Dealing with Depression is one of the biggest challenges that I have on a day-to-day basis. No matter how many different coping techniques that I try, sometimes there is absolutely nothing that can help alleviate the devastating effects of my mental health disorder. The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can be overwhelming and the only salvation I find is in the comforts of my bed, where I hide beneath a pile of blankets and a couple of cats. The only real drawback to this solution is that it can be so incredibly welcoming, to the point where making any attempts at getting back out of bed and participating in the basics of human activities (i.e.: eating, hydrating, taking showers, etc.) can feel truly daunting.
So, what are my last resort options for the absolute worst days that Depression offers? Well, to be honest, there are very few for me that have worked consistently each and every time. Aside from watching comforting, cheesy old television serials and films, video games have been the number one reprieve. There are a few games that I can turn to when I am at my absolute worst and I know that in one way or another, I can pull myself out of the blanket burrito sanctuary and stand back up. It’s still quite a difficult task, but at least I can find the motivation to take one small step at a time, which is the best way to conquer this illness.
Having a small number of video games that I can visit and revisit when I recognise that I am struggling through a severe depressive episode assists me the best. Mind you, it can occasionally take me upwards of a week or so to even realise what is happening with me. My brain just processes the episodic symptoms of Depression much more slowly in comparison to physical symptoms that I have as I tend to prioritise my heart health first and foremost. When I do eventually understand that Depression has arrived with a full army at its back, I go down a list of coping methods, which are ordered from the easiest and simplest to harder and more energy-consuming techniques until something works. If nothing works, then there is my Last Resort list, for which video games are the second device.
Since gaming is such an important part of my life, I wanted to take some time today and share this rather intimate connection that I have with the medium and explain why playing video games isn’t only always about mindless entertainment or a need to unwind after a terrible workday. It can be so much more than that, such as being a very serious treatment for a very serious illness that would otherwise incapacitate me completely if not for the vital form of emotional and mental support it offers.
There are three specific titles that I wanted to focus on as I have sunk hundreds of hours into them separately; hundreds of hours where I have been able to give my brain something else to focus on rather than hurtful and toxic feelings and thoughts. Plus, they are also excellent games in general that have held up quite phenomenally over the years and I know that I shall probably invest hundreds of more hours into them in the future.
This action RPG, hack-and-slash game is the one that I play more than any other game that I own. I remember purchasing the CD copies when it first released and then installing it on every computer we had in the house at the time just so I’d always have access to it. I must have put at least three hundred hours into it before I made the shift to digital copies via my Steam library.
It was developed by Iron Lore Entertainment and THQ Nordic and published by the latter. Since its release there are have been three full expansions for it over the last fourteen years, the most recent being Atlantis, which came out a couple years ago. An element that makes Titan Quest so damn playable is the sheer scope of it. Steeped in ancient mythology, the game takes the player from Ancient Greece to Ancient Egypt, East Asia, Babylon, and more. Each section or act is easily ten to fifteen hours a piece, making one playthrough on a single difficulty approximately fifty to seventy-five hours long.
The large-scale maps allow for deep exploration, which becomes a sort of time sink with its incredibly stunning settings and scenery. I play this on a gaming PC with graphics setting maxed out and, even though this is almost fifteen years old, it’s still one of the prettiest games that I own. Additionally, there are about nine masteries (skill trees and specialisations) that the characters can use to help build a diverse, ultimate warrior, and each one takes approximately 70 levels to max out. There are three difficulty levels—Normal, Epic, and Legendary—and you carry over your skills and levels from one difficulty to the next.
Because of the size and innumerable versatility of the character builds, combined with the massive world, Titan Quest is an almost perfect game for me to use when I desperately need a distraction or a way to help my mind steer clear of the negativity that comes with Depression. Just sitting down and escaping for a few hours at a time, exploring the corners of beautiful, historical settings while completing quests, and tinkering around with class builds is an excellent way for me to ignore the incessant ruminative thoughts that tend to trigger episodes or that make it unbearable and seemingly impossible to get back out of them. Additionally, being transported to my favourite portions of history helps motivate me to keep writing fantasy stories.
This roguevania/roguelike, 2D platformer was something I never thought I would enjoy, let alone love enough to make it a saviour for my mental health. Some of my friends played this game to death when it released, and it always looked so frustratingly difficult to me. You pick a character and start to map out the castle grounds (where the game takes place) and if you die, you have to start all over again. Then in 2016, after having purchased it for an incredible price thanks to one of Steam’s outrageous deals, I sat down and played through it for the first time (Madame Gabs may have given me an annoying nudge to do so). Even though I died fairly quickly and easily, I had so much fun. I actually became determined to unlock all the skills and beat the game if it was the absolute last thing that I did. Eventually, not only did I beat it, but I became so damn good at it that I platinumed out the trophies and played through the third or fourth round of New Game+ difficulties (New Game+++).
