Game Jamming Depression: Making sense of mental health through play

“What if we put those shitty motivational cat pictures on the back that say “hang in there” and “grab your dreams”” one of the students prompts me – I find it impossible to stifle a laugh and as a group we decide to oblige the request. Such is the way of a game jam – a cavalcade of bonkers ideas that might just work and a pressing deadline that often means the craziest idea that makes you all laugh is the one you end up forced to go ahead with. Game Jams have been a tool for innovation in industries for years, but their application in education stretches beyond the conventional and can help tackle wider social issues many of us struggle to talk about.

A number of students I work with have spoken to me about having issues with their mental health – whether it be family related, causing lateness, or a difficult period in their lives. The subject of mental health among young people has become a prescient one over recent years – and the issue of broaching it complicated (and something I was not entirely prepared for) . Young people must now contend with incredibly complex and immediate crises, and the accessibility of information and political mobilisation of our young people over issues like climate change has understandably nurtured a sense of hopelessness, fear, and anxiety.

As adults we are still navigating these deeply-rooted issues in our society, and with failing mental health provision in our country it has become more difficult than ever to seek help in a time of national unrest and uncertainty. With so many issues surrounding mental health among adults still unsolved, how can we empower our young people to turn anxiety and unhappiness into the power to change, and tackle these issues with an openness that our generation has only begun to realise?

Videogames have always been a great way of helping me make sense of the world and their cooperative and collaborative nature has on more than one occasion helped me through a difficult time. Similarly to this, I have always championed Game Jams as the ready-made platform for problem solving – whether you’re a game designer, entrepreneur, chef, or teacher, the game jam format celebrates creative thinking and ideation in a way that is often reckless fun and surprisingly helpful. Games and education have had a tumultuous relationship at best, and the present mainstream narrative would suggest that games do more to harm children than help them. Game Jams are a wonderful resource for challenging this stigma and showcasing some of the more productive elements of games and games design.

Prototyping solutions to tough questions can be an invaluable resource – especially if you have fun whilst doing it. If we can problem solve creative solutions to difficult game elements or work practices through a game jam – why can’t we game jam mental health?

When talking to a friend about how they feel, mental health advocates Time to Change recommend sitting side-by-side as opposed to opposite, or engaging in a fun activity together. These elements are often inherent in games and utilising them to help nurture discourse, improve emotional literacy, and provide a friend with comfort, can be hugely powerful. So with a short brief written with the aid of mental health and gaming gurus Gaming the Mind, eight boxes full of random resources, and three hours – I asked the students to “create a game that can be played in five minutes and could help a friend during a difficult time”. Here’s some of the games they came up with:

One. Word. Depression. is a game in which players take turns to create a sentence one word at a time, starting with “Today. I. Felt.”. This would lead to fantastically long-winded sentences about the anxiety of leaving inappropriate images open on the computer – but the notion of exploring feelings through words never left the heart of the game. When someone wants to explain to a friend how they’re feeling, maybe it helps just to say the word out loud, even if it is followed by profanity.

Let Them Out is a charades-style drawing game that pits players against each other to draw the best monster, with each monster corresponding to an emotion chosen from a deck of cards. One player places this card on their head and must closely examine the drawings of all other players to find the emotion hidden within the toothless grins and bulging eyes of the quickly-drawn creatures. The drawing with the best representation wins the card, appropriately backed with a cute cat picture and a motivational quote. Again, this was a great tool for improving emotional literacy – many students were at first unaware that the words written down were feelings at all. Also, the cathartic nature of drawing creepy monsters cannot go unmentioned.

These creative solutions are not only great tools for discussing your mental health with a friend – but the process of ideation and creation meant that the students were discovering a wider vocabulary and building a safe, inviting environment to question what makes them feel good, and how they would express when they don’t. Having played these games myself they are also a lot of fun, and a far cry from the stagnant image of the “educational game” we have come to think of. Far from it, they are innovative and creativity-driven solutions by a group of young people who are contending with issues I have yet to find a way to truly contend with – and all this with a brash openness that says yes to talking about how you feel, yes to help from a friend, and yes to shitty motivational cat pictures.

