Monday, 13 April 2015

Cats in the Sun: Representations of Suicide in Two Games

This piece discusses suicide in a way that, while hopefully pragmatic may be difficult or triggering for some readers. It contains spoilers for two games, The Cat Lady and Actual Sunlight, which both examine the theme of suicide in deeply emotive manners.

In video games suicide is painless. Respawns, resets, failed lives are all grist to the iterative mill that pulls the player forward; they mean nothing except as learning experiences or temporary annoyances, instantly soothed over by the continuation of the game. By restarting. In this milieu, suicide can be part of that cycle of death and rebirth - a conscious seeking of the failstate to reset a misaligned system, to test a theory or practise a maneuver, or even to just partake of the vicarious joy of self-annihilation and le petit mort of that momentary reversible end.

BRIAN:     What are you playing?
TIM:          Tomb Raider III.
BRIAN:     She’s Drowning.
TIM:          Yeah.
BRIAN:     Is that the point of the game?
TIM:          Depends on what mood you’re in, really.

Or, as this scene from UK sitcom Spaced attests to, sometimes dying can be the point of the game.

The Cat Lady starts with the death of its protagonist Susan Ashworth by suicide. Pretty soon she comes back to life and discovers that she is no-longer able to die, although her immortality is shown to the player, but not to Susan herself, to be at the expense of others’ deaths. Susan is thwarted, but she is also punished. It is suggested by the entity that Susan meets and deals with that the fate of those who die by suicide is worse than that of those who die by other means. And this was where my problems with The Cat Lady started.

I once, as a selfish teenager, thought that I might be able to break my girlfriend’s suicidal urges by telling her that I would never forgive her if she succeeded. Thankfully, those thoughts stayed in my head and were never articulated; for as much as I was a terrible person to go out with at least I never added to her burdens in that way. The idea that those who die by suicide are damned further and more conclusively than those other dead is a common and horrible stigma. It may have a place in horror stories, although I would argue that it does harm far beyond its narrative usefulness, but in a setting that aims to make us sympathise with the deceased then it is unforgivable, even as a background aside.

This is the first of many points at which the twin aims of The Cat Lady diverge and create a tension that is, in my mind, irreconcilable[1]. The game wants to be a serious and sensitive portrayal of living with suicidal feelings, of loneliness and of coming to terms with death. But it also wants to be a schlocky horror story, with blood and nudity and power chords and unmitigated, violent evil. And so, after a meditation on the taking of one’s own life and what it means to want to be dead Susan enters into the machinery of the void, forced to fix that which no longer works...

… and it promptly chops her arm off. And then there’s a sequence of spurting blood, bad metal and she wakes up in a hospital talking to a creepy doctor and we’re right back into the most obvious of storylines once again.

It is supremely frustrating. The game aims to humanise Susan’s suffering but it succeeds in simultaneously demonising the psychiatric profession and other mentally and physically ill people. There is the hospital in which no-one, not orderly nor nurse nor doctor, acts in a professional manner. There are the so-called Parasites; the villains of the game. These cliched horror murderers are portrayed as part of the usual portfolio of killers set loose from the asylum; including the butcher-doctor, cannibal couple and random hammer guy. And then there is The Eye of Adam, the game’s big boss, so to speak, a man who causes others to kill themselves because he really just wants to die.

Of all of the people who I have known who have been suicidal the only person to complete the taking of their own life was not depressed. This is anecdotal data, not evidence, but it is important in our cultural understanding of what suicide is and what it means to choose to no longer live that we understand suicide and depression as separate concepts. Depression is a risk factor for suicide, that is undoubtable, and it is the most common psychiatric condition present in those who die by suicide. But depression and suicidality are parallel streams; not everyone who is depressed is suicidal and suicide should not only be understood as a function of depression.

