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Tackling ideas of sanity, darkness and fear is a welcome effort to move away from the violent and emotionally withdrawn stereotype of a video game hero.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

Peter Kay's Car Share. BBC
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Peter Kay's Car Share will restore your faith in human beings

 I clutch at John and Kayleigh's potential for happiness as if at straws. 

I discovered Peter Kay’s Car Share about a year ago, by accident. BBC News at Ten had finished and there we were, slumped in our seats, despondent, unable to move. It came on, by my memory, immediately afterwards, and we zombies stared at it unthinkingly at first, unaware that we were in the presence of greatness. But it didn’t take long for the penny to drop and we’ve been obsessed ever since. A year on a, I am convinced – forgive the mild pomposity – that this is one of the most inspired and culturally significant television shows of our age.

Have you seen it? Perhaps you have: the first series, which was originally broadcast in 2015, won a couple of Baftas and was the most popular “box set” ever to be released on BBC iPlayer. The second – too short – series (Tuesdays, 9pm) concludes on BBC1 on 2 May. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. For one thing, it will make you smile. It is very funny, but it is also tender; its unstated subject being kindness, it has the ability briefly to restore one’s faith in human beings.

For another, it is rooted in provincial reality in a way no other television programme is right now. Try as I might to resist using the words “metropolitan bubble”, I can’t help but feel that those columnists who persist, post-Brexit vote, in trotting out every demeaning cliché it’s possible to imagine about the north and its apparently uniform population of “ordinary people” should be force-fed it. What Kay and his co-writers understand better than they do is that no one is “ordinary”. Every life comes with its kinks and idiosyncrasies, its survival mechanisms, its share of demented dreams.

John (Kay) and Kayleigh (Sian Gibson, utterly endearing and giving the performance of a lifetime) work in a supermarket somewhere in the environs of Bolton. He’s management; she works on the shopfloor in promotions. They share a car – he drives – to and from work. In the first series, this was an arrangement they had reached reluctantly, as a result of a work-sanctioned scheme. In the second, they’re doing it by choice. In short, they love each other, though as yet this is unspoken, at least on his part. As they travel, they listen to a cheesy radio station, Forever FM, which plays old hits, mostly from the 1980s (they’re in their forties, so this suits). Meanwhile, the world goes by: traffic jams and roundabouts, out-of-town superstores and suburban cul-de-sacs. It sounds bleak, and perhaps it is, in a way. You can’t ever see the horizon. But it’s summer, and the evenings are long, and everything is suffused with a soft light. Somehow, it takes you back.

They sing, they gossip, they tease, they reminisce, they laugh at one another’s jokes, and sometimes they have small battles, miniature fallings-out. In one episode – the finest of them all so far – they go to their work party dressed as Harry Potter (him) and Hagrid (her) and return home in the company of a Smurfette, also known as Elsie from the deli counter (a comic turn of cast-iron genius by Conleth Hill, the classical actor currently playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the West End of London).

Less accomplished writers than Kay, Gibson and Paul Coleman would have had the trio making gags about her blue face paint or singing the annoying Smurfs theme. But the show being truly brilliant, for the next 20 minutes no one mentions that there’s a huge, flirtatious Smurfette with a Northern Irish accent and an air that is at once vulnerable and slightly menacing in the front seat of John’s red Mini.

In this episode, loneliness – another of the themes in this series – threatens to rise up out of the drunken, early-hours darkness. But in the end they send it on its way. John and Kayleigh roll their eyes at Elsie’s vulgar antics but ultimately they’re glad of her, just as they’re glad of each other. John is a man who draws his neighbours’ curtains for them while they’re away; Kayleigh is a woman who can squeeze intense pleasure from almost anything, up to and including a two-for-one offer on tickets for a moderately rubbish safari park. I want them to be together so much. I clutch at their potential for happiness as if at straws. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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