WORDS FROM THE TEAM: Fractured Minds and How We Show Mental Illness

Last year Lotty, Martin and I were discussing a game that had come out. The game had won a  BAFTA award and was generally pretty well received by mental health advocates. The designer Emily Mitchell showed you six different chapters each meant to represent some aspect of mental illness. I hated it. In the moment I played it it felt as though it was completely invalid. A child’s take on a serious subject based on what they had been fed, what mental illness is supposed to be like.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about myself recently. A word plays on my mind, “performative”. Am I performing Me correctly? Am I performing my depression properly? Am I performing it enough or am I performing it too much? And even, am I just performing being depressed?

But what if, just maybe there is no correct way to perform it? What if this deeply personal thing that eats your psyche and weaponises is as much of an individual as the person it tries to destroy?

And then something clicked about Mitchell’s game. Her experience is valid. Your experience is valid. And it does not have to be shared by anyone.

A person much wiser than me said that “pain is a sliding scale”. A child will cry and feel the world is ending because the ice cream that once was promised now lays inedible on the floor. A soldier will cry over his fallen comrades but not consider the ice cream to be not too great a loss. Context matters. Experiences matter and who you are fundamentally matters. And because of these things, these building blocks of how you came to be as you are now, your pain will never be exactly like another’s and examples of how it presents may ring a bell for people, but will never be a precise replica.

Fractured Minds is just that, Mitchell’s experience laid bare in the best way she knew how at the time.

Chapter 1. The Mundane and The World

Living a life somewhere else in your mind is nothing more than being a prisoner where you are.”
This is the quote by Shannon L. Adler that precedes the game. Frankly I dislike it. To me the inference is that to dream of something better, to remain optimistic and consider the possibilities that could be rather than the torment that is, is to be complicit in your own suffering. And certainly spending your time dreaming rather than attending therapy or being otherwise proactive may not be the best way to address mental illness but sometimes we, as humans, need to dream of something better, to enjoy the respite of fantasy and the escapism that comes with it. A mountain may be demolished in a lifetime, but without breaks that lifetime is infinitely harder.

Fading from black, the main character who I shall refer to as Emily, opens her eyes and climbs out of bed. The door is locked and a plethora of keys can be found but all but one are wrong. The words pop on the screen to reinforce the negativity of failure before the room turns dark and writing on the wall floods your vision for the briefest of moments.

A simple task should not be so difficult to accomplish, and whilst Emily does achieve the goal of opening the door it shows that even the smallest failure, or rather failure to achieve instantly, can have an effect that causes bigger repercussions.

Chapter 2. Emptiness and Experience 

I remember birthday parties. The fun of games, the joy of presents, the laughter of other children. I remember my friends being there in my home. I remember well wishing, and merry making. I remember in those moments feeling more alone than ever. The world was muted and whilst I was aware of all the light that could be let in, the light that others seemed to so readily accept, I could not let it in beyond a surface appreciation. Eventually, I stopped inviting people. Birthdays were to be spent alone. Actually alone. It was less painful that way.

Emily’s birthday has the games, it has the presents. It has the cake with candles and balloons strewn across the flaw. The colourful bunting lines the warm yellow walls and pretty flowers sit as a centrepiece on the table.

There’s no one with her though. Emily is alone.

This is the chapter that annoyed me on my initial playthrough. Portraying Emily as physically alone on an occasion like this seemed simultaneously heavy handed and lacking in nuance. It did not feel like emptiness to me – it was isolation.

In hindsight I think that I was wrong about this chapter. It is empty. Toys and presents and food are not what a party is for. They are pretty adornments on something that is supposed to be much deeper and filled with something much bigger than that. Emily’s party is an art gallery without the art. A worthy attempt to be something but lacking the reason that such things are truly appreciated for.

Chapter 3. Comfort Zone.

I was told as a child and teenager that I “have to get out of my comfort zone” but those saying it would rarely recognise that maybe I needed to be there in that moment, and that whilst it was certainly better than the danger I could find myself it, it was not entirely a safe place to be either.

Emily’s comfort zone is a warm room with a comfy chair and roaring fire. Soft lighting makes for a restful place. But even here things are sinister. This is her comfort zone, but she can never be completely at rest here and she accepts that she cannot stay here forever.

Chapter 4. Paranoia and The Fog.

Chapter 4 sees us dropped into a scenario with heavy fog, people staring at their phones and curious vehicles whose headlights look like eyes. In terms of gameplay it’s very simple, you look for symbols on the backs of the people who pass by in order to progress to the next area. The fog obscures the other side of the street and though you can move around it’s never fully clear what you’re moving around in.

The next area has a table and chair with two figures cast in shadow on the wall. The painting reads stay positive. The smaller of the figures who I presume to be Emily is chained still, her head in her hands while the larger of the figures looks thoughtfully at their phone. We have a brief moment before Emily’s world literally collapses. And then, stepping out of her cage onto perilous platform after perilous platform on an infinite ocean – she descends lower, ever lower. Descending into her own personal Hell. Emily with the player’s guidance falls but also proactively moves forward.

And she will descend until she can no longer breathe.

I never really got the feeling that Emily was paranoid in this chapter. Rather she seems intent with watching the backs of others for some key on how to progress. For me at least this is a better example of feeling lost and maybe the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with that feeling.

Chapter 5. Sinking and Drowning.

