Reviewed by Richard Goodness
We talk about mental illness as something which defines people. Depression isn’t a state one falls into: It’s a way of life. Self-harm isn’t a behavior someone lapses into during dark times: It’s a part of their behavior they must be constantly vigilant against. Substance abuse isn’t a crutch: It’s an all-encompassing obsession.
There are plenty of us for whom that’s the case, and videogames have been getting pretty good at depicting that. As education tools, as ways of essentially explaining to the Muggles what it’s like to be in this situation, works like Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest and Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight have — rightfully — been praised for their detailed and realistic-seeming renderings of the depressive mindset.
But I know plenty of people who find Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight to hit too close to home. Actual Sunlight in particular sounds like my diary from 2008-2012–not a period I’m particularly interested in reliving–and I can’t say I have much of a need for Depression Quest. Much as I admire it on an artistic level, I don’t really want to play a game which essentially simulates the worst aspects of my own life.
Bracket Game’s Letters to Babylon puts you in the shoes of a patient in a residential treatment facility who’s been brought there after some sort of incident, the details of which are kept vague but more or less involve a bit of blood and enough whiskey to kill a horse. Each morning begins with you reading notes and letters sent by the doctors and staff, your dad, your boyfriend, your best friend, etc. It’s one of those nicely skeletal Twines where the onus is on the player to fill in the details, to read between the lines and figure out what exactly the situation is and who exactly you can trust.
The answer, refreshingly, turns out to be almost everybody. Games have made me paranoid: I wake up in a hospital with a note saying that the doctors and staff want the best for me and are looking out for my well-being, I’m going to be desperately searching for how they’re going to abuse me. I get a letter from my dad who’s angry about what I’m putting him through, I’m prepared to write him off forever. I get a letter from my best friend telling me what a violent asshole my boyfriend is, I’m ready for the revelation that this friend is a figment of my imagination.
And yet none of this is the case. The staff and doctors are a caring bunch who are good at their jobs, who got into this line of work because they genuinely want to help people, and the hospital’s extremely packed activity and treatment schedule isn’t a draconian list of penal restrictions but a very clear structure that most of the patients need. Your dad, in particular, has a really nice arc, at least in my playthrough, where he does start off blaming you and getting angry, and then wondering where he went wrong and how he failed you. He’s not your typical father bogeyman – he’s a well meaning guy who’s acting out of extreme guilt, and the game allows him to realize that, change his behavior, and learn how to support you in a way that actually helps.
See, I liked Letters to Babylon because it’s a story which doesn’t believe that its characters are irrevocably broken. It believes in the possibility of redemption and change, that trusting in the right people is the way to manage a condition like depression. I would not be surprised if there’s an ending in there which has your boyfriend realizing he’s an abusive asshole and ultimately seeking out help himself.
The ultimate fate, at least in my playthrough, isn’t the sexiest: You’re going to be living with your dad and working as a grocery store cashier until you figure out what your next step is. (It’s suggested you’re going to look into finishing your degree) But after what you’ve been through, a quiet, simple life sounds pretty appealing. It’s what you need to quiet the chaos in your head. I like that Letters to Babylon ends with the possibility of calm — and maybe even contentment.
When you’re talking to an audience that doesn’t understand depression, that hasn’t lived with it, you need to get dramatic. You need Depression Quest’s audio glitches, you need Actual Sunlight’s repeated exhortations to jump off the roof. You need to portray the depressed person as friendless and alone and a little unlikeable, because yes, depression is a serious situation and suicide is, you know, a Thing.
But neither of them are really for people dealing with mental illness–in making sufferers the subject of the works, both almost lose them as a potential audience. Letters to Babylon is the kind of game that I’d say is more geared towards people with severe clinical depression and other problems than it is a missive designed to help non-depressed people to get how it feels. Babylon is realistic, down to earth, and very unassuming, and for that I respect it greatly.
Actual Sunlight features an almost beautiful moment where developer Will O’Neill breaks the fourth wall and addresses any teenagers who may be in the audience. At some point, O’Neill says, your behavioral patterns solidify and depression locks you in but at thirteen, why, you can still turn this ship around! It’s a sincere, heartfelt, earnest and utterly sad statement coming in the context of the rest of the game, which depicts a man whose behavior has completely calcified and who can’t turn this ship around, or who doesn’t want to. (After all, Actual Sunlight’s protagonist isn’t seeing a therapist, or on medication or doing anything to help himself, believing it all to be kind of useless anyway–buying into the rhetoric that it’s too late.) And having been that thirteen-year-old myself–and, let’s face it, if you’ve made it this far into a piece of writing about a hyptertext fiction about depression, you were that thirteen year old too–I know what it feels like, and I find that moment to be a very kind, loving one, and yeah, by this point there is at least one thirteen-year-old who’s been helped by that message.
But ultimately I like Letters to Babylon‘s refusal to either sugarcoat or exaggerate a period of mental illness. The thirteen-year-old that I was didn’t necessarily want to be understood by the whole world; he didn’t want to be coddled and he certainly didn’t want to be told that the situation was hopeless, and permanent. If anything, Letters to Babylon provides kind of a role model for how to deal with this. As bad as it gets, it says, you can live through this.
And that’s a message that I think is just as important to hear.