TW: This essay is about a game but it’s also about mental health. Please take care when reading. It’s a 15-minute read.
I have found a new game, which I love.
There are games out there which deal with depression, psychological struggle and mental ill health. Things like Depression Quest (“an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression”) or Sym (“a puzzle-platformer that explores social anxiety disorder”). Astounding successes like Neverending Nightmares (“a sincere work of art that captures the horror and pain of living with mental illness, and presents them in a respectful, brutal, and honest light”) and troubling failures like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (“this action game tries to show what psychosis is like but ends up invalidating real experiences).
I haven’t played any of those, and this is not a game about mental health. But in just 24 hours of playing Kingdom: Classic (2015), I’ve found something that helps me make sense of the fraying tapestry of my life, or at the very least to navigate it. I hope that talking about it in the way I’m about to can help others navigate messes of their own.
In Kingdom, you play a pixelated monarch. All you have at the start of the game is a horse, a crown and a fistful of coins. You meet two peasants sitting around a campfire and hire them, giving them one of two professions: an archer, a builder. Your builder constructs basic fortifications around your base, and your archer positions herself by the wall. But only as night falls do you start to ask yourself the question: why have my only instructions been to “Build, Expand, Defend”, and why are my companions a builder, who only builds defences, and an archer with a sharp eye on the borders of my territory?
The instructions on the game are astonishingly minimal (probably less than 20 words in the whole game, all delivered in the first minute) but you don’t need the game to use words to tell you what it has already told you in structure. Elegantly and insidiously the game has introduced a tone of threat, and with the first setting of the sun, the music turns eerie and you realise you’re not alone in your kingdom. You don’t know what’s coming, but something must be.
I’m going to interrupt here and start laying out the extended metaphor I’m building to here, so if heavily extended and frequently mixed metaphors aren’t your kind of thing, here is the door.
The reading of the game I’m going to present here is that it is a helpful metaphor for understanding what it is to navigate life with mental health problems. Of course, the metaphor can work just as well for other troubles but as I’ve just bumped my SSRI of choice from 5mg to 10mg, and as everyone’s going through some form of psychological or spiritual collapse at the moment, this is what’s on my mind.
In Kingdom, you’re never told who your enemies are, why they are attacking you, where they come from – or indeed how to defeat them. Like the rising sun and the flowing water and the taxes that you collect every morning from your subjects, the ghouls are part of the world of Kingdom. But before the first night, you don’t know what’s coming, you just have this confused, powerless sense of dread.
Its name is Anxiety.
The ghouls rush out of the dark forests surrounding your camp. They are small in number to start with but their weird, wiggly arms and silent assault on your basic fortifications are surprisingly frightening for such a graphically minimalist game. Having played many games before, you rush into battle to defend your villagers but are struck by the fact that you don’t know the gameplay mechanics well enough yet. Where is your weapon? Does the up arrow let you jump? Nothing happens, you just accidentally scatter a few coins as you look for a sword, and as one of the ghouls slips past you, your crown flies off your head, time slows, and you watch as the cheeky little bugger puts on your crown. Game over.
Five minutes into the game, you have to start again. Now you’re a queen (the gender of your avatar is randomly selected in the loading screen) and you’re back to just your steed, your purse and your crown. Here we go again, you think. Campfire, archer, builder, ghouls…. This time, you stay within the walls overnight and make it to your first sunrise in Kingdom.
There is an important lesson here for those struggling with mental health; or at least, there is for me. What I find the most remarkable thing about Kingdom is how powerless you as a player are, despite being the monarch of your kingdom and having a pocket jingling with coins. You are incapable of defending yourself from the creatures which haunt the wee hours, hellishly bending themselves towards your demise, stealing from you the one thing that makes you identifiably yourself: your crown. You are powerless against your demons, and you need to build up fortifications and accept that when night comes you cannot go to battle; you have to stay safe. And to that end, where you put your money matters. Who you recruit matters. How you ask them to help keep you safe is crucial, and if not done strategically, you perish.
Fighting mental demons is much the same – do you spend the extra money on a good therapist, even if that means you can’t afford to feed yourself with nutritious food? Do you invest in a personal trainer to keep your body energised and happy, but then not be able to get the train to see your friends? Speaking of friends, do you tell them what is hard and how they can build supports that keep you safe, and position themselves at the border of your light and the ghoulish darkness? Or do you keep rushing to battle for yourself again and again, collapsing again and again, and never learning that you do not have all the answers or the strength to keep going alone?
