My Monster is #NotYourPlotTwist:
Examining the Exploitation of Stigma in Horror Games
This article contains discussion of many aspects of mental illness that some readers may find triggering. It also contains spoilers for The Park and Until Dawn.
Obviously, I can’t speak for every mentally ill person out there, gamer or not. The experiences and opinions expressed here are my own.
“OMG, this weather is so bipolar today, idk what to wear, ugh.”
“God my ex-girlfriend is such a crazy bitch. Hot, but psycho. Never date crazy girls!”
I am “crazy.”* I am a person. I can hear you.
I’ve found that when most people think about mentally ill people, they seem to sort us into two categories: ill but functional enough that it can either be ignored or seen as a noble struggle against adversity, or so crazy it’s uncomfortable to talk about. Or look at. Or acknowledge. The truth of the “scary” illnesses, the things beyond your standard (but equally valid) anxiety and depression, aren’t spoken about. Sometimes someone like Carrie Fisher (RIP, wonderful human), exists and speaks out honestly about living with bipolar disorder. Even then, there’s mostly silence. The reality is that these people are still people who experience the same emotions and daily joys and trials, simply to different degrees and effects.
Spoiler alert: people with mental illnesses can like horror games, too. I for one love horror, and I live with a long list of illnesses. I can even handle a jump scare or two if I am warned beforehand that they’ll occur. I enjoy being scared when I know what to expect. That may sound counterintuitive, but if I know ahead of time that a game contains x or y mechanic, I know I can trust the game not to throw me something I can’t handle. I may not like Five Nights at Freddy’s, but I know what to expect from it. I can let loose and have a little fright.
The likelihood of a game actually telling me what to expect, however, is slim to none, especially when it comes to one of my biggest triggers: the demonization of mental illness.
You’ve probably heard the word “triggered” somewhere on the internet in the past couple years. Triggers and being triggered are, shockingly, not memes-they are the sort of language used by survivors of trauma and mentally ill people to describe things that can bring about, or trigger, episodes. These episodes (panic attacks, flashbacks or reliving a traumatic event, etc.) can range in type and severity from mild to debilitating, and vary from person to person. I and many of my friends have rather severe triggers that dramatically affect our lives. So when I see someone write LOL TRIGGERED about a trivial matter, and watch everyone in chat LUL along, it’s like having someone repeatedly jab me in the side with a sharp stick. “Hey, your experience? Doesn’t matter as much as my humor xD”. People will excuse it with “Hey, it’s the internet. What can you expect?” Maybe people behaving like people and showing a modicum of empathy, but I suppose that’s too much to ask.
As for this particular trigger of mine? I can’t handle lazy, stigmatized portrayals of mental illness, and they are everywhere. Outlast? Lazy violent asylum jump scare haven, albeit the most nuanced of the bunch but not enough to redeem it in my eyes. The Evil Within? Lazy violent escape-the-asylum story. Layers of Fear? Lazy environmental storytelling with a clearly generically-“crazy” protagonist that lasts about eight years too long once you’ve figured out the “twist.” Alan Wake throws around the word “crazy” so much I thought about turning it into a drinking game and then realized I’d die of alcohol poisoning. Amnesia literally has a sanity meter and while I understand the Lovecraftian influence, it’s not like Lovecraft’s work was all about destigmatizing mental illness.
The two games I was most disappointed and rather blindsided by? The Park and Until Dawn.
I hadn’t heard much about The Park, only that in a post-P.T. world it would offer a similar vibe (it doesn’t), was wrought with environmental storytelling (it’s not), and looked promising (it isn’t). As a streamer I like to play games blind, but am cautious about horror games. When I went looking for other playthroughs or even a synopsis on the game’s Wiki page, I found very little. Based on what I saw and read, the game seemed pretty straightforward: mom loses kid in park, goes to find him, explores scary park after hours in the dark, experiences things that go bump in the night. Maybe some jump scares, maybe some chase sequences. After reading horribly long notes meant to further the plot and experiencing a couple genuine scares, I was having a pretty okay time-a little on edge, but not in the danger zone. The game had established its rules, and I understood and accepted them.
Then without warning I was dumped into a rapidly degrading asylum hellscape, suddenly surrounded by a world of taking meds and padded cells and being strapped to gurneys racing through door after door-it was too much. I was blindsided and triggered. I had to pause stream for at least twenty minutes to talk myself down from a panic attack-twenty minutes of convincing myself I could still breathe, that I was okay and valid and alive, that nobody was conspiring to throw me into a mental hospital against my will despite all my efforts to be “normal,” that my life and my experience were real and mattered and valid. When I returned, I closed the game and uninstalled it. Yet another piece of horror throwing the stereotypes of my experience around with reckless abandon, and without even having the decency to warn me.
