Can You Gamify Depression?

Knockknock2

Games are still, first and foremost, known as a form of entertainment. Somthing that will give you a thrill ride, tell you a great story, or just help you kill time. But a small game brewing in Karlshamn, Sweden, in the hands of Michael Levall, is challenging that notion.

Based on some of his own experiences, Levall is creating a game, not about escapism, heroism or winning, but about depression, phobias and loneliness. It’s a game about being alone in your apartment, trying to cope with the encroaching darkness in your mind. It’s a game that is more an experience than it’s entertainment. It’s a game with the both fitting and touching title Please Knock on My Door.

 

Even though the first iteration of Please Knock on My Door started as a student project a couple of years back, recent history doesn’t seem to indicate that Levall would wind up creating a game that took his own experiences and used them to push the boundaries of the medium. Before he embarked on the life-in-an-apartment simulator, he was creative lead on the team behind the energetic FPS/Basketball crossover Epigenesis.

However, despite the fact that the Epigenesis game managed to win Epic’s Make Something Unreal competition in 2013, the release of the game was less than what the 10-man strong team had hoped for. “Unfortunately the release of the game … it didn’t get the reception we had hoped for,” Levall remembers.

Michael Levall (photo: Photo: Kristian Andersson/Commersen)

Michael Levall (photo: Photo: Kristian Andersson/Commersen)

The less than stellar reception for Epigenesis made Levall reevaluate what it really was he wanted to get out of working with games. And that’s what prompted him to go in a completely new direction

I realized that what I wanted to do with games was to create experiences that are more relatable to the average human being.

“And that was how I ended up with the whole mental issue and depression theme, and loneliness and phobia as well, since all those themes are based on personal experiences,” he tells.

 

In its essence, Please Knock on My Door is a manager game, Levall explains. But it’s a manager game with a twist. “The game’s protagonist has a set of stats, that you can influence, but their value is hidden from the player,” Levall explains. And contrary to more conventional games, Please Knock on My Door will not feature a traditional progression as such either.

“There won’t be like the usual level up’s or stat increases,” Levall says. Progression in this game might be that the character travels deeper and deeper into mental unhealth and through that you will get to see progressively darker events that the main character goes through. And that will be the reward [laughs], if you can use that word, for the player.”

 

BreakfastGamifying such unfunny themes as depression and phobias also gave Michael Levall some troubles. “I actually had a lot of issues and headaches from thinking about how to best solve this issue,” he says.

“The way I have tackled the issue is that games as a medium are usually about testing and training the player in some kind of skill or expertise. And what I’m testing and training the player in here, is not necessarily a game mechanic, but a mental engagement in the thought of mental issues.”

This also means that the game sometimes limits the player’s possibilities for interaction and choice, because that is a part of living with depression, phobias, and loneliness. “At some points I actually won’t let the player interfere, because if you were actually in that situation and you had those feelings, at least to me, thinking back at how I was at that time, I wouldn’t be able to help myself or do anything else.”

 

The game is not as such aimed at the people suffering from the same problems as the protagonist of the game. Levall tells Nordic Game Bits, that he sees it more as an opportunity for friends or family to get a better understanding of what it means to live with these conditions.

My hope is that someone who plays Please Knock on My Door will then be able to better understand one of their friends perhaps, who are going through something similar, and through that be able to help that person.

So the ambition is for the digital game to also be able to have some kind of effect in the physical world, Levall explains.

ComputerAt the same time. Levall underlines, that his game can never become an exhaustive model of how life with depression and loneliness can be. “This is just one phase of what it can be like to live with these issues and complications. I couldn’t possibly show every phase of what it’s like to be alone or feel lonely,” he says. “But I can try to add something to that discussion – add my perspective on what it can be like. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

 

Please Knock on My Door is also a product of Levall’s own struggle with the same problems that the games’ protagonist is suffering from. The game is for a large part based on his own experiences with loneliness, phobias and depression, and the game is his way of dealing with it and working through it.

“I actually made a prototype for this game back in the autumn of 2013, when I was in that situation myself. And making that prototype was my way of dealing with it,” he tells. “And that really helped me, actually, to deal with my situation. And it was kind of an a-ha moment. You know how people write texts and maybe they paint in order to get their feelings or ideas out. And it was kind of a revelation to me that I could do the same, but with a game.”

So I could use the game to deal with the problems I was going through. Which was actually really cool!

Levall explains that he feels like a lot of people uses games as a form of escapism, to go to a different place or to be someone else. But also that he thinks there are a lot of other things you can do with games to provide a different experience. “I think there is a lot to do there, which doesn’t have to be escapism, and can actually be based in the reality we are in.”

 

BreakfastLevall is working on the game from his own home, alone, but he’s using people around him as well as the games’ audio designer, Ola Bäckström, to bounce ideas off. Something that’s not as hard as it might seem, as there is a pretty sizeable game developer scene in Karlshamn.

“We have quite a lot of Indie companies here in Karlshamn. I think a lot of it is thanks to the university – The Blekinge Institute of Technology, which has courses for game development. But there’s is also Gameport, which is a Games Business incubator located here.”

Levall says that he works on the game based on a pretty rigid schedule. “I start work at 8AM in the morning and I finish, usually around five, sometimes later, but I try very hard to keep my working hours and my private time separate.” He explains that he does this to avoid working on the game in all of his private time as well. “you can get more work done, but the quality of your work will start to decrease if you push yourself too hard.”

Please Knock on My Door is scheduled for a 2015 release on pc via Steam.

 

Jesper K. Kristiansen

Multi-passionate game developer and journalist. Has been writing about the Danish games industry for more than ten years, and creating audio design for both Danish and International games for almost as long.

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