Videogame Takeaway Podcast Episode 4 – The Perfect Co-op Game

Here is episode 4 (apologies for the wait), where the three of us celebrate our love of co-op games; Marc’s fond experiences of Army of Two, Brandon’s desire for Takeshi’s Castle: The Game, and Lewis’ nostalgic PS2 playthroughs with his brother. To top it off we toast to our new futures, to episode 4, and to 4 player games with a soon-to-be standardised Videogame Takeaway Cava Break.

Spiderman: Far From Home – A Recurring Marvel Fever Dream That Echoes Insomniac’s PS4 Spiderman in All the Wrong Ways

The cinema has become somewhat a painful experience for me now – it serves as a final bastion of hope to save those superhero and otherwise blockbusters that I once swooned over. If the big screen, roaring audio and salty popcorn can’t save this film, then nothing can. So in keeping with this I figured my best chances of getting some real enjoyment out of Marvel Studios’ new Spiderman outing Far From Home, I put what little of my childhood still sacred on the line once more for another two hours or so of MCU fare.

Lets just say the five minutes of the film I enjoyed were made ever-more spectacular by my decision to watch the film in the cinema, and for that I suppose the visit was worth it (the popcorn wasn’t bad either). However, the other 124 minutes were like a fever dream; a shudder-inducing deja-vu; a recurring nightmare I had grown oh-so tired of. I had seen this film before – the locations may span the globe and there may be more costumes than you can shake a selfie-stick at but everything else is standard MCU drivel – mutton dressed as lamb; Green Goblin dressed as Mary Jane.

It’s clear to see that the successes of Insomniac’s recent Spidey outing were safely in the peripheral creative vision of Marvel Studios during production, and it’s such a shame that what inspiration does bleed through into the final film is either short-lived, misguided or misunderstood. The faithfully inspired, intuitive design choices and narrative beats of Insomniac’s Spiderman run through the DNA of the new film, and I only wish that the great moments were not so few, and this outing was not-so Far From Home for the webslinger.

I have jokingly referred to Far From Home as Iron Man 4 and I think that analogy, despite being in jest, is a rather accurate one. It speaks to a wider set of issues currently plaguing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is one of the reasons why I came away from the PS4 outing so stimulated, yet why I have little excitement for Crystal Dynamic’s upcoming Avengers game. The apparent homogeny of the now-10 year old universe is laid bare for all to see in Far From Home – a continued reliance of world-saving super tech and the not-so successful super tech of the main antagonist has been the recycled formula for many a superhero movie over the last decade. 16 year old Peter Parker houses a nano-tech spider suit in the bedroom at his Aunt’s house, and MJ has an oddly accurate understanding of holograms and drones for someone still in High School. Peter Parker has always been an ace student a cut above the rest, but he certainly wasn’t building his own suits using a hologram-laden secret Stark technology 3D printer onboard a Super Jet at the age of teen dramas and prom dates. Peter is a tinkerer, a meddler, making interesting gadgets from nothing and nerding out at his bedroom desk til sunrise. It is a part of his DNA, and is the strawberries to the cream of his Spiderman counterpart. It is a real shame to see this part of his personality lost in favour of something more flashy, and ultimately – easier.

When Peter’s identity is revealed to the world, an arsenal of futuristic trillion dollar technology at his disposal, and a slew of suits to fit every occasion – what happens to your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman? As the new leader of the Avengers and the supposed prodigy of Tony Stark, the convoluted web of the MCU and its reliance on superceeding science fiction technology has turned the Amazing Spiderman into the Invincible Iron Man. Parker’s internal struggles, his feelings of inadequacy and surmounting pressure to live up to expectation and follow in the footsteps of Uncle Ben’s wisdom, and the desire to protect those he loves through his anonymity are so far removed for the Spiderman that now graces the screen, his every mistake and misstep corrected by a tech empire and an army of fellow superheroes.

Far From Home is a jet-setting high school adventure film, and a slew of locations, new suits, enemies encountered and abstract Easter eggs serve as a fine distraction for a waining and unoriginal plot that spends more time setting up the future of Spiderman than it does concerning itself with who Spiderman is now. It borrows heavily from some fantastic set pieces and mechanics used in the PS4 outing (the shock web, the drones, the whirlwind that shoots Spidey into the air, the plethora of suits, and the Mysterio set-pieces that look all too familiar to some of the dream sequences in the PS4 version), but fails to be inspired by the wonderful story arcs built by Insomniac. It totes many of the fancy bells and whistles that made it enjoyable to play, but lacks the charm and resonance that formed such a memorable gaming experience.