On the other hand, Until Dawn seemed very upfront about its scares. I decided to play that one before I streamed, so it was almost like watching a really fun movie. I jumped and laughed at birds and other “gotcha” moments, tensed up at chase scenes, but was very unsettled by the therapist-style scenes (Shattered Memories, anyone?) in a way I wasn’t sure was intended. Regardless, I wanted to keep going because the game was fun even though the characters seemed like cardboard cutouts (I’ve been told that was the point?), and I was having a pretty good time…until they revealed Josh was the horrible evil mastermind all along, out to prank his friends! What a twist! Josh’s behavior is, of course, inappropriate, but he openly says he never meant to hurt or kill anyone, and there’s no moment of recognition from any other character that his actions stem from his blatantly clear illness which was either brought on or aggravated by the mean-spirited “prank” his friends played that resulted in the horrific disappearances-assumed-deaths of his twin sisters. There’s no moment, once Josh is neutralized, where anyone recognizes his pain, or takes responsibility for being a part of what brought him to this point. There is simply no humanity. There is even a choice to punch him, depending on how you’ve played. And then, of course, he’s left to wander, in some of the most disorienting moments of the game, and left to most likely die at the hands of the creatures that used to be his sisters. “Reunited.” I get that it’s supposed to be this cheesy how-many-characters-can-you-keep-alive game where everyone has to fulfill an archetype, but I returned it once I finished it. Josh, the only mentally ill character in the game, the only one really portrayed as hurting, deserved more, especially when he wasn’t even the real villain.
I’ve talked about this issue I have with horror games with a lot of gamers and streamers. The majority of them say, “So what?”
So, these games mock the existence of me and people like me.
As Dan Olson would say, every text is inherently political. When we’re playing a game and the villains are “crazy,” we want to avoid “crazy” at all costs, because if we come into contact with “crazy,” we die. “Crazy” becomes associated with the worst thing possible, with death, with fear. This chain of associations directly furthers unconscious stigma regardless of the developers’ intent. It’s easy to write a game that buys into the current accepted stigma, because its acceptance means the game will probably sell pretty well. The same can be said of film-if you’ve seen The Visit or the trailer for Split you’ll know M. Night Shyamalan has decided to make stigmatizing mental illness his personal cash cow, but that’s a rant for another day. The way “crazy” is portrayed in the media is incredibly far from the “crazy” who lives and walks among you. It is easy and lazy to write an antagonist whose only defining feature is that they’re a psychopath. “What’s their motivation? I dunno, they like killing for sport? Cool.” Sometimes they’re a little more nuanced, like with Until Dawn, but even then they leave Josh in a place without room for redemption, and without empathy from any other characters. He is a set of mashed together symptoms from various “scary” illnesses, when in reality, he deserves all the empathy the player (and sometimes viewer) can muster.
Again, why is this a problem? This is the only form of representation we mentally ill folk have in the horror genre, and I personally can’t think of a horror game that involves mental illness and doesn’t villainize it to death. Outside this genre we have the honorable Depression Quest, but games and experiences like that are few and far between. In horror, all we have is stigma, and a deep-seated fear of “crazy” because it is dangerous, evil, unknown.
I don’t know if it’s possible to make a good horror game about mental illness. I believe Josh in Until Dawn was the closest shot we had at having a real conversation about mental illness, and they chose the easy, stigmatized route. I believe horror games that include mentally ill characters who-gasp-aren’t the villains can exist, and can be good. But that would require effort. And thoughtful storytelling. Which is a rant for another day.
The stigma created by various forms of media, misinformation, and a general lack of information is slowly being broken down by opening up conversation about mental illness, but there is a great deal of awkwardness and unwillingness to do so, from both the mentally “healthy” and mentally ill. Stigma against anxiety and depression are well on their way to being torn down, but those are not the illnesses the media teaches us to fear, not the ones portrayed in horror games. These are not the “scary” illnesses. I have personally opened up recently about my experience with my mental illnesses on Twitter, and will discuss or mention it if it comes up on stream. It has been received primarily with awkward silence, “choose happiness” and other platitudes, or metaphorical pats on the shoulder. In real life and online, simply calling myself bipolar kills conversation, and that’s without getting into the other illnesses I have in my bag of tricks. There is no empathy, only silence. It leaves me with a cold, sinking feeling that I will remain alone and without a community. It limits my professional progress, and the games I can stomach.
Nobody knows how to talk about mental illness because, well, nobody talks about it. The only way to learn is for people like me to talk, and for other people-perhaps you-to listen. I for one will continue to yell about my experiences from my tiny homemade soapbox that includes the ultra vulnerable and cathartic art I am making primarily for myself. I will do what I can to shine light on people with “scary” illnesses who speak out so bravely in a world that seems so indifferent to us. I will keep looking for horror games I can actually play, because I do love being scared-when I know I’m not the poorly executed plot twist.
*Why do I put “crazy” in quotes”? Because I don’t believe it’s a word that should be used, to describe actually mentally ill people or colloquially to mean ridiculous or absurd.
s.b.r. is a queer mentally ill gamer, writer, and artist. She currently works with Persephone’s Daughters as a prose reader and a judge for their film division, Girls Don’t Cry. She is also documenting her experience with mental illness through a photo project called thepit. You can contact her via Twitter @sammmtastic.