These are questions I’m grappling with at the moment. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
It’s game over a few more times but slowly you get the hang of it. Every time you wake up in the woods again, you find yourself almost the same person, but slightly different. This time a dark-skinned king with a vermilion cape, this time a brunette queen with a violet gown. Regardless of your appearance, your goal remains simple and the same: Build, Expand, Defend. Keep your world turning, keep your wits about you, keep your head and thereby your crown.
So you get to work. In the daytime your archer hunts rabbits and deer, giving you enough coins to hire more archers and builders. The game grows with you, offering a new option – constructing mills, building catapults, hiring farmers. Thrilled, you place farms and turrets all along the river and enjoy cantering through your little realm as the sun beams down. But cantering through town becomes galloping hither and thither as you realise you’ve not hired enough archers to man the gates, and every night there are more and more ghouls knocking holes in the barricades which you frantically spend the daytime patching up. Days seem shorter, although they aren’t. Nights won’t end, although they somehow do. The ghouls summon reinforcements with their eldritch portal. Before too long they overwhelm your people, and steal your crown again.
To me, this experience is analogous to what it feels to go through a good mental health patch. When I dip up out of a depression, or an anxious period, or the drain my soul hides in when my brain and body decide to take on too much, I am filled with energy and life. I impulsively, sometimes even compulsively, fill my life with people, and things, and activity; I pick up new hobbies; I go on holidays I can’t afford; I buy every type of jam the supermarket sells; I start writing a novel; I take friends out for dinner although I’m barely making rent; I take drugs instead of sleeping; I try to sleep with people I shouldn’t; I talk a mile a minute and think even faster; I subsist on sunshine and berries and feel beautiful and free. I know this can’t really be the case but I struggle to be sure, sometimes, that I’d know in quite the same way what ice cream tastes like, what it is to be held, how lake water feels on your naked skin, if I hadn’t spent years locked in a staring match with the abyss inside a cage. So when the cage door opens, even only temporarily, how can you not revel in all that life has to offer and streak like a lunatic through the world? You don’t know how much time you have left in the open air.
I’ve been diagnosed with Bipolar II by a handful of professionals (another handful disagrees, and I’ve moved away from labels anyway) but I think it’s natural that when a seemingly endless night comes to an end, you want to soak up as much sun as you can before the curtain falls again. Unfortunately, it almost always does fall, again, at some point, and then you’ve stretched yourself so thin during your time on land (hey, I warned you about the mixed metaphors) that you crumble under the unanticipated, but tragically completely anticipable, onslaught of terror.
The next time you play, you grow your kingdom slowly, conservatively, concentrating on upgrading your fortifications as much as possible before advancing further afield, and you hold out a little longer this time. Quite a bit longer, actually. You hire three archers for every builder, and three builders for every farmer and gradually, your kingdom grows large enough that it takes you almost an entire day to walk its length. Some days, all you do is walk around, relishing the beautiful colours of the sky, the sound of chirping crickets, the quiet hubbub of the village and the safety that’s so seldom assured in your world. Why not just stop growing your kingdom now? This seems manageable, and safe.
But archers and farmers throw coins down at your feet as you pass. So many coins that your purse overflows and your coins skitter into the stream. That’s no good, and anyway, morning by morning the threat of the night fades. You stop thinking so much about defence and start thinking about growth– and about adventure. What lies beyond the city walls? A temple. A new horse. A mountain. A merchant. What else?
So, yes, you can pursue growth even as a person with a mental health problem. Certainly, there is a temptation to keep living a life that is small and easy to defend, one that you can survive. But I do think that at some point you atrophy, and life must be about more than survival. It must.
The thing is, though, I think that you can’t imagine your life being one of exponential or even reliable upwards growth. It takes a different kind of mental strength to dedicate your life to growth when you know that every few years your illness will return and push you back down some of the way you’ve come. If life with a mental health illness is like a financial chart, you have to imagine something more akin of the oscillations of a heartbeat (up, then down, then up, then down, forever) than the precipitous rise of Amazon’s profits.
What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of up and down – but even “up, then down, then up, then down, forever” is better than flatlining. And you deserve the joy of growth, even if it can all be magicked away and even if you are returned to the woods with only your horse, and a crown, and a fistful of coins to start again.
Your thoughts may be elsewhere, and your farmers may be delivering heaps of gold, and you may be travelling further and further abroad… but the things you need defending from haven’t stopped thinking about you. And just as you transform your wooden walls to ones of stone, they come back in greater and greater numbers. The trouble is that your kingdom is so large now that if your fortifications are breached in the westernmost part of your territory, it will take you a day to ride there and realise, and by that time the night is setting again and dread manifests in your stomach. A gaping hole in the ramparts. Do you dare send your builders to fix it? What if the monsters come at night and steal away their tools? And your coins? And your crown?
