Lara Croft going into therapy reminds us that there are some things that can't be shrugged off. Image: Square Enix
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By taking on mental health issues, the likes of Tomb Raider show that video games are maturing

Tackling ideas of sanity, darkness and fear is a welcome effort to move away from the violent and emotionally withdrawn stereotype of a video game hero.

There is something a little strange about the idea of a video game character going into therapy, especially when that character is Lara Croft. On the one hand it stands to reason that a person might need some sort of psychiatric care after killing several hundred people, often in hand to hand combat, and confronting forces outside the realms of modern scientific understanding. But on the other hand this is a woman who can recover from a gunshot wound from close range within five seconds – if her mental health heals with the same swiftness surely she could overcome a bout of clinical depression in ten seconds just by looking at cat pictures.

If we are to be sold the idea that Lara is some regenerating killing machine, like a Hunger Games-themed Terminator, then the idea that her mental health should also be impervious to serious damage feels like a given. Of course it could be argued that Lara isn’t supposed to get shot multiple times and that in a perfect, and thus presumably canonical, run-through of the most recent Tomb Raider she can avoid all combat injuries, but even the wounds sustained within the scripted narrative sections of the game are very severe. The sense with Lara is that she is tough, like a cross between an old boot and the heat shield of a Soyuz.

So why would she not be able to just shrug it all off as the character would have done in her earlier incarnation? The simple answer, and the one that lies at the heart of a changing culture when it comes to mental health issues, is the recognition that there some things you cannot shrug off; that mental illness is not the result of a failure of will or character.

Over the last few years there has been a much greater effort made to understand and to remove the stigma from mental illness, particularly from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has been causing so much harm particularly among soldiers and veterans. Getting veterans, or indeed anybody, to seek help for an injury or illness that isn’t immediately tangible can be very difficult. Being unable to deal with things on your own is often seen as weakness, as if being weak were worse than being unwell.

A game franchise showing a character trying to process trauma with outside help in this way is thus a good thing. It normalises the idea that a person should seek help to process and move past traumatic events. Indeed if other game franchises followed suit instead of glorifying the violent and emotionally withdrawn stereotype of a video game hero that could only be a good thing.

Some games however approach mental health in more direct, mechanical terms. Don’t Starve, for example, is a game about survival and adventure with the player as a castaway, alone in a strange world. While the titular process of avoiding starvation is paramount the game also demands that you make an effort to preserve the sanity of your character. In order to preserve sanity you have to maintain the best standard of living you can. Cooked meals, sleeping in a tent, and unlocking new technologies help to keep you sane while eating raw meat, digging up graves and being lost in the dark will gradually reduce your sanity, leading to hallucinations.

Darkness and fear as the source of insanity is a recurrent theme in the Amnesia games, which involve skulking around in deep, dark, cellars solving puzzles and being chased by monsters. Hiding from monsters in complete darkness will keep you alive, but the greater the time you spend in darkness the more your sanity decreases.

In games like this sanity is a resource that your character possesses and can expend or recover while you play. This seems very strange, but to an extent there is method to this depiction of madness. Mental illness is as old as the human race, but it is only very recently that the physiological reasons for it have begun to be recognised, if not understood. If we strip mental illness of its mystique, it could be considered to be no different from any other injury and we might, in game terms at least, imagine curing it in the same ways. Backhanded through a wall by a troll? Drink a healing potion. Haunted by nightmares of the time a dragon burninated your village? Drink another healing potion. If only real life were so straightforward.

Lastly there are games where the character the player is playing has more nuanced problems than maintaining a numerical level of sanity to contend with. Sometimes these problems may be obvious, sometimes less so. For example in the text adventure Depression Quest, the story deals with trying to be a functional adult while in the grip of a bout of depression. The key device this game employs, which resonated with me greatly, is the capacity for the depressed person to identify the correct choice, but the inability to actually make that choice. It is worth noting though that the game can be unintentionally scary if you start to consider how it would play out if the main character was going it alone.

Not everybody wants this sort of focus, and not every game needs an eye on mental health issues. Games can be escapism and sometimes we don’t want to worry about real world issues. But willingness for games to approach them in a more intelligent way shows how the medium is maturing, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder