For all the ways game creators portray mental health issues, treating them like normal, everyday parts of life is pretty far down the list. Mental illness can be portrayed as a precursor to villainy, it can be handled with complex meters and mechanics, or it can be the main subject of a game. It’s rarely allowed to just be part of the narrative.
As Chloe Spencer points out in this article for Kotaku, in treating its characters’ mental health issues as something they simply need to cope with in their day-to-day lives, Night In The Woods is doing something quietly revolutionary. Spencer interviewed Night In the Woods animator Scott Benson and programmer Alec Holowka about the game’s approach to mental health:
Benson told Kotaku that the team intentionally left the characters’ mental health ambiguous as a way to let the story progress naturally. Early in development, they knew they wanted to talk about depression, since everyone on the team had experienced it in some way. Ultimately the team wanted to make a game about people who experience mental health issues, not the issues themselves.
“I wasn’t seeing a lot of games doing it [exploring these issues] so that kind of made it an interesting thing to explore,” Holowka explained. “And it kind of fit with the idea of doing this generally down-to-earth subject matter compared to a lot of games that are more about like, characters that are super powerful. Our characters aren’t that powerful…which I think is also interesting and relatable.””
That relatability has had real-world consequences. Benson tells Kotaku about fans who’ve shared their own stories with the team. Because Night in the Woods deals with issues like Bipolar Disorder and symptoms like depersonalization that are rarely portrayed in any media, it’s had a major impact on some players.
“I think for a lot of people that representation is important because it could just be the only time that anyone has ever verified and validated that experience.”
Benson even said that some fans have told him that they realised they needed to get help for mental health struggles after playing the game. He says that the game gave them “permission” to do it.
“Permission doesn’t mean an authority figure or that they need to check with us, but like, sometimes you just need to have someone say this is a thing that occurs in your life and it’s okay. You’re not like, broken or something,” Benson said.