginner friendly, “point-and-click” genre game where the players can follow the characters’ personal journeys. The majority of the plot unfolds in the format of conversations. The story telling style is novel, and sometimes poetry-like. The artwork and music are beautiful and elegant. This game is an instant classic in terms of realistic mental health portrayal because it depicts socio-economically and politically serious subject matters that are sadness-evoking, and strikingly parallel to today’s societal context.

 

The main character Mae Borowski, a black cartoon cat, is a directionless 20-year-old college dropout who returns to her hometown, Possum Springs, as the game starts. Possum Springs is a small American rural city that has endured some tragic history and thus, people in the town are struggling with economic hardships. Upon arrival at hometown, with no hope of landing on a job, Mae embarks on continuous adventures with her childhood friends, Bea, Angus, and Gregg. They explore every corner of the city, stargaze at rooftop, walk along riverside, play bass together, chat about ghosts, and spend venturesome nights in the wood. As they reminiscences the good old past and discusses the uncertain future, their own mental illnesses unravel. The mental health conditions that the four of them have been suffering with include nightmare, anxiety, reality denial, dissociation and depersonalization, depression, and more. They are victims of the bigger environment where there is a general lack of opportunities, resources, and awareness. Their mental health issues mostly go undiagnosed or underdiagnosed.

The themes in Night in the Woods are still super relevant for today’s generation. The mental health and financial instability portrayed in the game parallels the mental health crisis and failing job market nowadays. Through the characters’ experiences, the game aims to convey that although there is no easy solution and no immediate cure, no one is alone.

Rating 4/5

Available on: PC, Mac, Linux, Playstation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch


Gaming Against Stigma Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum by Anaïs Mortazavi Zadeh
Date: February 12th, 2024

Batman: Arkham Asylum is an action-adventure game that presents players with a third-person perspective on Batman’s journey through the Arkham Asylum facility. Originally developed by Rocksteady Studios and published by Eidos Interactive and Warner Bros. Interactive in 2009, the game uses impressive graphics and animation to present the famous comic book characters in a more dimensional and interactive way. However, despite these feats, the overall game design does a poor job in how it represents mental health institutions and patients of these facilities. This review will provide a brief analysis of these design choices and assess the negative impacts of them in order to avoid repeating them in newer games.

As mentioned previously, the story follows Batman as he traverses the different rooms and sections of Arkham Asylum. The Oxford Dictionary defines asylums as “institutions offering shelter and support to people who are mentally ill.” Though these days asylums are more commonly referred to as mental health institutions, these facilities all have one goal: to protect and welcome people who struggle with mental illnesses. However, in this game, Arkham Asylum is described as a “secure facility for the criminally insane.” This description falsely depicts asylums as places that house dangerous and criminal individuals. Furthermore, the actual design of the asylum misleads players into thinking these institutions are unsafe and scary. Upon entering, Batman is greeted with dark and dirty conditions. Most rooms have been abandoned, leaving nothing but blood stains on the walls and syringes all over the floors. Every security guard in the facility is armed with large weapons, making the space seem more like a prison or a battlefield. On top of that, the goal of the game is for Batman to fight all the patients of the asylum in order to escape it. This creates the false idea that these institutions are traps and that the goal is to flee them. These are just a few examples of how this game lacks accurate representation of mental health institutions.

Ultimately, this misrepresentation has detrimental effects on how players learn about people with mental illnesses. If players are consistently presented with false imagery that asylums host violent individuals, they may incorrectly conclude that people with mental illnesses are threatening and aggressive. This idea that they should be contained and separated from society is harmful and completely inaccurate, yet many video games continue to use this portrayal. Batman: Arkham Asylum is just one of many examples that we need to learn from to ensure that mental health and mental health institutions are more accurately depicted in future video games.

For graphics and animation, this game gets a rating of 4.5/5. However, when it comes to mental health representation, I would rate this game a 1/5.


Limbo – REVIEW BY DI AH LIM

January 8th, 2024

Limbo is a 2D side-scroller puzzle-platform video game published by Xbox Game Studios. It covers several topics related to mental health: phobia, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and trauma. The main character is a nameless boy who wakes up in a forest on the "edge of hell" and is searching for his sister. He is confronted by various creatures and traps as he explores the dangerous world. He successfully defeats a giant spider and a colony of boys who tried to kill him and gets rid of webs and cocoons. The forest gives way to a crumbling city, followed by industrial and flooded environments. Finally, the boy is thrown to the same place where the journey begins and meets his sister.

