While playing through Limbo I was reminded of another game that had a similarly minimalist aesthetic and controls, a little gem called Elude (be patent—it takes a while to load) that was created by the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab in 2010. The goal of the game was to metaphorically simulate what it feels like to have depression, and despite that rather lofty premise, I have to say that it mirrors my own struggles with the disorder surprisingly well. The website describes the game as follows:
By tapping into the experiential aspects of the video game medium, Elude’s metaphorical model for depression serves to bring awareness to the realities of depression by creating empathy with those who live with depression every day… Elude aims to raise awareness for depression and to inform about this dangerous illness. It is specifically intended to be used in a clinical context as part of a psycho-education package to enhance friends’ and relatives’ understanding of people suffering from depression about what their loved ones are going through.
GAMBIT designed Elude as a side-scrolling platformer that lets you move left, right, and upward, as well as using the space bar to “resonate” with birds on the branches of trees you climb to increase the height of your jump.
The metaphor here is fairly simple, but brilliantly executed, using not only visuals to relay the game’s message but the controls themselves to deepen the player’s understanding of their experience. The birds represent daily activities that enliven and revitalize you; and causing one to sing out increases your energy, making it easier to navigate the tree branches that stand for everyday life, much as positive daily activities might. Sometimes birds won’t resonate with you, and as you climb through the trees, your jump height, reprensenting your ability to deal with navigating through life, increases and decreases. This, say the game’s developers, stands for a normal state, the way most folks spend most of their days. If you mange to get to the canopy, however, the visuals, gameplay and music change entirely.
Each jump you take is significantly higher, the music is louder and in a major key, and the player’s movement is far more dynamic. Controlling jumps is much more difficult, but the payoff is faster movement and being catapulted into a gorgeous blue sky. Falling back to the trees isn’t violent or painful, and is instead depicted as a natural transition back to a “normative” state. The next phase of the game, which mirrors what it’s like to be actively depressed, is the polar opposite of the “bouncy sky” phase.
To telegraph “depression,” the game first slows your movement and jump height; the environment you’re in gets darker; the birds fly away, and finally thrashing, creaking vines overwhelm your character and drag them into a dark, confined area where most of your movement controls are severely restricted. You have no control over this turn of events—all you can do is muddle through it until you either find a way back to the “forest” of normalcy or succumb to the environment by falling off a cliff. The game’s final scene is a map
Although vastly different in scope, the game dys4ia uses similar methods to chronicle creator by Anna Anthropy’s experiences at the beginning of her male-to-female gender transition. She makes it clear in the game’s intro that, unlike the more globally-framed Elude, dys4ia is meant to represent her experiences and hers alone, and shouldn’t be taken as a template for what every transgender person goes through. For those of you unfamiliar with what it means to be transgender, the GLAAD article on the subject is a good place to start; Wikipedia goes into more detail. The game uses bright, blocky, pixellated graphics to provide the player with a game-as-autobiography experience using minimal controls.
In fact, dys4ia’s controls are so minimal that at times they’re almost nonexistent, but those moments often coincide with events associated with being confined or having little to no physical agency. Notable among these is the section of the game where the protagonist is getting her blood pressure taken and must simply be still while a diagnosis is given. Although it lacks the video game “feel” of Elude in the sense that this game feels less like a playable event and more like an interactive artifact, it also uses symbols to convey meaning; a cell phone or mouths to indicate communication, a brick wall with a hole in it and a puzzle piece to represent an obstacle that is difficult to get past, pink and blue to connote “traditional” gender roles. The flowers, birds and thrashing vines of Elude are read by the player in much the same way.
I mention both games because while their goals, controls, and aesthetics are quite disparate, both use visual metaphors and specifically tailored gameplay mechanics to communicate an emotional experience that may be unfamiliar to the player. Many video games use simple symbols to convey complex meanings that the player translates through a shared cultural lexicon (think about how we all knew who the “protagonist” was supposed to be in Space Invaders, for example). However, Elude and dys4ia differ from the majority in the sense that an emotional response, a feeling of resonance with the game’s content, is the primary objective. There are no scores kept, no bosses to fight, no enemies to defeat—the game’s symbols aren’t stand-ins for fantastic physical objectives that must be overcome, as in Donkey Kong, but are distilled or translated concepts that are encountered in everyday life. The symbols of these games have been crafted with great care, pulling from that shared cultural lexicon, because the creators wanted to convey a specific idea.
Perhaps one could conclude that while many video games seek to expand or embellish on common motifs—the heroic quest, the fight against impossible odds, the solving of a mystery—Elude and dys4ia provide a concentrated focus on an uncommon reality.
Perhaps after all this explanation my analysis seems fairly obvious (and disappointingly brief), but I believe it raises some interesting points about video games in general. Do you believe the conclusion I’ve reached here is valid? Can hyperrealistic games like Far Cry 3 or Mass Effect be considered “symbolic” in the way they use visuals, or as overall experiences? Why or why not? This is stuff I really don’t have the answers to, but I’m interested in your feedback, even if it’s to call me out on flaws in my analysis.