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Tackling ideas of sanity, darkness and fear is a welcome effort to move away from the violent and emotionally withdrawn stereotype of a video game hero.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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era