Limbo is presented in dark, greyscale graphics with lighting, film grain effects and minimal ambient sounds, creating a horror atmosphere. The player controls the boy to solve puzzles and traps throughout the game. The character has unlimited lives, which enables the player to find a solution after numerous attempts. In Limbo, the spider, rising water, and dark environment represent arachnophobia, fear of drowning and darkness respectively. The boy has trauma from the experience in the city and factory, as well as being bullied by other boys. No one helps the anxious, depressed, and lonely boy overcome fears and dangers. Despite the dark nature of the story, the ending of the reunion brings a glimmer of hope.

In conclusion, as a typical 2D puzzle-platform game, Limbo has a "trial and death" play style. It shows a portrayal of real life. The difficulties and mental health issues we may face such as bullying, depression, and loneliness can be seen in the journey of the boy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Available on: PC, Mac, Linux, Android, Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch.


Firewatch- REVIEW BY FILIP VASILESKI

January 8th, 2024

Firewatch, released in February of 2016, is an indie game developed by the studio Campo Santo. It is a short adventure game set in a national park, where your character is instructed to watch over the forest for any potential fires, hence the name “firewatch”. The portrayal of mental health in the game respects the dignity of people suffering from it in real life. Rather than stigmatizing mental illness, Firewatch incorporates themes such as dementia, addiction, isolation, paranoia, and etc. to create a humane environment for the player to experience. Addressing mental health in video games is a portal of opportunity for a huge community to familiarize themselves with serious struggles that anyone is susceptible to.

The game takes place during summertime in the national forest of Shoshone that’s located in the state of Wyoming. Henry, the protagonist we play as, enrolls as fire lookout, looking to get away from his late marriage problems. During his time there, the only person he interacts with is Delilah, his supervisor, using a walkie-talkie. The game mechanics emphasize exploring the environment as well as dialog options to communicate with Delilah. As their relationship grows into intimate and almost “natural” conversations, an unknown presence is lurking in the shadows – invasively eavesdropping on the pair’s daily conversations, keeping meticulous details of the individuals’ personal lives.

The player is exposed to the sad reality of mental illness right from the beginning of Firewatch. The game begins through a series a text to read that contextualize Henry’s situation. It tells the love story between him and Julia, his wife, who, in her forties, has developed an early onset of dementia. As the dementia progresses and her memory deteriorates, the relationship becomes chronically harder for Henry to cope with. As a result, he takes up drinking in an attempt to escape from the hardships of his marriage. The situation escalates to the point where Julia goes back to her parents because Henry’s addiction debilitates him from his responsibilities.

Another theme, one that’s prevalent all throughout the game is isolation. The 79 days Henry spends in Shoshone are in near complete isolation. For the most part, he doesn’t physically see anyone else, nor does he have any interaction besides long-distance communication with Delilah. He is stoic in managing his emotions for the majority of the plot, but fear and paranoia rapidly take over his rationality when the feeling of being observed creeps into his consciousness. We witness Henry going through episodes of panic attacks and acute stress as a consequence of how helpless he feels from his privacy being completely invaded. Loneliness may not in itself be the cause of Henry’s struggles, but it facilitates all the negative emotions he experiences.

Late in the story, Firewatch introduces us to Ned when we discover that he’s been the one stalking Henry and Delilah’s interactions. Ned is a broken individual who’s remained in the forest ever since his son, Brian, died there during a climbing accident. The reason he has been following Henry and Delilah so closely was to scare them away from discovering Brian’s body, which is still left untouched from the location of the accident. It is tragic and heartbreaking to see the guilt and grievance of a father who’s lost his son, and a testament to how respectful and realistic the game is at showcasing the sad aftermath of the event. Firewatch also considers how years of isolation may influence a man’s psyche. The same symptoms which emerge in Henry are long internalized in Ned. It is his fear and his paranoia which drives him to keep such a close eye on Henry and Delilah. He never shows himself and is constantly running away from the opportunity of interacting with humans again. By assessing his actions, we could speculate that Ned shows symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, chronic stress, and PTSD, as those run in-parallel with the way he behaves.

