I Keep Having This Dream doesn’t look like a game that has a lot to say about mental health. Out now on iOS, it’s a 2D, hex-based puzzle game where the goal is to place tiles until you run out of health, then start over again. It uses as little text as possible and seems content to let its mechanics speak for itself.
But the more I play it, the more convinced I am that developer Alex Kuptsov intended to share some fairly complicated thoughts about mental illness, healing, and personal growth.
Not that he’s saying. In an email conversation, Kuptsov explained that he prefers to let the themes of his work speak for themselves. But after creating his popular mobile game Dungeon Raid, Kuptsov was always going to end up making more games.
“This one was going to be a game where your ‘enemies’ are both obstacles and opportunities, where you have a symbiotic relationship with a presence chasing you, where the whole thing is wrapped in a kind of Sisyphean, recurring motif,” he said. The enemies, in this case, are called “snags.” The presence chasing you is the “Nemesis. ” And both of them in some way fit a theme of mental health recovery.
The snags are named things like Loneliness, Rage, Complacency, Paranoia–all emotional challenges. Defeating them can be painful–they hit back when you try to overcome them– and it doesn’t come with immediate rewards. Instead, when the player runs out of health (breaks down?), the Nemesis follows behind to clean up all the defeated snags. If there are enough, the player levels up. If not, the Nemesis overtakes them and it’s game over.
“Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” is a bit of a trite sentiment, and it’s an oversimplification of what I Keep Having This Dream is trying to do, but it’s a starting point. Addressing our problems can feel risky, and it’s tempting to leave them alone. In both the game and in life, this leads to them stacking up, becoming continuously more difficult to overcome. Still, facing them head-on doesn’t often provide the immediate, gratifying catharsis we hope for, and sometimes the process of healing means taking steps that leave us very vulnerable. The Nemesis being both that which might kill us and the thing that makes us stronger certainly feels right.
Many of I Keep Having This Dream’s design choices support this idea. Some snags cause others to get stronger if you leave them alone. Sometimes they cause unexpected setbacks, or you hit a dead end. The Nemesis is always lurking somewhere behind you, waiting for the moment you become vulnerable. It reminds me of nothing so much as the period between bouts of depression, when you wonder how long you’ll be free of it. When you wonder if you’ve become resilient enough to weather it this time around, or if it’s going to knock your legs out from under you.
Most games that explore mental illness aren’t quite this nuanced, but Kuptsov thinks that’s going to change. “It does feel like the themes explored in games have gotten much more diverse and nuanced as more people get involved in making games, and as games for smaller audiences become more viable,” he said. “I think that trend’s going to continue, and we’ll see more games where mental illness is treated as more than just an RPG status effect or a narrative punchline.”
Kupstov points to Darkest Dungeon as an example of the former and Spec Ops: The Line as an example of the latter. Not that those are bad games – both have been lauded for having more nuanced takes on mental illness than most others. They aren’t particularly subtle, but subtlety isn’t a great way to get noticed in the games industry as it stands.
It’s for the best that Kupstov doesn’t want to elaborate on the themes of his game–it’s refreshing to have something to think about while playing a game that looks like it could get away with being mindless. For instance, I’ve been wondering what meaning is intended by the fact that you can’t win I Keep Having This Dream. Then again, maybe you can and I’m just not ready, yet.