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Tackling ideas of sanity, darkness and fear is a welcome effort to move away from the violent and emotionally withdrawn stereotype of a video game hero.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

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.