Read Stuart’s column every week in The Scottish Sun, where he shares his reviews, news and podcasts with the 99.3% of the World’s population not fortunate enough to be able to buy a physical copy of the paper. The following appeared originally in The Scottish Sun on Sunday 1st March 2020.
Helping with Mental Health
THE games industry is a multi-billion pound empire that can reach millions of people. It gives it a platform to highlight vital messages to raise awareness and offer support. That has never been more relevant than today when figures suggest 70 per cent of teenagers between 13 and 18 will suffer from some kind of anxiety and one in four people will have a mental health issue. The tragic suicide of DJ Avicii and When Games Attack show co-presenter Caroline Flack has brought the issues into the spotlight. Now, the games industry has become brave and mature enough to raise awareness about some of the problems and consequences in storylines to partnerships with charities. We look at a couple of games that are embracing the subject and chat to the co-founder of Safe In Our World, a charity that helps gamers’ mental health and wellbeing.
SAFE In Our World aims to raise cash for mental health charities and foster positive wellbeing support for gamers and those who work in the gaming industry. It was set up in 2017 and co-founder Leo Zullo believes their work has never been more important. He said:
“Our mission is in our name. We want players to know they are safe in the worlds our development partners create and that these experiences allow people to come together to talk openly with each other – whether this is a story experience, character exploration, emotions evoked and more. We want to encourage people to talk openly and honestly without feeling secluded or taboo and, together, help break down the stigma surrounding mental health discussion as well as encouraging and educating people to talk.”
The industry has made huge strides in recent years, but Leo believes they still have a lot to learn. He added:
“Our industry is still relatively young in comparison to other entertainment industries, and is still finding its feet and coming to maturity. But it is becoming significantly aware of the responsibility and duty it has to players all over the world and being an active enabler of positive change and support across many issues and causes. When you’re presented with the stats that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental health condition or that 20 per cent of the world’s children experience mental health issues AND that a staggering 70 per cent of 13 to 18-year-olds experience some form of anxiety, it’s hard not to take notice and ask what can be done through our medium to provide a touchstone of support and understanding.”
Games like Fractured Minds, Fire Watch and Hellblade have made mental health part of their core design and Leo feels that is a positive move. He said:
“Sometimes creative talent can be put upon a pedestal and be presented as godly personalities, but these titles in particular level the playing field and say ‘Hey, we all can feel like this and that is OK and if you don’t understand how we feel right now, here is an experience to artistically represent some of these thoughts and feelings that you can break down and analyse and interact with’.”
Leo insists the charity has some big targets for the future. He said:
“Our main goal is to break down the stigma surrounding mental health and help open up the floor for people to feel comfortable speaking about their own mental health as they would be discussing their personal fitness or even dental health, and to do so in an environment where there is support. While it may seem that Safe in our World is just for the players, it isn’t. SIOW will also provide support for those who work in development and the wider industry to make sure that, as they look to support others, they are also being given the support and network at their work place. The mission is to get the whole videogame industry on board and aware and open an honest dialogue between creators, players, media, friends and educate people to a point where even if they do not have issues with their own mental health, they can still have an understanding of how people are feeling and why.”
Mosaic (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £16.74)
GAMING, like all other forms of media, can tell powerful stories and deliver strong messages beyond the rush of taking a last-minute victory or just having a laugh with your mates. Mosaic, developed by Norwegian studio Krillbite, certainly doesn’t pull its punches as it throws you into a world where your existence is very much a rinse and repeat “eat, sleep and work” day after day. It holds a looking glass up to modern life but it is not all grey sea of dull mundanity. There is hope, and it’s often found on the less-travelled road.
The game is a two to three-hour journey that sees you fill the shoes of a man at breaking point and bored with the nine-to-five grind. His employers are on his back and his family and friends are a long way away. It’s fair to say he’s not in a good place. The more you play, the more his world falls apart through isolation and loneliness. There are moments of escape, from listening to a saxophonist in the park to watching a butterfly — but it is heavy going. The surreal moments grow as you play on but they seem to lose their sense of meaning as things unfold. Away from the story there are a few mini games, including simulating your day job in a simple puzzle-based screen where you build paths to make dots travel to a set point. There is also BlipBlop — an app on your phone — which is a simple game where you press a button to earn a point and the more you press, the more points you can bank for upgrades. It is hugely addictive — like digital crack. It almost makes the game take a back seat as you hammer the button.
We are not sure what that says about us, but there a bigger message in there about being a gamer and trying to escape the world around you even if that world is within a game. It all has a lovely clean, crisp style with some stunning set moments while the sound hits the mark. This is an interesting take on life, depression and a longing to break free but how well it does may depend on how you actually view the real world. It’s certainly not an easy ride and has a few pacing issues, but it’s heart is in the right place.
Piecing the Fragments Together
THE man behind Mosaic reckons the game is an important look at modern life. Creative director Adrian Tingstad Husby said:
“I don’t think it makes much sense to make a game about burnout if you haven’t experienced it. I also go through phases where I think a lot about specific topics, which I’m sure a lot of people can relate to. These topics heavily influence my work in that period. Back when Mosaic was shaped I remember reading a lot of studies on how societies that grow increasingly urban, with weakened local communities, more streamlined labour and disruptive technological advancements — including TV and computers — are seen as important causes for suicides increasing substantially since the Seventies. I also remember reading a lot on how the nature of our relationships affect both our mental and physical health more dramatically than previously believed. For example, when comparing virtual and physical cancer support groups, research has found them to be similar in every way, except depression. While 92 per cent of participants in digital groups were depressed, very few in the groups that met face to face were. Now there’s obviously a ton of reasons why that is the case, but it’s still something to think about as our lives grow increasingly digital.”
