5 Must-Play Indie Games About Mental Health
Mental health is an important and highly personal topic that’s not discussed as openly as it should be. Or, mental illness often gets depicted in a negative and inaccurate light. I don’t think this is done maliciously. People who’ve never experienced mental health issues may find it difficult to understand and relate to someone who has.
The more we destigmatize mental health, the more people will want to talk about and share their experiences. We also need more movies, TV, and games with mental health topics. With games in particular, you’re given the ability to be an active participant in the story rather than a passive observer.
This helps foster a more empathetic understanding as you can literally put yourself in the shoes of someone experiencing symptoms of mental illness. I’ve played a lot of indie games over the years and during that time I’ve encountered several amazing examples of mental health depicted in an approachable and honest light.
What’s nice is that these games can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of whether you have a mental illness, know someone who does, or simply find yourself curious and wanting to know more. To narrow things down, I’ve put together a list of 5 indie games about mental health that I think everyone should play.
5 Must-Play Indie Games About Mental Health
Actual Sunlight was a game that, while short, was incredibly hard for me to play. I remember sitting in my chair after the game’s heartbreaking ending speechless, staring blankly at the mouse cursor on my screen. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Actual Sunlight hit way too close to home for me in many ways.
Is the game good? Is it replayable? These questions are hard to answer. Actual Sunlight is a game about depression made by someone with depression and you can really tell how deeply personal it is. The way the game delivers the story can be hard to follow at times, though this makes sense to me as I like to think of depression as an unreliable narrator.
Depression takes everything and twists it into the worst possible version of what it actually is. It eats away at you, tempts you deeper into the darkness, causes you to disassociate, and blurs your self-awareness. I feel like Actual Sunlight is a game worth playing for those wondering just how bad depression can feel to someone struggling with it. It can also help provide insight into why some people with depression take their own life.
Warning, because Actual Sunlight deals with mature themes of suicide, I wouldn’t recommend it to those under the age of 18.
Anxiety strains you both mentally and physically and no indie game better represents this than Celeste. On the surface, Celeste is a game about a girl’s treacherous journey up a mountain. However, there’s a lot more to the story lingering beneath the surface.
The main metaphor of the game is quite clever as anxiety can feel like climbing a mountain in many ways. Both leave you out of breath, your heart pounding. Both place you on constant high alert, leaving you wary of losing your footing and falling all the way back down to the bottom, terrified of having to start all over again. You’re afraid to try but also afraid of missing out on something if you don’t try.
Celeste captures this internal struggle beautifully in its progressively difficult levels, music, and visual design. Other ways Celeste presents symptoms of anxiety is in Madeline’s shadow self which follows her around attempting to dissuade her from her trek up the mountain.
“You are many things, darling, but you are not a mountain climber,” Madeline’s shadow self says. “I know it’s not your strong suit, but be reasonable for once. You can’t handle this.”
Madeline does everything in her power to shut this voice out. To prove it wrong and silence it completely. In the end, Madeline and her shadow self learn how to work together. When I played Celeste, I found this to be a helpful way to think about mental illness from anxiety to depression and everything in between. You can’t get rid of that part of yourself completely, but you can accept it without having to listen to the negative things that it tells you.
Know yourself, know your limits, and make your climb.
While not as “indie” as some of the other games on this list, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is commendable for its dedicated and thorough portrayal of psychosis. To ensure total accuracy, the team at Ninja Theory consulted with neuroscientists like Wellcome Trust along with people who've personally experienced psychosis.
During the research phase, writer and director Tameem Antoniades remarked that, “People can experience hallucinations and delusional beliefs without it being a problem.” He went on to comment that, “The illness comes when those experiences cause suffering. Often the recovery is not about curing yourself of hallucinations, but finding ways to live with them.”
These key insights are reflected in how the game presents psychosis to you. Senua’s hallucinations are almost secondary to what you’re doing in the game. You work with them and around them as you learn more about Senua’s story and the world she inhabits.
When playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, it’s recommended that you wear headphones to get the full experience of Senua's psychosis as the game utilizes binaural audio (similar to what you’d hear when listening to ASMR). With this, you’re able to get a better idea as to what it might be like to experience auditory hallucinations.
Overall, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is without a doubt one of the best examples of how a game can incorporate mental illness respectfully. I’m eager to see how the game evolves in the upcoming sequel, Hellblade II: Senua's Saga, especially given Ninja Theory’s recently announced Insight Project.
The loss of a loved one can take a serious toll on your mental health. It’s something that lingers with you for the rest of your life, forever clawing at the back of your mind. There are many ways to cope with grief, like immortalizing those lost in a piece of art, or a song. Another great example of this is in a game like That Dragon, Cancer.
Created by grieving parents as a way to work through the death of their young son, the game gives players insight into what it’s like to receive a cancer diagnosis whether for yourself or someone else. This isn’t a fictional interpretation, it’s a real story told by real people, and this adds a lot to the game’s relatability.
In fact, many gamers responded to the release of That Dragon, Cancer with their own stories of loved ones suffering through and passing away from a terminal illness. Watching “Let’s Play” videos is almost as hard as playing the actual game as streamers share their own personal stories of grief and loss.
I’ve had a few close friends of mine pass away over the years from tragedy rather than an illness like cancer, but the general feeling of the game hits close to home for me just the same. The visual depictions alone, like the scenes where you’re set adrift, are so incredibly powerful and expertly capture the emotion of the situation in a way that’s easy to understand.
That Dragon, Cancer makes you feel pain, sorrow, grief, and anger in a way few other games are able. It’s an exhausting yet worthwhile (and even cathartic) experience. For all of these reasons and more, That Dragon, Cancer is a game I think everyone should play at least once.
If and when you do, I recommend keeping a box of tissues close by. You’ll be doing a lot of crying.
Night in the Woods deals with a variety of mental health topics from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder. Unlike some of the other games on this list, Night in the Woods keeps its inclusion of mental illness tucked away. It’s presented in an ambiguous and it’s left up to the player to interpret and connect each character’s personal struggle.
Fortunately, this is easy to do as each character is beautifully written; thanks in large part to the developers’ own mental health experiences. One thing I love about the game is how it captures the feeling of hanging out with your friends and navigating around each other’s quirks.
It reminds me a lot of my early college years when I spent most of my time ditching class to play Magic: The Gathering with my friends. We all just hung out and enjoyed each other’s company and oddities, and it’s something I reminisce about often. I like that I can get a similar feeling in Night in the Woods as it’s almost like a balm to the sadness my depression causes me to feel.
The characters in Night in the Woods aren’t all perfect or happy or stable. They feel like real people, even though they're represented by animals. The realness to Night in the Wood's characters may be because most of us have had friends – or known someone – like Mae, Bea, or Gregg.
You can even find yourself in someone like Mae which is nice as you feel less alone. If you want a game you can relate to – one with a warm, comfortable feeling of coming home – Night in the Woods is well worth a purchase. It’s also one of the easiest to play on this list in terms of the emotional toll it’ll take on you.
Yes, there are emotional moments, but Night in the Woods won’t cause you to fill up your trash can with two full boxes’ worth of used tissues.
Once you’ve played the five games listed above, I also recommend checking out the following games:
If you’re struggling with mental health and need help, or just someone to talk to, I have a few resources that are worth looking into as well.