You begin to wonder if the very growth the game seems to be nudging you towards is a fly trap. You begin to wonder if, in this game, safety is not a realistic destination, and the most you can do is see how many nights you can make it through before you succumb. You might conclude this game is composed of only brief, tenuous moments of respite between intractable nightmares. A life spent rushing from one end of your world to the other, looking desperately for holes that you must use all your resources patching before you begin leaking out through the fissures.
Honestly, ‘leaking out through the fissures’ is so deeply disturbing and demoralising an experience that we all deserve medals for not just lying down on the ground and allowing the nightmare to win. This weekend, I found myself brushing my wet hair in the bathroom, with no memory at all of having washed it. My arm spasmed and smashed a glass bowl against the counter, cutting my thumb so deeply that it pulsed blood for an hour. My hand opened on me, unbidden, and dropped a bottle of vinegar that shattered on the floor. I struggled to form sentences on the phone with my best friend, my tongue a rubber-coated alien in my mouth. I cried so much I almost threw up. I also sent an important email, balanced my budget, washed my sheets, did some yoga, ordered a laptop, made a doctor’s appointment, went grocery shopping and generally sort of existed while sometimes shaking so much that my teeth chattered and my back started to hurt.
This sounds so severe but that is just my life, sometimes. Not always! Thankfully not even most of the time. Therapy and meds help, as does having a job which is very flexible and allows me to work from home a lot. The pandemic isn’t a big help but what can you do… Still, it happens often enough that I need people to know.
I need you to know that mental illness is a chronic health condition, and a disability, and really hard to live a good life around. I am so proud of all of my friends and family who somehow persist, subsist, exist, resist, go on despite the actual hellscape inside their brains. I am also, sometimes, on good days, proud of myself for the very same thing.
Bessel van der Kolk says something very similar in The Body Keeps the Score when he counsels us that “Even traumatized patients who are making real contributions in teaching, business, medicine, or the arts and who are successfully raising their children expend a lot more energy on the everyday tasks of living than do ordinary mortals”. It’s quite grim, but my experience has been that living life with a mental illness is like driving a car with the handbrake always down. That’s what garbled neurochemistry and wonky currents in your synapses can do.
And let’s not ignore that some of us don’t manage to sidestep our ghouls, and do leak out through the fissures. All the way out. Some of us, sadly, do make the choice to simply walk into the forest, lie down on the luxurious damp moss and surrender our crown to the darkness. I’m talking about suicide, yes, but also about the hellish cycles of absolution and destruction through narcotics and food and gambling and sex which most of us have some experience of dabbling in. I’m also talking about the opposite, about living a life that is grey and wan and horribly quiet, a life that involves keeping yourself so small that you hope the monsters will simply overlook you like you’re a little hobbit hiding from the Nazgul. That scene, but for ever. Living in the roots of a great tree you will never climb. Frodo, thy name is NOT Ratatosk.
These are walks through the forest I know well, so I know just as well that it takes astronomical effort to stay in the heart of the village, especially when winning is not on the menu, only not-losing. You can’t cure the sickness, just as you cannot eradicate the ghouls from the game, but you can let them not be the thing that kills you.
At times like these, all your fortifications and turrets may again be dismantled by the ghouls who now have unspeakable tentacled flying terrors at their back and seem to not vanish in the daylight as quickly as they once did. But as long as your last line of defences does not fall, you can make it. As long as you stay safe by the fire when the night is at its darkest, you can make it. As long as you let your support system – the walls your builders have built, and the archers you’ve stationed at the gates – help you, you can make it.
This, of course, requires you to have invested wisely earlier in the game; to have made sure you had enough coins on hand for this low point; and to understand that much as you want to join your warriors on the frontline, it’s safest to just stay home. When dawn breaks, it’s time to regroup, see who’s left, hire a new builder and train a new archer and focus on reconstruction.
If you’ve been lucky, careful, smart and humble, if you anticipated this onslaught and didn’t lose your head when you lost everything else, you might not die that time. You have to start again, sure, but get to do so on your terms.
I guess that’s the key. Much like when the ghouls come on strong enough to push past all the careful shields you’ve set up, you can’t really prepare for a panic attack or mental breakdown or dissociative episode. You just have to ride out that which tries to rend you asunder… but then, when it turns out that you’re still here and it’s time to hit the reset button (AKA the “rest” button), that is an incredibly empowering feeling. On your tenth playthrough of Kingdom you understand far more about the world and how it works than you did on your first, and life after your tenth mental breakdown is almost exciting. In both cases, you lift your head and think “maybe this time I’ll make it a little bit further before I lose it all again!”