My favourite part of The Cat Lady is a sequence that introduces that old bugbear of mine, the sanity meter. Susan is at home after escaping her first confrontation with a murderous Parasite and for the first time since her suicide attempt. As she goes about washing herself and getting a coffee and a cigarette she is given a stress meter and a wellbeing meter. Each of these are filled by events as she potters about; a reminder of her past triggers stress, a nice shower triggers wellbeing. There is a sense as you do this that you might just succeed in making it through, but the deck is rigged. Eventually Susan has a quiet breakdown, sobbing on her bed. The feeling that you just might make it if you do the right things, if you solve the puzzle correctly, is one that I found myself relating to immensely, along with the final, lonely moment of collapse.

It turns out eventually that, unlike my own, Susan’s depression is tied directly to trauma. This need to explain why people are depressed is understandable but I think ultimately devalues both trauma and depression. I have been through both, and for a while they were deeply entangled, but one of the most important things for me, at least, and I feel it is the same for others I have spoken to in similar situations, is to know the limits of each. To be at peace with both one must understand what the qualities of each sadness are and to relate to them for what they are. Tying depression to mourning works only to delegitimise the sadness of those who untouched by tragedy, or who have dealt with it already. Calling mourning depression risks medicalising human experience. They are linked, but they should not be bound.

When we get suicide represented without depression it tends to be noble, heroic or tragic. The orientalism of honourable seppuku or the brave sacrifice that saves others. In contrast, the suicide of the depressed is coded very often as one imbued with selfishness. The short game Actual Sunlight makes this explicit: every time the player-character contemplates killing themselves they are turned away by the thought of a duty to someone else. When they finally do complete their suicide, at the end of the game, it is in part because they no longer feel beholden to anyone else, they are finally able to make this one selfish act.

Actual Sunlight is in my view a deeply irresponsible game[2]. In this world killing oneself is no-longer a fail-state, it is the completion of the game. It imparts the value of success on the ending of one’s life. It is difficult for me to criticise in this manner because it is so clearly a very personal story, and to its credit it does contain disclaimers and content warnings from the start. I feel that if it had been presented in any other medium I would have loved it for its raw honesty, but as a game I cannot do so.[3]

The advice given by mental health and anti-suicide charities to the media on reporting in cases of suicide is primarily about the protection of other at-risk people. Don’t detail methods of suicide. Don’t disclose the contents of suicide notes or final social media postings. Don’t use formulations such as ‘successful suicide attempt’ even. This is because it is well researched that reporting in this manner can cause further suicides as people become fixated on the justifications of others, get ideas about how they can achieve the aim and begin to see it as a valid and successful answer to their problems. This suggestion or strengthening of destructive thought patterns is known as suicidal ideation and it kills.

The status of ideation in fiction is more complicated. Unlike the unavoidable gut-punch of a suicide note splashed on a front page with a headline screaming the method of death that sends your thoughts spiraling all day most fiction is consumed voluntarily. In addition, the very unreality of the situation can help many people, where they feel able to do so, to work through their own suicidal feelings and to come to terms with who they are in a relatively safe environment. Many of the more public forms of fiction, for example television soaps, will also provide information and support as well as content warnings when showing traumatic scenes that might cause viewers distress or unearth difficult feelings. I myself made very sure that I was in a safe place mentally before playing either of the games I am discussing here.

It is hard to say that a work of fiction or a work of art shouldn’t approach suicide head-on, and I don’t believe that either, but there are still consequences to the way that they might do so. Actual Sunlight’s position as a game blurs, or rather hyphenates the distinction between reader and protagonist. The character of Evan is a player-character, his actions are driven by the player and his death implicates them. The game encourages you to interact with objects and other people, but each interaction only brings forth bitter justification, eloquent and clever and above all funny, for the ending of Evan’s life. The player has no opportunity to argue and is instead further wrapped up in Evan’s warped worldview, which sees women only as objects, men only as rivals and those younger than him only as incomplete failures yet to make the decisions that will consign their life to the inevitable. This is an ideation machine.