Gone are the meaningful relationships Peter holds dear; the heartache of Aunt May’s humanitarian efforts destroyed when the reputation of its co-founder comes under scrutiny; the waxing and waining love affair of Peter and MJ, both young and adventurous but with a responsibility-led heart that always seeks to do the right thing – even when it may get in the way of their relationship. The mentor-turned villain Otto Octavius, a once revered scientific figure adored by Peter, now his mortal enemy and a reflection of his supposed failures as a friend and as a hero. These complex relationships manifest in a nuanced and organic way in Insomniac’s Spidey tale, your actions as both Peter and Spiderman pulling to and fro on the bonds that tie them. What the cinematic universe just cant seem to understand is that friendships and rivalries arent built up through Easter eggs, in-jokes, set-pieces and after credits scenes, but through dialogue, conflict, risk and sacrifice.

It is the seemingly go-to formula for MCU outings to concern themselves with set-up and foreshadowing for an unknown sequel than to focus on relationship building and meaningful exposition – and the reliance on this has been the downfall of many an attempted cinematic universe over the last few years. Warcraft, The Universal Monsters Universe, and Godzilla have all stumbled off the blocks for trying to jump the next four hurdles before clearing the first – something I feel the MCU has been saved from through the good graces of its licenses and the investment so many of us have made over the last decade.

Soon enough though the tangled and rushed web of easter eggs, comic relief, costumes and locations that has been thrown under the falling debris of monotony is bound to break, and I for one will gladly step out of the way and enjoy the the meticulously crafted thrill-ride of Insomniac’s Spiderman over the messy Iron Man sequel that sees Spiderman – and his legacy – thrown under the bus for the sake of five more years of lazy storytelling on the big screen.

Videogame Takeaway Podcast Episode 3 – The Cursed Combination of Films and Games

Join us for another episode of the Videogame Takeaway podcast, where for an hour or so we talk all things videogames. This time, on the subject of films that have become games and games that have become films, we discuss some of our favourites as well some infamous unmentionables. As well as this, we try our hand at selling our own adaptation, in the style of a classic Elevator Pitch. So whether you’re jogging, studying, chilling or cooking, come sit with us and have a yarn.

Video Game Takeaway Podcast Episode 2 – Something Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

In episode two of the (now titled) Video Game Takeaway Podcast we talk about the video games we’ve been playing over the last few weeks, all in the format of traditional wedding gifts – something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. We don’t know what games the other has played and there is certainly a mixed bag of results so whether you’re chilling, running, working or walking, come join us for an hour or so of conversation on all things video games.

As Yet Untitled Gaming Podcast Episode 1 – E3 2019

This one has been a long time coming and something myself and Lewis have been working on for a while – its our first time doing this so please think of it as more of a Pilot episode. Remember how bad the first season of The Office US was? Things will get better I promise. As the great Foreigner once said – “IT’S GONNA TAKE A LITTLE TIIIME”.

We talk about this year’s E3 convention and all the lovely and not-so lovely games that graced the stage, including meat blob simulator Carrion, Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order’s doughy faces as well as John Berthnal’s good boi. I hope those that listen enjoy, we should have another one of these up in a couple weeks time, hopefully along with a title for the podcast and plenty more games to talk about – cheers!

If you’d like to share here’s the link to do so

Is I Am Mother a Prequel to Portal?

So last night I watched the new Netflix-exclusive, claustrophobic sci-fi thriller I Am Mother – the directorial debut for Grant Sputore and the first feature-length screenwriting outing for Michael Lloyd Green. Neither of the two creative headliners had made particular waves in the industry until the release of I Am Mother, but the script appeared on the Black List in 2016 – a list of the top-voted screenplays yet to be produced – and is currently sitting at a rather fresh 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. The script has been floating around for some time now and Netflix were quick to seize it when they realised it fits neatly into that tried and tested formula most recently exercised by 10 Cloverfield Lane.