The analogy of playing Kingdom and living with mental illness isn’t absolute, but playing the game has allowed me to learn some lessons that, while I’d been taught them before, had never truly sunk in. I’ve had similar “Well, duh” breakthroughs with other wacky things like equine therapy and LSD. I guess that sometimes things that are conventional wisdom in mental health circles just need an unconventional delivery to really make it in.
Essentially, what Kingdom teaches us is that life is a sand mandala (I’m so sorry for using a Tibetan Buddhist traditional practice with a rich heritage and philosophy of its own for my own ends here). Permanence is a fool’s errand. It doesn’t mean your work is pointless, or that your sickness dooms you to never feel joy or freedom. Nor does it mean your life or success is more potent or beautiful because it is born out of struggle. It just means that things come and go and that balance is the nature of things, and not some cruel joke designed to torment you. You cannot be growing all the time, and even if you spend half your life rebuilding that’s not a wasted life. Sometimes, your kingdom is large and thriving; sometimes it is anaemic and small. Sometimes it is daytime, sometimes night. Sometimes you survive the darkness and sometimes the ghouls steal your crown and bring you to the foundations of your very self again. That’s alright. It all matters anyway. You matter anyway, and there are paths to happiness in and through the woods. This is basically a knock-off version of what I think all religions teach more gracefully, but I direct you in particular to The Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Kingdom also crystallises how important it is to be mindful about your defences – you need a support team in place, and you need to know in intimate detail what happens when it all unravels: not just why, but how you crack. And you need to feed that knowledge into safeguards so that when crunch time comes, you’re not up shit creek without a paddle (sorry, such mixed metaphors, ouch). In my case, this takes many, many forms: ear plugs, a hot water bottle, an eye mask and a weighted blanket in the immediate sense. An understanding GP, therapist and supervisory team, and family and friends who understand and will listen without trying to fix things for me. Comfortable clothes with no complicated buttons or zips for when I dissociate and become dizzy and my fingers are so far away from my body that I can’t handle tasks that animals without opposable thumbs could manage. More mundanely, an “emergency food fund” for take-out when I can’t drag myself to the kitchen to even boil some pasta. And ideally, a bigger emergency fund – I’m working on that, but it’s hard on a PhD stipend. Oh well.
I urge you to ask yourself who the builders and archers in your life are. What are the turrets and farms? Some people may have a pet, or a community support team, or receive benefits, or work part-time, or they may run a 10k every week or bake a fresh loaf of bread every day or do intricate embroidery or dance or meditate or sing or just allow a lot of time for sleeping. (Just: please try to make sure your defences aren’t wrapped in barbed wire. Stay away from the calorie counting, razor blade, empty bottle of gin type of defences.)
Another of the most important takeaways from this game is one that is also the cornerstone of The Body Keeps the Score, namely that life has to be about more than simply surviving. It has to be. There has to be room for play, and courage for exploration and growth, and relationships with others. A life lived entirely within your defences is half a life, and much less than half of what you deserve.
Finally, and maybe a reiteration of the other points, Kingdom contains within it the wisdom that you must know your limits to thrive. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to accept that my limits are my limits even when I’m well – my sensitivity to noise, my need for truly phenomenal amounts time and space to myself, the way that my sleep and digestion cease to function under stress, my perennially low energy – but accepting these limits, difficult though it is every time, has also time and time again proven the key to happiness. The idea that I am not ‘lesser’ simply because the life I had dreamed of (a life of loafing around hostels in the most beautiful parts of the world, an artistic barefoot vagrant with only a backpack and a guitar to my name) is impossible for me to live in the mind and body I have is one I still grapple with. However, accepting that the things I’d often scorned (possessions, a stable home, a routine) are actually things I need to be functional has made my life so much more of a pleasure.
And the thing is that when my tank is full of those things, I have no problems travelling far. Whereas when my tank is empty, I can barely make it to the corner shop for milk.
In Kingdom terms, as long as you tend to the fire at the centre of your camp, as long as you have your builder construct some sturdy walls, as long as you task your archers with standing guard, and as long as you make time and space for growth, there is no reason you can’t spend the odd day just sort of wandering around and enjoying the colours of the sky.
In order not to end on quite such a maudlin note… Kingdom is really a lot of fun. It’s playful, and smart, and inventive, and has a lot to say despite its minimal interface and design. Every time you get a ‘game over’, you also get the chance to try something new, so it never really feels like a big loss. And besides, every time, the gaps between ghoulish defeats get longer. You learn more about yourself, and about survival, every game.
And so it goes.
A/N: I wrote this a month ago. In the time since I’ve completed this game, and the sequel, and decided to take mental health leave. The sequel (Kingdom: New Lands) improves on the original and adds a crucial element of mobility: while defending your kingdom, you are also building a ship which, ultimately, allows you to escape and move on to the next challenge.