I’ve been playing video games since I was six, when my uncle gave me his N64. The original PlayStation joined our household soon afterwards. As I grew older this stemmed into an endless fascination with horror games, even when they scared me too much to play them by myself.
Horror is all about psychology, about how our minds work. And, while it’s impossible for us to see how other people think, artists have done their best to physically represent a mental state. This concept, a mind taking physical form as a series of rooms, characters or a whole universe, appears across media – the John Cusack thriller Identity (2003), the superhero TV show Doom Patrol (2019), the survival horror game Silent Hill (1999). But gaming offers us a unique take: an immersive, interactive exploration, often seen through the player’s eyes.
Even when a game casts a character in the place of the player – such as in The Evil Within (2014) – we feel aligned with the character in a much stronger way than we do in films or television. We are the God of this world; we control the character, but we also suffer the consequences of their actions. For the intents and purposes of the game, we are the character.
Whether you’re destroying haunted paintings as you search through an ever-shifting landscape for your missing daughter (The Evil Within 2, 2017), or traversing puzzles that represent your family’s memories in order to uncover the truth about a hereditary curse (What Remains of Edith Finch, 2017), every action the player character takes causes a reaction from the mental landscape. The player character interacts with the game world and the game world interacts with the player character. We’re playing in their mind.
It’s not only in horror games that we see this device used. In the first person adventure game Ether One (2014) you play as a Restorer, an employee of a futuristic memory-retrieval company who enters the mind of a 69-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia. You move through 3D simulations of her damaged memories, set in a childhood spent in a quaint but eerily empty seaside village called Pinwheel. Your aim is to rebuild these memories through exploration and puzzle-solving, while destroying gemstones that represent the patient’s encroaching illness. It’s a quietly touching game and one that struck a personal chord for me as it did for many others.
Ether One’s designer, Pete Bottomley, didn’t create the game simply to spread awareness of dementia. His aim, rather, was to “create an empathetic story” and “open the conversation about dementia” by putting us, the player, in the shoes of someone suffering from it. That’s the attraction of this model of game-based mental worlds. They encourage empathy.
This empathetic response can take you to some strange places. In Silent Hill 2 (2001), you play James Sunderland, who is fleeing horrific creatures that appear as psychosexual representations of James’s repressed thoughts and desires. We are horrified by what we see, both in the world and inside the character, when – spoiler warning for a 20-year-old game – it’s revealed that James euthanised his dying wife for less than altruistic reasons.
Would James typically be a character I could identify with? Not really; we have little in common even outside of the wife-euthanisation. If I was observing his actions rather than actively controlling them then the investment in the character and his world would be much weaker. But when those fog sirens start blaring, you bet I was ready to fight to protect him, battling against/working through his repression: thoughts and memories that manifest themselves in the form of the knife-wielding Pyramid Head and other monstrous creatures.
Real life isn’t so simple. We aren’t provided with maps to the plain of our understanding or handgun ammo to take down its numerous roaming enemies. The puzzles that stand in our way are often not easily solved. Piloting through the terrain of our own mental landscape is difficult enough. How then do we begin to navigate another’s?
I think games can help us find some sort of answer. At their best they build empathy by introducing us to the most intimate of experiences, often ones that are completely alien to our own. This is important now more than ever. With lockdown restrictions easing across the UK, and as we start to take the first tentative steps back towards some semblance of a normal life, many of us will be struggling to adjust to the new (physical and mental) landscapes we find ourselves traversing.
Maybe if we try, we can use what we’ve experienced in playing games to find connection with each other; even if that means taking a leap of faith (shout out to my fellow Assassin’s Creed players). Goodness knows we could all use a bit more empathy right now, for the worlds contained within others, and for the ones we carry within ourselves.