As much as the film is a tightly-wound, engaging sci-fi thriller that touches on some prescient themes around what it means to be human, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen it all before – and I don’t just mean the film’s recycled formula. The character designs, their personalities, as well as the overarching narrative all bear a striking resemblance to Valve’s Portal series. I’m ready to be stood corrected and perhaps I just have Portal on the mind and it has clouded my judgement, but I am convinced of foul-play and hopefully I can convince you too. Be warned, there will be multiple spoilers here but if you don’t mind try and stay with me as I break down the slew of similarities between these two science fiction tales.

First off here are the synopses for both I Am Mother and Portal so as to not lead anyone with my own biases; I’ll then try to deconstruct where I feel the similarities lie throughout the film and you can make up your own minds whether or not these are intentional. First up, I Am Mother:

A teenage girl is raised underground by a kindly robot “Mother” — designed to repopulate the earth following the extinction of mankind. But their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger arrives with alarming news.

Next up, the synopses for Portal and Portal 2 respectively; I have inserted both here as they have a relevance which I will delve into later on:

A test subject wakes up in a scientific facility controlled by a sadistic artificial intelligence and must escape with the help of the only instrument she has–a gun that makes portals.

Many years after “Portal,” Chell reawakens at Aperture Science and tries to stop GLADoS once again with the help of Wheatley, who has his own plans for the historical facility.

Right off the bat, the film’s titular character Mother, the matriarchal droid that cares for the protagonist Daughter is conspicuously similar to the Portal series’ infamous antagonist GLaDOS. Both in design and demeanor the two characters display that over-bearing and claustrophobic motherly charm reminiscent of Carrie’s religious Mother and the robotic, yet unnervingly insidious tone for which GLAdOS is so infamous. Not to mention both characters are caretakers of a secret underground facility that nurtures a young woman for the supposed “greater good” of humanity. Factor in the overtly similar character designs (albeit Mother has an anthropomorphic body whereas GLAdOS is less so) and you have a recipe with more than a couple of similar tasting ingredients. Here’s a comparison of the two characters to try illustrate how similar their designs are:

This was the first comparison that I noticed, and as the story of I Am Mother progresses it became clearer to me that Portal’s GLAdOS was more than just an inspiration or passing nod to the series. I Am Mother begins in the aforementioned underground facility, where the viewer is to believe that humanity has been wiped from the face of the earth; nuclear war and a contagion that followed has caused the extinction of the human race, and Mother has been tasked with repopulating the Earth; starting with Daughter.

The first thirty minutes or so of the film serves to show how Mother nurtures Daughter throughout her childhood – educating her, playing games and generally carrying out the duties any Mother would. It is not until Daughter reaches adolescence that the film’s second act takes off, and the not-so caring side of Mother begins to show. After a mouse that Daughter finds is unceremoniously incinerated, Mother suggests that it is time to complete another seemingly regular examination – a test of Mother’s abilities as much as her “daughter’s”. Although dissimilar enough to Portal here not to turn too many heads, the overarching idea that the caretaker robot of a secret underground facility in which only one human lives – who is subjected to regular testing for the sake of its own merit – is a narrative thread pivotal to the relationship between Chell (Portal’s protagonist and the player-character) and GLAdOS.

Mother’s control over Daughter is tested when a stranger known only as The Drifter threatens to shatter the reality carefully orchestrated by the film’s leading robot; ultimately to the point where Daughter has no choice but to question everything she knows. Now, although the first entry in the Portal series does not see a third character brought into the mix, the second entry Portal 2 introduces Wheatley, a damaged artificially intelligent core that acts as the player’s sidekick/navigator – until its ulterior motives are laid bare in the game’s second act. Wheatley’s understanding of the true nature of the facility’s ins-and-outs allow the player to navigate environments not seen in the first title, and reveal another side to GLAdOS that completely changes how Chell (or the player) views the in-game world. Not dissimilar to the effect The Drifter has on Daughter; her opinion of the droids and access to the outside world have irreparably changed her perspective on the facility in which she now feels trapped. Admittedly, at this point the two plots deviate for a time, in which Portal 2 sees GLAdOS attached to a potato as Wheatley becomes the new all-seeing eye of the facility, building hamstrung tests for the player to navigate. However, the introduction of both characters happens at a similar turning point in the narrative, and sets up a final act that uses not only tellingly identical imagery and design, but concludes in a all-too congruous fashion.