That thinking meant the wellbeing of the team was also key. He added:
“In the context of the game, one of the main themes is how the systems we’re part of affect the quality of our lives. This applies to exploitative work practices and burnout, but also economic stress, loneliness and lack of deep relationships. These issues are often seen as personal, but can just as easily be understood on a systematic, society-wide level.”
AVICII Invector (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £24.99)
AVICII Invector started out as a celebration of the work of the chart-topping Swedish DJ. But due to the tragic passing of the 28-year-old in 2018, this title — based on his back catalogue and with design input from the DJ — has become a real tribute to the talent the world has lost. Developed by Swedish studio Hello There Games, the game is a rhythm action title — think Guitar Hero, but without a dodgy plastic instrument. An odd story sort of holds everything together. A spaceship pilot is tracking down a chocolate bar across the vastness of space. Yeah, odd. But it takes a back seat really quickly but it clears the way for the gameplay.
You journey through six worlds each made up of a number of stages to take on, which ultimately boils down to playing through 25 of Avicii’s tracks. If you rush it, you can blast though the core content in a few hours — but this title is about replaying stages to get that bit better and get ever more points so you can stake your place on the leaderboards. The core gameplay sees your ship riding a track through space and you have to press buttons in time with the prompts that fly towards you. Once you master the lower levels, the game throws in a few more buttons to press and things speed up as you climb the difficulty ladder. The levelling-up gap is a bit strange — the leap from medium to hard is quite a jump, so brace yourself each time you feel you’re ready to move on
As rhythm action games go, it’s a solid system but what makes it standout are the 25 Avicii tracks. Unless you’re already a fan, it’s safe to say a lot of this will be new to you. But nonetheless, it is an outstanding soundtrack. On the downside, you can burn through this game relatively quickly due to an overall lack of content — but it’s fun and a fitting tribute to the DJ that fans will appreciate.
Hitting the Right Notes
AVICII Invector started as a dream fan-boy collaboration but has turned into a tribute to the DJ. More importantly, it is a way for the foundation set up in his name to raise awareness about suicide and the stigma surrounding discussion of mental health issues. Oskar Eklund, the CEO of Hello There Games, was wowed by a gig by Avicii — real name Tim Bergling — and wanted to team up for a game. He said:
“We were inspired by Avicii’s live show. Tim also really liked the old classic game WipEout so that was also an inspiration.”
But the focus changed after the 28-year-old Swede was found dead in Oman in 2018. Oskar then worked closely with the star’s family to continue the legacy and help highlight mental health issues. He said:
“We asked his father how he wanted things to be handled. A first version of the game had already been released on PC so Tim had already signed it off. But for us it was very important to let Klas Bergling decide. We also cleared how much of the royalties that would go to Tim Bergling Foundation.”
Oskar has discovered that it’s not just gamers tapping into the game — fans of his music are also giving it a go. He added:
“We get so much love from fans. We are very proud of having the privilege to work with this genius. He really loved the game and that feels good and at the same time very sad.”
Like Fractured Minds, the game is being supported by the Safe In Our World charity and Oskar thinks that is a vital move. He said:
“I think this is more important than ever before. Our publishing partner Wired Productions is already supporting Safe In Our World so it´s a perfect match.”
But, for Oskar, the link up with Tim would always be special. He added:
“He was involved in the making of the game and came with a lot of input and thoughts. For example he was very clear that we should have a limit of minimum 75 per cent to clear every level.”
But picking the songs for the game was a tough call. He added:
“I started to pick out AVICII hits together with the team. Then we discussed and cleared this with Avicii Music. Right now, we are hands on deck for the Nintendo Switch version of AVICII Invector and having some fun experimenting. We would love to be able to explore this as an option. Since launch we have had requests from the Avicii and Invector fanbase asking for specific tracks and the TIM album was awarded two Grammy awards, so there is a lot of possibility, but we want to do right with the Switch version of the game first, but watch this space.”
Fractured Minds (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £1.79)
THE AAA game-makers don’t shy away from the big topics, but it is often a small enterprise that delivers the biggest punch. Fractured Minds costs less than a coffee but it WILL have more impact than the last ten treble-A titles you played. It has already won Emily a BAFTA, but it’s the subject matter that raises eyebrows. This is about trying to spotlight mental illness and raising awareness of the issues many people face.
It’s a 20- minute walking sim journey through six chapters highlighting parts of the human psyche and each has its own challenges. It’s worth noting that Emily built this all herself — no 30-strong team here — and it mirrors many of her own experiences. Also, Wired Productions have said that 80 per cent of the proceeds from sales will be split between Emily’s future career and gaming charity Safe In Our World. This is not standard gaming fare — hence the lack of a score — but it is a heart-felt piece of work that is a vital part of the gaming community. And that community needs to support Emily and similar projects like this.
Shining a Light on Mental Health Issues
BAFTA-winner Emily Mitchell was stunned to get a Young Game Designers gong, but admitted it also highlighted the cause she was promoting. The 18-year-old said:
“Finding out I’d been nominated was amazing and so exciting. On the day of the ceremony I had a really bad panic attack at the train station so to push through that and find out I won was incredible.”
Fractured Minds certainly doesn’t shy away from the heavy subjects. Emily admitted:
“Throughout development it became clearer to me the message I wanted to portray and how I could draw on my own experiences with mental health to create something people could connect with. I took inspiration from my own battle with anxiety to make something I felt was true to life and could hopefully resonate with a lot of people.”
She was also proud of the link with charity Safe In Our World. She said:
“I was approached by Wired Productions who were starting a charity designed to bring awareness of mental health issues within the gaming community which was a perfect fit for Fractured Minds. I’ve been blown away by the amount of support it’s received.”
I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…