There is a chan culture meme, and if you do not know about chan culture then you are a lucky person indeed and I don’t suggest that you find out, that is crystallised into the words ‘do it f****t’. It is drive-by ideation, the one-upmanship of trolls who would just love to be killers, and it manifests usually in a description of a life that is not worth living, that would be better off ended. The life described is all of the worst elements of the self-image of the stereotypical chan-dweller, and the clear intention is that, just maybe, the post will catch someone at their lowest ebb and push them over. It is targeted ideation. Actual Sunlight bears an awful lot of similarity to this rhetoric.

This is where it becomes difficult to split the artistic intention of the author from the reality of the situation of the work. I don’t believe that Actual Sunlight wants to be an incitement to suicide, I believe that it is the heartfelt expression of the creators’ own feelings, but that is how it acts. In order to play Actual Sunlight one needs to have a knowledge of the language of top-down RPGs, how they function and tell stories and how movement and interaction through them work. To have this knowledge a player needs to have spent a non-trivial amount of time playing computer games. That non-trivial amount of time spent playing computer games is one of the things that Actual Sunlight puts forward as being a waste of a life, of making a person’s value as a person diminish to the point where their death is a greater good.

Actual Sunlight does this repeatedly, building a picture of a life that hews closely to that of many of the people who will be playing it as it builds a picture of the life of Evan, and then insisting that this life is fundamentally unfixable - is only worth trashing. And then it makes the player complicit in that ending. As with the chan meme it indicts itself in a way that attempts to (or at least manages to even if that is not the intent) indict those most likely to come into contact with it (and alienates those who don’t fit the mold of its protagonist), a self-destructive variation on last man standing.

Susan Ashworth is not the only person in the Cat Lady to attempt or complete a suicide. One of the major plotlines in the game is her lodger and later friend Mitzi’s search for a murderer who calls himself the Eye of Adam. The Eye is a frequenter of suicide support chat rooms and message boards who this time actively seeks people to encourage and aid in their suicide attempts. He too wants to die, although disappointingly this is revealed to be because he is severely physically disabled, once again undercutting one of The Cat Lady’s greatest moments of understanding. As Susan and Mitzi evaluate their changed relationship to their own value as people in the one moment of true player choice in the game, and as Susan’s inability to die is challenged and transformed into an unwillingness to die, the game unveils the old ableist trope of the ‘evil cripple’ whose life is not worth living.

This final judgement of the value of lives is shared with Actual Sunlight, although in the Cat Lady you can spare The Eye and condemn him to the ‘horror’ of being alive as he is. Susan finds the strength to go on, but it is at the expense of the deaths of others. Ultimately, both games are unable to escape the transactional underpinnings of suicidal thinking, or maybe they illuminate them starkly. All I know is that it is important most of all to find the value of your own life in and of itself.

For support with suicidal feelings please look here for a list of hotlines by country. For further information on reporting or writing about suicide please look here. I am not an expert on suicide, although I have done what research I can it is a very complex and personal subject and my views should not be held over the head of either your own or someone you know’s struggle with suicidal feelings. The most important thing to do is to talk and to understand.

[1] For an alternative view that sees power in this dissonance see Sin Vega’s article here

[2] Jed Pressgrove's essential Marxist reading of actual sunlight sees it in an entirely different light

[3] Laura Dale examines the specific nature of culpability and suicide as they relate to games, looking at her experiences with Life is Strange in this excellent piece

This post has been funded by Patreon. It has been slightly updated at 22/04/15 to include some new links.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Darkest Dungeons and Diagnosis as Disorder

I feel like the most damning thing I can say about Darkest Dungeon is that it's boring. Or at least that I found it boring. The repeated 'scene-setting' Lovecraft-lite voice-over dulls all creepiness and atmosphere into a grind of you-will-be-scared-now horror. The prevarication over death - I had a character go down to zero hitpoints something like 5 times in one fight and still not die - robs the roguelike idea of permadeath of any meaning. Eventually, after a disastrous expedition that was entirely my own fault - my first real failure of the game - I felt no urge to retry. I had not been punished just as I had not been tested; I had just been stupid and miscalculated and I was left with the same dungeon to grind through once again and I discovered I had no more interest in proving my worth.