The films final act sees Daughter escape Mother and the underground facility to discover that The Drifter – although truthful in her explanation that the world is not in fact stricken with contagion – was lying about the group of friends she was supposed to be holed up with in a nearby mining tunnel. Daughter is in fact the only survivor she knows of, and is living in a shipping container with a dog. In realising this, Daughter dashes through a series of corn fields camouflaging the facility to confront Mother one last time, in the hopes of nurturing her newborn “brother” – another embryo from the facility that has been artificially conceived. She is met by an army of similar droids who after focusing their laser sights on her, agree to let her pass when she insists of speaking to Mother.

The final sequence sees Daughter realise that the anthropomorphic form that Mother inhabits is but a vessel, and that she in fact spearheads the entire operation; a single consciousness that controls all the droids and machines on Earth. In a touching scene, Mother agrees to let Daughter raise the child on her own, and inherit the facility in order to repopulate Earth in her image.

Now, there are a number of points here – specifically relating to the film’s design and imagery – that are incredibly reminiscent of those used in Portal. First off, the outfit that Daughter wears in the final scenes – her overalls with the top half tied round her waist – is almost identical to that worn by Chell:

On top of this, in the final scene of Portal 2 the player sees Chell face an army of turrets who agree to let her pass, despite their red laser sights focused ready to fire:

In an endearing scene that sees GLAdOS empathise with the game’s protagonist in an unseen act of kindness, she is thrust from the facility into…you guessed it – cornfields. This may seem like a pedantic parallel to draw here but considering the other striking resemblances it is not a huge stretch to assume that the setting could have also been pulled straight from the video game series’ final act. Looking at other similarities in the imagery used by both Portal and I Am Mother, there are clear commonalities between the Portal series’ Ratman character and his den (only alluded to through a series of drawings) and the religious and portrait scribblings on the walls of The Drifter’s shipping container:

The as yet growing cornfields, technology that is not quite as new-age as Portal and Mother’s lack of sadistic pleasure in forcing test subjects to complete complex puzzles ad infinum suggest that perhaps this was intended to be a prequel to Portal rather than a direct copy. This would make a lot of sense as it is quite common for screenwriters to spitball ideas based on twisting pre-existing stories to their liking – Netflix’s Bright (although it did not have quite the same critical success…) was a musing on what the Lord of the Rings universe would look like in the modern day. This idea seems to ring true with a lot of what is presented in I Am Mother as much of what Mother is trying to do with the facility still seems very much in its infancy. It’s possible that as time passes and Mother becomes less tolerant of humans and their desire for trivial things like freedom, food and sleep, the mundane tests that Daughter is forced to complete begin to morph into something more insidious (and involving portals). The Drifter is a sign of things to come, as more subjects are cast out of the facility for not following orders, or simply descend into madness living inside the facility, just like Ratman in Portal. Either way, the similarities here are too prevalent to ignore, but as yet I have been unable to source a comment from either Sputore or Green on the “inspiration” that Portal has clearly given them.

Now, all these comparisons that I have made could be chalked down to the aesthetics being typical of the genre, especially the similar design of the facility as well as the robot itself – but when you consider the parallels that can be drawn from the personalities of the main characters, their actions and the setup of the plot, there are undeniable similarities that are difficult to un-see if you are a fan of the Portal series. The plot of I Am Mother is not something entirely new – recent efforts like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Panic Room, and Room all revolve around similar plot devices and setups, and the undeniable inspiration of science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey is present in both the Portal series and I Am Mother. However, the narrative beats and timing of both of these stories seems far too similar to acknowledge as simply a trope or homage. Whether this was the intention of the screenwriter Michael Lloyd Green, or the work of Grant Sputore in his directorial vision for the film’s aesthetic – I’m hesitant to believe that the (albeit thrilling and enjoyable) science fiction tale of claustrophobia and motherhood is any less than inspired by Valve’s iconic Portal series.

Find out what I’ve been up to since this article with Year Here