“In South Arkansas there’s talk of a monster,” begins Southern Monsters’ Kickstarter description.
Where he roams, the locust thorns build barbed walls around the riverbank, not far from your house. Your real home isn’t made of stock millwork, but telephone lines: an online forum for undiscovered creatures where everyone knows you as cripplefoot. You debate the existence of the strange as your friends leave for distant universities. Outside your childhood bedroom, the cypress trees stretch for miles.
Compelling, isn’t it? And it goes deeper than that. “Cripplefoot” is an online handle — the name Southern Monsters’ protagonist, Kevin, gives himself in honor of the Bossburg Sasquatch. Your choices will help him as he seeks out a cryptid of his own, but you don’t just manage his hunt — you help him take care of his mental health.
I spoke with Bravemule narrative designer Kevin Snow to learn how mental health fits into this work of interactive fiction. For Snow, the inclusion of PTSD is semi-autobiographical. He and the fictional Kevin both have physical disabilities, PTSD, and a history of domestic abuse at the hands of their fathers.
The game draws from the time period when I was 19 after my mom and I recently left my dad and lived together for the first time without him. So, Cripplefoot has all of my family history, but not my military history. That’s a point of autobiographical divergence — I didn’t become physically disabled until the military, but I didn’t want to explain how Cripplefoot became disabled in the game, anyway (as using that as a kind of plot revelation is an ableist trope I hate), so he just has my own physical disabilities without an explanation of “the cause.”
Just like when I was 19-22, Cripplefoot doesn’t have the language to talk about how he feels. He doesn’t know he’s been abused, he doesn’t know he has PTSD. “PTSD” is never mentioned in the game as a term. But the game mechanics are modeled off how my symptoms express themselves: feeling extremely irritable and anxious all the time, difficulty with social interactions and public spaces because of hypervigilance, severe night terrors and being emotionally closed off.
This makes Southern Monsters a balancing act that will probably be familiar to anyone who deals with PTSD, chronic illness, or other health issues. The driving thrust of the game is Cripplefoot’s hunt for the monster, but how that plays out depends on how successfully the player finds that balance for him. During the daylight hours, he can work feverishly on research for his hunt, or he can take care of himself with all the important necessities in life: food, showers, cats. Too much of either can be harmful, with too much stress on one side and feelings of worthlessness on the other.
Cripplefoot’s cat is also inspired by real life. After being medically discharged from the military, Snow adopted a shelter cat he named Grendel. A twenty-pound Maine Coon (“who yowls out the window if I stay out too late and does this when I get home from work”) might not sound like the ideal therapy pet, but what really matters is the love. Snow believes that there’s healing to be found in the way animals show transparent love in return for a basic, daily responsibility to their needs — a theory backed by researched and shared by many of us who have both pets and mental health issues. So Cripplefoot has a cat like Grendel, and that cat can offer a bit of support.
Cripplefoot can also work on his connections to other people, part of balancing his long-term needs with the realities of his PTSD. Maintaining friendships isn’t easy, and emotional labor takes resources that may already be stretched thin, but friends can help too. When the game reaches a point of crisis, having someone to lean on could make all the difference.
My big optimistic throughline for the story in Southern Monsters is that building and maintaining relationships with other people is incredibly difficult with PTSD, but it’s ultimately worthwhile even if it requires some frequent discomfort.
In other words, it can be dangerous to go alone — even if the alternative seems worse in the moment.
Southern Monsters’ tone is inspired by horror movies like Videodrome, Suspiria, and Eraserhead, but its message about relationships comes from a different sort of film.
That’s inspired by my favorite movie of all time, Mysterious Skin, which is a really brutal movie about survivors of child sexual abuse. The movie kind of ends on a note of … we’ll be affected by this forever, but there’s some comfort to be found in between the pain and confusion. I saw that movie when I was starting to recover from and understand my experiences and it was so validating to me, because every other narrative I encountered was about “overcoming” your trauma. But that movie made me feel like it was okay to be fucked up. So that’s something I deeply want to convey with my own work: it hurts, it will probably always hurt, but some things make the pain worthwhile.
Southern Monsters is already fully funded on Kickstarter, and the crowdfunding campaign still has two weeks to go. With luck, we’ll be searching for cryptids with Cripplefoot come October of this year.