That this is the most damning thing that I feel that I can say is ultimately the thing that upsets me most about Darkest Dungeon. It has, as its signature system, a horribly reductive and rather stigmatising sanity system (bolted onto a somewhat elegant morale system). But everything I've seen written about it so far has praised the quirk mechanic, even while sometimes maintaining that it has its problems, as a progressive step in the way that video games handle mental illness[1,2]. And it makes me feel small and angry and bitter: like my reservations are carping or as if I'm demanding everything now when I should be praising the progress that has been made. And so I resort to sniping about those aspects that I can securely criticise. To being damning about aesthetics and replayability. To talking about it in the most terribly game-centric way.

Culture is monolithic. It takes time and energy to shift even slightly and ordinarily I praise any progressive movement. The small, localised shifts that make the world just that little bit better, that make the next shift just that little bit easier are what I've realised work the best and are what I've dedicated my own small life towards. So why can't I celebrate Darkest Dungeon's small steps towards complexity and representation for people with mental illnesses? Because, fundamentally, I don't think that Darkest Dungeon does anything new. It is mired in decades-old RPG design and all that the automation of putting it on a computer does is  make the bookkeeping easier; and when mental health becomes relegated to a bookkeeping exercise, when the advances are based on more efficient crunching of variables and modifiers, then it should be clear that this does not help us understand pain and dysfunction and joy and the life that you lead when you are mad.

Darkest Dungeon's stress meter is fundamentally a morale rather than a sanity system, although sanity systems in general grew out of morale systems in the first place and Darkest Dungeon borrows back a lot of their flavour and understanding of the mind. The differences, in practise at least, are that sanity systems tend towards describing a single PoV character and, as with a health meter, reaching the bottom renders the character unplayable (I have written somewhat more extensively about this here and here). Morale systems on the other hand tend to model a group dynamic (the spread of panic or the steadying hand of a strong leader), are more dynamically affected by success or failure (as opposed to what is experienced), and tend towards mediating between the character and the player in a way that provides for the character's agency to overwrite the player's orders.

Morale systems grew out of tabletop and board wargaming, as a way of measuring how well troops under stressful situations would follow the orders of their generals. They have grown into a staple of the modern wargaming ruleset and an important factor in how a player controls their forces. From the command zones in Warmachine to the animosity rules that could have an entire  Orc and Goblin army squabbling amongst itself in Warhammer Fantasy Battle, morale can be deeply embedded in a game or a bit of flavour or both. Although morale systems do seem to be strangely absent from many real time strategy games (the videogame equivalent of tabletop wargaming), which may account for some of the novelty factor in discussions of Darkest Dungeon, they do turn up in things like the panicked soldiers in XCOM shooting wildly at either friend or foe.

The roleplaying game, the structured dungeon/overworld adventure as we know it, derived from tabletop wargaming. Many of the odd traditions and incongruous design choices that still pop up, both on tabletop and on computer, can be traced back to that genealogy, including concepts as seemingly basic as levels and hit points. But, just as interesting as the things that were pulled through from wargaming are the things that were left behind, and morale is one of these. Early editions of Dungeons & Dragons are specific that morale, a concept which would be familiar to its players at the time, should not be applied to the characters. The shift in D&D was that you embodied a single character rather than the general of an army, and the rules are clear that it is up to the player to decide if their character is bold or cowardly, if they wish to martyr themselves for the good of a cause or to flee to fight another day.

