With mental health becoming an unseen pandemic – even more so given the restrictions of the very visible Covid 19 one – it’s important for media and entertainment to take it seriously and find ways in which we can experience, discuss, and hopefully work towards helping those of us who suffer. Traditionally mental illness has been merely a gratuitous backstory for a villain, an excuse for a weirdly trippy level, or, most annoyingly, part of a ‘madhouse’ setting in video games. This trend has fortunately been improving in recent years with games as varied as Gris, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and Fractured Minds all offering individual and innovative takes on the theme. Looking to join the list of recommended mental health games, Super Sexy Software (unfortunate name for the developers of a deep and immersive examination of mental illness) bring us The Shattering, a first-person story-driven psychological thriller.
The game’s description could perhaps be more accurately that of a walking simulator, but don’t let that put you off if you have previously bounced off such conflict-free experiences. Like the genre’s highpoints of Gone Home and What Remains of Edith Finch, The Shattering makes a virtue of the centrality of (mostly) danger free narrative. Framed as the psychological counselling of the protagonist, John Evans, the game takes you through an effective and affecting five act structure in which you peel back the layers of an unidentified trauma to get to the heart of John’s mental state.
Whilst it is true that this could easily be argued to be a simplistic idea of mental illness as a challenge to be confronted rather than a condition to be lived with and managed, it obviously fits within the narrative and progress of a video game. The process of talking therapy is skilfully absorbed into the usual escalation that defines a game’s structure with each Act feeling distinct and individual.
The Shattering’s most obvious original contribution to the conversation around mental illness is to move away from the conventional representation of mental health issues as defined by darkness. Rather than the bleak and ill-lit corridors of many films and games, here we have a predominantly white colour scheme; and one in which the controlled use of colours really stands out. This is a fantastic aesthetic and also gets to the heart of the ways in which depression is thought about.
Popular metaphors such as the ‘Black Dog’ suggest either a focus on darkness or a specific antagonistic entity, whereas it is often the case that suffering from mental illness is more like an inability to deal with a world that is too bright, too loud, and just too present. Aside from one necessary moment in which a version of the ‘darkness monster’ is used, The Shattering presents the cold and clinical white-out world of the emergency ward, or the psychologist’s office.
The narrative is delivered through a mixture of dialogue and in-game messages, such as computer screens and typewriters. This helps enormously to ensure immersion is maintained, and there were several moments when the game almost became too much. It begins with the important warnings that the game is clearly about mental illness and that it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice or any suggestion of a remedy. While this is a commonplace medical legal warning, here it feels particularly necessary as the feeling of being, rather than playing as, John Evans is strong during some of the game’s more effective moments, be that climactic moments complete with soaring score or quiet episodes of relatively banal activity.
I’m deliberately being vague with the descriptions as the content really benefits from being experienced going in as cold as possible. The exception to this would be the hopefully not spoiling fact that the game does include discussion of suicide and so some may need to be mindful of any possible triggering (used in its proper sense, not the social media hijacked one).
Some smaller scale European games suffer from non-native English speakers with stilted or unconvincing acting, but fortunately The Shattering is not one of these. The voice acting is excellent throughout and feels perfectly placed for the various memories and imaginative situations that make up the five Acts. These range from the aforementioned psychologist sessions to childhood memories and each feel suitably different. While you only play as John, the effect was highly reminiscent of What Remains of Edith Finch, albeit without that title’s diversity of aesthetics and mechanics. The Shattering deliberately focuses on the first-person narrative and environmental puzzles to really drive home the feeling of being caught up within John’s brain.