Rogue Legacy is what is considered to be a rogue-LITE title that was developed and published by Cellar Door Games. Rogue-Lite means that when a character dies, they still have their skills and can grow those skills with either money, experience points, or other currencies. In traditional roguelikes, when a character dies then the player has to start everything fresh from the beginning. A good example of this is Spelunky.
This game is the quintessential game where when you play it, you essentially fall into a Black Hole and time becomes completely distorted; totally lost to the void. Between the comical yet curious character pickings that each have a set of strengths and weaknesses depending on their class (for example, short people jump higher due to their light weight and if someone is colour blind, the game goes black and white while you play as them, just to name a few), the constantly shifting layout of the castle when you die, the succinct yet nicely balanced skill tree, badass boss battle music, and the subtle yet amazingly fascinating storyline—getting lost in Rogue Legacy is a piece of cake.
Unlike Titan Quest, where the gameplay is rather straightforward and doesn’t require too much brain power, Rogue Legacy requires the player to focus on the surroundings and pay attention to the patterns of attack the monsters use. There is a special need for sharp reflexes, especially when climbing the more challenging levels, and it consumes my mind so wholly with its presence that I don’t usually have room to think about anything else. It is a true and authentic escapist experience that is supremely welcome (and needed) on the worst of the worst mental health days.
There is a sequel for this releasing in mid-August and I cannot describe how exceedingly excited I am for it!
Tetris Attack (1996)
I’m going all kinds of old school for my last gaming pick as it’s also the virtual companion I’ve had in my Depression fighting repertoire the longest. This classic puzzle game was released on the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System) and is one of the only games I was able to buy on release day. My mum and I played this together, and it started off by being her stress reliefer post-tough workdays. That is how it eventually became my friend and gargantuan source of comfort during a period where my Depression had started manifesting, but there wasn’t really a well-known diagnosis for it, at least not one many people talked about.
It was developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo, and I have been utterly undefeated in it since 1997. My friends and I used to play this for money when we were teenagers and I always came out wealthy on those weekends. Of course, I also promptly spent my winnings on chocolate, Coca Cola, and a cheese pizza, or I bought something for my car (I miss being a youth). Either way, the game uses some beloved lesser-known characters from the Mario universe (Yoshi is the protagonist) who use puzzle battles to keep Bowser from cursing the magical kingdom.
There are a few different modes in Tetris Attack, such as Versus, Endless, Puzzle, to name a couple of them, but I always played the story-centred Versus mode. There is a special combination of button presses that can be pushed after successfully finishing Hard difficulty (without dying) and watching the credits completely, which would then unlock Hardest mode (the Hard button would turn from pink to red on the Select screen if executed successfully) and that is my favourite mode to play.
This is another game that is easy to play for extended periods of time, more so if you do it in conjunction with another activity. For example, I would start up the game and then mute it. Then I would listen to music or watch DVDs on my laptop while I played. I loved doing this because it trained my brain to focus on different activities simultaneously, which honed my attention to detail quite marvellously (a very important skill to have when racing cars). It also made it easier for me to eavesdrop on my parents whenever they’d whisper in the kitchen about me (I was a curious kid, what can I say).
Using this as a tool for multitasking helped with my depression in the same ways that Titan Quest and Rogue Legacy did; it occupied my brain energy and space so much that it didn’t leave room for me to concentrate—intentionally or unintentionally—on potential triggers. In the present time, the multitasking element has gotten ridiculous as I play, watch something in the background (usually with subtitles in a language I don’t speak yet), and outline chapters or blog posts mentally—all of it done simultaneously. If my brain is still feeling antsy, then I turn on some music too. Between my ADHD and me no longer hiding or rejecting the full scope of my intelligence and brain processing capabilities, I get a fresh new kick out of this nostalgic classic that I’m immensely grateful for. I just hope that my SNES won’t die on me anytime soon. It is quite old and well-worn.
Video games are awesome things. They are full of many superb elements that go beyond just “killing time” or simple entertainment. Yes, they can be very entertaining and engaging, but they also can be insightful, wise, comforting, able to teach new skills and capabilities, and also create a space for discourse. Rather than treat people who play video games, especially those of us who play a lot of it, as a person with mental illness, it should be perceived as a tool for treating mental illness as it does far more good in the world than bad.
Are you a gamer? What are some of your favourite comfort games or genres of games to play? Come chat with me in the comments; I’d love to know about your sources of support during your toughest mental health days.