Submersed in her feelings Emily now finds herself in a room that for all intents and purposes is completely normal, you likely have one like it in your home. There’s a TV and a dining table, photos of loved ones and magazines that are partly read. Except moving through this room is an effort in and of itself. Emily must fight against her emotions, here represented by water, to even accomplish the simplest of tasks.

Emotional release here is represented by the use of a giant plug, a plug which is not for you to pull.

Instead, that’s for the monster to pull. The monster has the power to drain your agency, to send you spiralling further down and leave you at your emotional nadir.

Chapter 6. Monster.

Emily’s personal monster is a tall human-like figure. Black like oil, tentacles to invade every aspect of your life and the caricature of a happy, smiling face painted on to it’s egg like head. It winds it’s limbs through this industrial setting, blocking cog and vent alike. It doesn’t attack you. It doesn’t need to. Instead, it appears to me that the monster has accomplished all that it needs to. Your heart is in chains and your ability to love has been taken from you and to recover it you must fight.

I’ve drawn monsters like Emily’s; great black tentacled beasts to show how I was feeling when I lacked the words. They don’t react to the world, and maddeningly sit out of the view of others. But still they are there. Perverse in their nature, suffocating joy and love, and wrapping themselves around every aspect of your life. Sometimes, they are intimidating. Mine was larger than a house, an insurmountable beast with great gnashing teeth and not tentacles to gather but spikes to destroy. Emily’s is no less of a beast, but rather more subtle. Hers appears much more beatable which I can only imagine makes it so much worse on days that she can’t.

And that’s part of the issue. A person may only go through this experience once in their life but every day of that experience they will be fighting that beast. It will try to control all that it can. It will attempt to rob them of everything it is able to. And some days it will be an easy fight and others it will be one of the hardest things a person has ever done.

In the game, Emily only has to fight once. Once this encounter is done it is presumed that she is feeling better, and she might be. But I feel as though repetition here could have shown that this isn’t a one off fight for a lot of people.

Chapter 7. End.

Emily’s monster holds up a mirror to the player. It is revealed that Emily is the monster or at least, a monster. Which I take issue with. Her experience is not the issue, she might in fact see herself as a monster but I feel as though she needs to be more clear in how she portrays that feeling. If her intent was that she sees herself as a monster then that’s fine but this game was created to help inform people about mental illness.

I feel that I need to say that people are not their illness. A diabetic is not only a diabetic; they might be a surgeon, a musician, an architect, a family man, a chef, a joker or any number of things. When we look at people like Lemmy we don’t see his illness, we see the icon that he was, we see the joy he brought to people, we see any number of details of a complex human being. His experiences shaped him and helped him become the man he was but he wasn’t just a diabetic, he wasn’t just a cancer patient. Those things are part of him but he was so much more than that. And like Lemmy, Emily is not her monster. Her mental illness is part of her, but it is not all of her. And it’s hard to feel like it’s not. Sometimes I feel like a burden, that all I am is my depression that rots and ruins and eats away at the joy in not only my life but in other people’s too. But although I may feel like that, it’s not true. You are the same person you always were. Capable of love and hope, capable of creativity and being industrious just like anyone else but unfortunately having to deal with something horrible.

The game ends on this:

“You can hear the silence,
Almost deafening.

Maybe if you hide, it can’t hurt you,

If you are its maker,
Why can’t you destroy it?

It wants you to forget,
Forget that living with a monster makes you brave,

Forget that carrying its weight makes you strong,

Forget that it makes you who you are.

You are its power, its life,
Without you, it is nothing.”

Nobody would choose to live with a monster, and admitting that doesn’t make you a coward. Many people would say that they wouldn’t get rid of their mental illness because they feel it inspires them, or helps them in some way, but likely just as many other people would give everything to have a day free of self doubt, and free of having the world tinted with sorrow. Sentiments like this are great because they can empower people, but they don’t speak for everyone.

You are not your monster.

You are not your illness.

It is a part of the thousands upon thousands of things that make you, you.

Getting up in the morning, or taking a little self care time, to go to therapy, to keep trying in some small way everyday, to see the dawn because you can’t sleep, and the sunset at the end of the day makes you brave. To hide in bed because you need to gather strength is brave. Living with the monster isn’t the only brave thing, it’s also fighting it in some way shape or form, even if it means that you don’t do anything that day. It’s reaching out for help when you can and crying alone when you need to.

Everyday living with a mental illness is a fight and to keep fighting however you can is, at least in my opinion, the bravest thing you can do.

Emily Mitchell’s game only speaks of her experiences, and just as her offering is shaped by the thoughts she’s had, the things she’s lived through, so is this. My experiences are not hers and they may not even resonate with a single person reading this, each person will have their own bespoke trials and whilst elements will ring true for a few it’s hard to provide a universal example, something that speaks for everyone who is suffering.

Great care needs to be taken in how we communicate thoughts. I’m not asking for people to sugar coat their experiences but we need to be clear that we speak of our own experiences when we make a game like this, when we write an article like this. If we state our experiences as the only real experience (which to be clear Emily Mitchell did not do), then we risk othering people that could desperately be in need of help.

Thank you for reading, and keep fighting the good fight.

Words: Jacob McCrone

If you or someone you know is living with depression or is suspecting they may have depression, the author has suggested the following services:

MIND The Mental Health Charity – A charity that offers information and advice to people with mental health problems and lobbies government and local authorities on their behalf.

Samaritans – Samaritans is a registered charity aimed at providing emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope, or at risk of suicide. They have a 24/7 hotline which is 116 123.

NHS – The National Health Service website that has information and support on different mental health problems and illnesses including Depression and Anxiety

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