"Suicide, it's a peculiar thing," says Yama, a skeleton dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball jacket. He sits atop a barstool with his hands stuffed into his pockets, a cigarette languidly, unintelligibly dangling from the void where his absent jaw should be. "With a little tinkering of rope, or the ingestion of some pills, a person's own life is gone."
In situ under a spotlight in an otherwise dark space, cellist Takenobu's buoyant acoustics offer a stark contrast to the skeleton's bleak demeanour. Yet the brusque figure continues: "Just like that. A person's identity, memories, personality, gone forever. Messed up, isn't it? Well to some it is and to others it isn't. I, personally, don't mind it."
In his sophomore year at college, Chicago-based developer Sunil Rao created Inner Vision – a simple, experimental ten-minute-long Flash game about depression and suicide. While tackling deep and complex social issues, the premise of the game is quite straightforward: as the omnipresent protagonist, you must chat to three characters suffering from depression as a result of personal circumstance, with the aim of addressing problems in their lives, how they might choose to overcome them, and ultimately how they can hope to move on.
Yama represents a caricature of depression and the coexisting cynicism that accompanies it – something that, in reality, is either absorbed or deflected, depending on the sensibilities and/or responsiveness of the individual. He's a bit of a dick, basically, but this is intentional. He's also resigned these folk to failure and that's where you step in.
Each character begins by talking about their situations generally, before launching into the specifics. Breaks in the conversations are punctuated by your input, presented by three corresponding game show-like choices. Depending on which one you pick prompts a different response and there are what the game considers to be "wrong" answers. The onus, then, is to show that talking to someone, reaching out to someone – a friend, a family member, a stranger – if ever faced with a compromising contingency, helps.
"I wanted to look at suicide from all different angles and encapsulate it and compress it into these three characters," explains Rao. "The first character is completely based on a person I know which helped me write the dialogue; I felt like writing what I've seen in the world and reflect that into the game. The second character is the son of a big CEO and as shame tends to be a big part of Asian culture, I wanted to reflect that in this person.
"With the third character, I wanted to present someone who has nothing, who has a lot of problems. I think it's really important to show that even those who have problems, if you keep trying and keep listening to them you can help them. I felt this character was the most emotionally difficult up to this point and that's why he appears last."
For the most part, says Rao, the response from players since the game's release in 2013 has been very positive. The wave of similar games coming to the fore around that time – games like Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest – helped Inner Vision move players in ways they might not have thought possible via video games beforehand.
That said, there's also been a distinct backlash from certain facets of disgruntled players who've suggested Rao is oversimplifying a sensitive subject matter that can't ever be streamlined or abridged, even if done with the best of intentions in mind.
"I posted it on the gamedev subReddit just to get some technical feedback," says Rao. "Technical feedback is fine – I can always optimise the game or make it smoother or make it feel nicer. But there was some other feedback that was troublesome. Some people suggested I was simplifying these really complex issues by making it into a game. They felt it was insulting the people who might have these issues.
"It is a complicated thing, it's not an easy problem to fix. Any time you try to express these complex ideas into a medium like movies or games, I think those behind them will always get the feedback that you're trying to simplify the issue. I agree and disagree with that which makes it hard."
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While I completely understand why some detractors might arrive at these conclusions, I'd have to argue games like Inner Vision are essential. Yes, the issues being tackled here are inherently complex, idiosyncratic and, at times, volatile, but these games absolutely must exist – if for nothing else but to elicit the resultant discourse. Issues of mental health, particularly depression and suicide, are often ignored in wider society and if video games can act as a vehicle to stimulate these conversations this can only be a good thing. Inner Vision is as unashamedly simple as it is accessible and thus offers players either relatable scenarios or valuable insight into an otherwise alien concept.
An admissible disclaimer I'd like to raise at this point: Inner Vision undoubtedly strikes a chord with me on a very personal level. In 2008 my uncle committed suicide as a result of over-extending himself financially. While developing property, he landed himself in what he deemed to be irreversible debt that in turn led him to the very irreversible act of taking his own life. My uncle was in such a dark place, so low, so isolated, that the only way to resolve his situation, he felt, was to kill himself. The sobering irony? One of the properties he was struggling to shift in the dawning months of the global financial crisis sold just weeks after his passing – an outcome that would've cleared his debt and then some.
Beyond the stigma, the stereotypes and the tropes behind issues of mental health is a simple message: talking helps.
What might've been, eh? Or, rather, what might not have been. Had my uncle felt able to open up about how he was feeling, had he been able to share his problems, his struggles, his worries; had he been able to break his silence, talk about his mental well being against the incessantly stubborn tide of stigma and stiff-upper-lipped-ness Western society, particularly British society, particularly Scottish society, levies against us on a daily basis, he might be here today. With his family. With his wife. With his step-daughter who's expecting her first baby this year.
Making the first move isn't easy. For years I wrestled with my own depression before eventually seeking professional help. I saw a therapist and I now take medication to govern my low moods. Most people know this about me now and treat me the exact same way as they did before. What's more, speaking out publicly about my feelings has encouraged some of my closest friends to approach me and tell me they too have been to counselling or that they're also on a course of antidepressants. This has surprised, inspired and touched me.
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And of course it's not just about me. Far above and beyond myself and my circle of friends and family, is you. And you, and you, and your pals and your families. Beyond the stigma, the stereotypes and the tropes behind issues of mental health is a simple message: talking helps.
While video games are not and can never be a substitute for seeking professional help, they can help you take that first step. Although basic in nature, Inner Vision is a game that champions this message in the purest and equally simplest of terms: it is the game that made me tell you it's okay to talk about depression.
"I think it's really important for video games to challenge or discuss such complex issues," says Rao. "Video games are unique in their own way with regards to player agency. You have control over certain aspects of games. A lot of games are simulations of real life and they allow us to learn things about the world which we haven't learned before. Games are a very interesting medium, one that's constantly growing.
"All games, in some way, reflect life. Life isn't easy, so games shouldn't be easy either. This is really important to me because it's such an interesting and interactive medium."
If you like the sound of Inner Vision or are curious to give it go you can do so for free right here. It takes just ten minutes to finish. If you're looking for more information on the topics touched upon above, I've found The Alliance of Suicide Prevention Charities website helpful in the past. If you've been considering reaching out to someone about feeling low: do it. If you've felt like asking someone else how they're feeling: also do it. If you don't feel you're able to speak to someone close to you and would benefit from speaking to someone you don't know: speak to me. I'm around any time for a chat on Twitter or via email.
Some useful numbers:
UK Samaritans: 08457 909090
US National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255 FREE
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