In the 1990s, 27-year-old video game archaeologist Lara Croft became internationally recognisable, in part thanks to her unfeasibly tiny waist, panoramic bust and a slew of appearances on the covers of magazines such as Rolling Stone, Newsweek and Time.
We live in an era when such megawatt stars do not grow old. Instead, like Batman, Star Trek or Jesus, they endure as ciphers for successive waves of actors, writers and directors to inhabit and reinterpret.
Croft, in fact, has grown younger with time’s passing. In the most recent entry in her series, last month’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, she’s a 23-year-old. More youthful, certainly, but also more complicated. While in the earliest Tomb Raider games Croft did little more than knock about in ancient ruins, fend off hostile wildlife and solve preposterous masonry-based puzzles, in this latest outing she’s in therapy. The tomb raiding, it turns out, is in fact a way to work through her grief at her father’s death.
Traditionally, video game protagonists are presented as Teflon-coated superheroes, emboldened by an endless supply of extra lives and, in many cases, ammunition. Neo-Croft is the latest example of how designers are increasingly playing with more emotionally vulnerable characters: 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line is, at first appearance, a typical military shooter in the Call of Dutymould. As the game progresses, however, the starring marines descend into the heart of PTSD-laced darkness where they’re forced to reckon with their (and your) actions. Borderlands 2, a more cartoonish, ribald take on the first-person shooter, features a chapter that, at first glance, appears to be little more than a jokey send-up of Dungeons and Dragons. By its conclusion, the truth is revealed: the role-play has been a way for your character to face the loss of a close friend and feelings of survivor guilt. It’s an elegant and affecting moment, made all the more striking by the fact the writers did not skimp on the scatological gags in its set-up.
Video games are well placed to examine stories about bereavement (after all, the concept of loss is baked into most games, video or otherwise), and also mental illness. Games allow us to inhabit the perspective of another person, to view the world with their eyes and options. Depression Quest is a simple choose-your-own-style text adventure in which you experience firsthand the depression sufferer’s narrowing of choices each day as anxiety corrupts your routine. Actual Sunlight is an unflinching examination of the causes of suicide. Dsy4ia is a short interactive story about the chaotic process of a transgender person undergoing hormone replacement therapy. Each example is biographical and, with varying degrees of success, instructional and empathy-inducing.
Representations of mental health in games, as in television and cinema, often stride into unhelpful cliche. Asylum Jam, now in its third year, is an event that aims to combat this, challenging creators to make a horror game that avoids negative mental health or medical stereotypes: the sanatorium’s smeared walls, the nurse with a quiver of syringes. Next year promises more lavishly produced examples. The Italian-made The Town of Light is a first-person psychological thriller set in the real-world (and now derelict) Volterra psychiatric hospital. Hellblade tells the story of Senua, a Celtic warrior left traumatised by a Viking invasion. The game, which has been developed with advice from Paul Fletcher, psychiatrist and professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, as well as mental health sufferers, attempts to recreate the landscape of schizophrenia. It’s a natural fit. For many, just as Lara enters tombs to face grief, so we play games to explore our inner sky, whether fair or inclement.
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