Beyond the plotline, the visual and audio elements of Firewatch are also relevant to the discussion of mental health. When Henry is out and about, carelessly exploring the forest and talking with Delilah, the beautiful art style and warming music of the game creates an anxiety-relieving, almost meditative experience for the player. Photography is one way the game encourages us to appreciate the forest of Shoshone, as you can photograph some incredible scenery while discovering the map. The Campo Santo studio make the most out of the open-world model of Firewatch by creating a scenic and diverse map which harvests a relaxing experience for the player.

Firewatch deserves applauds and praise for successfully combining a compelling and human story with a timeless art style and musical production. It elevates the standard for serious video games, as its portrayal of mental health is exemplary and pioneering in the gaming industry. The short length of under 5 hours makes it a small investment and an easy game to pick up and play. Firewatch is recommended for anyone who may be interested in a different experience of gaming, one where realism substitutes fiction, walkie-talkies substitute guns, and the tragic reality of mental health struggles substitutes insane asylums.


Mother 3 – REVIEW BY MICHAEL SERRAVALLE

July 21st 2021

Mother 3 is a top-down style Role-Playing Game published by Nintendo. The game covers a variety of complex issues such as grief, guilt and the conflict between man and nature. The story follows a young boy named Lucas. The happy-go-lucky community that Lucas lives in is changed dramatically due to the influence of an outside business. This sudden change in Lucas’ world culminates in a dramatic and tragic event in his life. This change in circumstances leaves Lucas dealing with his own feelings of grief and self-doubt in an environment he no longer recognizes. Together with his friends, Lucas embarks on a journey to confront this outside influence as well as come to terms with his new reality.

Despite the dark nature of the narrative, the story of Mother 3 is presented in a quirky and colorful manner. The game’s graphics are rendered in a pixel art style and the characters have cartoon-like designs. There are many surreal aspects to the in-game universe such as a talking frog that serves as a means to save the player’s progress in the game. The gameplay is a typical role-playing game. The player traverse around a top-down 2D environment, solving puzzles and following the narrative to progress through the game. When the player interacts with a hostile creature, the game transitions into a turn-based combat system. The playable characters in the game have a variety of their own abilities to help them fend off their foes.

All in all, Mother 3 presents an original interpretation of the Role-Playing genre with a vibrant cast of colorful characters and an emotionally driven story that seamlessly weaves in and out of being incredibly heartfelt to outright hilarious. Mother 3 proves to be a powerful exploration of grief, guilt and the destructive powers of modernization.

Rating: 5/5

Mother 3 was originally released on the Gameboy Advance in 2006.

 


 

To the Moon – REVIEW BY MICHAEL SERRAVALLE

July 15th 2021

To the Moon is a 2D top-down Role-Playing Game that covers a variety of topics. These topics include living with an autism spectrum disorder, memory loss, trauma and coming to terms with one’s own mortality. The game is set in the not-too-distant future where a new technology that allows one person to enter the mind of another person has been developed. In this setting, a company that specializes in the use of this technology uses it to alter or retrieve the memories of their customers in the interest of fulfilling the customer’s death wish. The customer in question is an elderly man named Johnny who is on his deathbed. The player plays as two technicians that have been dispatched to fulfill Johnny’s last request. The player will explore Johnny’s past starting from old age and working back to childhood in order to come to understand many aspects of Johnny’s mind and life.

To the Moon is a game accessible to new and veteran players alike. The game is presented as a top-down Role-Playing Game where the player controls characters in a 2D environment. The player is tasked with exploring the Johnny’s psyche. To the Moon stands out among Role Playing Games in that there are no encounters with monsters or any similar combat system. The game only relies on solving puzzles and the narrative to progress through the game. This interesting quality is what makes the game suitable for any player. The difficulty of the game is quite low and players can enjoy the game at their own place.

Through its unique approach to the Role-Playing Genre, To the Moon offers a fascinating narrative that takes the player through an adventure into the mind of man at death’s door. Challenging such difficult topics such as facing one’s mortality and dealing with regret, the player is met with a touching story that they are not likely to soon forget.

Rating 4/5

Available on: PC, Mac, Linux, Android and Nintendo Switch

 

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