The early versions of D&D then were missing this nod towards the psychological impacts of violence and combat. Players, given the option, tended towards bold and calculating powerhouses. Meanwhile, although the option was suggested that a Dungeon Master might use morale to govern the monsters under their command it quickly left the lexicon and the rule books. And so monsters became as stubborn as players, throwing themselves onto the swords of their enemies in waves trying to choke them with their own blood, to wear them down so that maybe someone following can prevail (a process almost like that of trying to change the entrenched culture); a quirk of behaviour that almost no video game has since challenged or subverted. The zero-sum RPG was born.

Unsurprisingly almost as soon as morale, or rather more specifically a set of rules governing how people behave (because role-players like nothing more than rules, especially if there are tables to roll on included), was stripped from the system something was put back in to replace. The most famous of these, as well as possibly the earliest, was Call of Cthulhu's sanity points system (a direct and parallel analogue of the hit point system already in use), but there are many others out there. D&D itself experimented with madness in the standalone version of the Ravenloft setting, Domains of Dread printed as part of AD&D's 2nd edition. In this various events, horrific experiences and the stress of combat against unnatural foes, could cause a player to take fear, terror and horror tests. The more tests you failed the harder subsequent tests became until, eventually, something snapped and you picked up a permanent insanity. Is this sounding familiar? Domains of Dread was printed 18 years ago.

Even then, the idea of permanent, stackable 'insanities' that added colour as well as modifiers to a character was not something new. White Wolf's gritty urban horror games already let you purchase them at character creation to give you a few more points to spend on maxing out your stats. Call of Cthulhu was often house-ruled to allow insane characters back after a spell at a sanatorium, but forever changed by their experiences. I have a copy of an independently produced game called Asylum where the premise is that everyone is mad and locked in an asylum-city; you choose what specific diagnosis you get at the beginning of the game.

I should be clear - I like the stress system in Darkest Dungeon. I actually quite like the sanity meter system in  general when it is used intelligently and non-prescriptively. What I don't like, what I think is damaging and makes life worse for those with mental illnesses, is the use of diagnostic labels as flavour text on game modifiers. Or, even worse, the suggestion that diagnosis and illness are coextensive - that knowing the first will allow you to roleplay, to understand, the second.

The Domains of Dread book is remarkably interested in not being offensive, in providing a tool for Roleplaying, but it fails so badly it just makes me sad. Part of the failure is that it is a D&D supplement, and as such it can only model the world in a way that conforms to D&D's mathematics, a maths that abstracts experience in a way that is incompatible with the realities of mental illness. But the biggest, saddest failure is that they did loads of research, they just researched the wrong things. There is a huge section on dissociative identity disorders, or multiple personalities as they used to be somewhat pejoratively known, that is based on the utterly debunked work surrounding alleged satanic cults. It also relies heavily on the DSM, making the usual mistake of viewing it as a dictionary rather than a tool. It tries so hard to not reduce us to our most basic elements, to rob us of our humanity and replace it with our madnesses, even as it does exactly that, and it feels tragic to read now.

So, Darkest Dungeon isn't doing anything particularly new. But why should this be a problem, other than a slight annoyance at the people who are mistakenly calling it progressive. Essentially, it is just the same as the rest of the gaming industry and, for better or for worse, that seems a bad reason to single it out. Maybe that's my problem - I am irrationally annoyed with the game. I am irrationally annoyed that we haven't made any progress and that this lack of progress is being hailed as progress. It isn't even the fact that the quirks in Darkest Dungeon are so often fist-bitingly offensive, that they  are wrapped up in the language of sin and redemption (a classic stick with which to beat the insane) or that they can be 'cured' with a simple week in a darkened room at  the sanatorium. Its that they are presented in this way at all. This is what we need to work against if we are ever to break the hold that these reductive ways of thinking have on our media landscape. This is what we need to do if we want to be people, rather than a collection of labels and modifiers.



Both of these are great articles, by the way, and fascinating insights into other points of view on this game.