Michael Levall’s Please Knock On My Door explores depression from a personal perspective, but it also has general appeal. Eurogamer called it “incredibly powerful” in their review, and Steam reviewers have lauded it for its relatability.
Interviewing Levall for the Royal College of Psychiatrists Gaming the Mind blog, Sachin Shah explores the mechanical reasons it’s so relatable. While sanity meters in stigmatizing games have made mechanical takes on mental health a bit unpopular, Levall created his with quite a lot of care.
Levall is open about the fact the game stacks the odds against the player. Maintaining mental fortitude is difficult, and all the more difficult when you can’t do things that might be helpful, such as reaching out to others. “I wanted players to always feel the weight of every choice,” he said. “I get the sense that most people feel like there’s something that they could do, but they simply can’t figure out what that thing is, which to me is one of the central emotions when you are depressed. You feel like there should be something for you to do, like you should be able to deal with this, you should be able to snap out of it, but it’s just impossible.”
The main character bounces back and forth from home to work, but as depression creeps in, it becomes difficult to maintain this routine. At home, it is up to you to pass the time, which can be hard when there is little your character wants to do. “One thing I felt was a common thread for people with depression, and that resonated strongly with me, was that hobbies stopped being fun or interesting. For me, that meant playing games in the evening wasn’t something I did for fun, it was something I did to pass time, because I wasn’t tired enough to go to sleep. I wanted that to be part of the game.”
If passing time is hard, equally hard is keeping to time. You need to leave for work in the morning, but with a growing tendency to oversleep, and a morning routine that can take longer than anticipated, chances are you’ll eventually show up late to the office. “In the game, you don’t get to decide how long actions are going to take you,” said Levall, “because you don’t sit down to watch TV and decide exactly how many minutes you’re going to spend there. Of course that has implications during the morning ritual, like do you have time to eat? What kind of food should you make? Do you have time to shower? Should you just take a quick shower? That information on timing isn’t there; it’s all hidden. I wanted to capture the sense that you merely push the character in certain directions, but you’re never in complete control, just like you’re never in complete control in reality, either.”
Head on over to Gaming the Mind for the full interview, which also delves into the difficulty of writing content like this when you’ve lived it, and the challenge of reaching beneficial conclusions in a game about depression. You can find Please Knock On My Door on Steam.