Every two years, Take This gives an award – named after our first clinical director Dr. Mark Kline – to one game released in the last two years which represents excellence in compassionate, non-stigmatizing portrayals of mental health themes and mental health challenges. Past Dr. Mark Award winners include Stardew Valley and Celeste.
This year, Take This is expanding the award to also offer the Dr. Mark Community Choice Award to the game that was the most nominated by you, the gaming community!
How were the finalists and winners chosen?
Earlier this year, Take This asked the community to submit their favorite games which represented mental health themes or topics in a compassionate and destigmatizing manner. Each game nominated was assigned a weighted score based on how each person ranked it in their nomination. The top five scores were the five finalists and the top scorer in the nomination process is the 2022 Dr. Mark Community Choice Award winner.
Over the summer, the Dr. Mark Award committee of experts and luminaries from around the game industry – none of whom work for Take This, to avoid any potential conflicts of interest – had the opportunity to individually, independently play and review the five finalists, thanks to the publishers/developers generously providing game codes. Each committee member selected their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-place winners,and based on a weighted score of their ranked choices, we obtained our 2022 Dr. Mark Award winner!
Now, let’s get to our finalists and our winners! Every one of these games is a wonderful example of compassionate mental health representation, and all of them are worth a play!
Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Developer: Gary Lobanov | Publisher: Finji
The wholesome adventure role-playing game Chicory: a Colorful Tale is an excellent addition to the Dr. Mark Award finalists! Color has disappeared from the world as darkness spreads. The wielder of a magic brush – passed from person to person, generation to generation – is the only hope for restoring the world to its previous state and bringing color back! Connie Geppert – one of the judging committee members, and creator of the 2020 Dr. Mark finalist Sea of Solitude – was entranced by many aspects of this game:
The way Chicory portrays different types of personality and different moods is incredibly wholesome. They manage to carefully introduce each character with their specific main personality trait. Even though it has tougher topics like feeling depressed, they manage to not overwhelm the player with it by combining it with a positive overall mood in the game (through art, music and storytelling).
The core gameplay is absolutely well chosen. Painting the colorless world feels, again, very wholesome. So while you unfold the story step by step, getting to know the characters with their troubles and hopes, you do this recreational activity, painting. Well done!
Developer: Spry Fox | Publisher: Quantum Astrophysicists Guild
You are a Spirit Scout in this life-sim game, dedicated to help soothe the spirits of the…well, spirits who haunt the island of Cozy Grove. You do so by collecting resources and treasure, decorating the island, and finding secrets each day. As you do, you build friendships with the ghosts of the island, help them overcome their regrets, and bring color back to the island both metaphorically and literally.
This game is one of my personal favorites in the last few years for several reasons. Firstly, there’s the constant message of hope amidst despair – that all spirits deserve help, and the player diligently works to offer them relief. The second is the charming, watercolor-style art design and gentle music, both of which contributed to the eponymous cozy vibe. Finally, while many video games reward lengthy, intense gaming sessions, the developers of Cozy Grove made the deliberate choice of designing the game to contain between 30-60 minutes of narrative content per day. This allowed me to get in and enjoy it in bite-sized chunks without needing to commit to a 4-hour grind in order to progress the story in any meaningful way.
Life is Strange: True Colors
Developer: Deck Nine Games | Publisher: Square Enix
The latest installment of the episodic, graphic adventure franchise, Life is Strange: True Colors, is a perfect fit as a finalist for the Dr. Mark Award. Alex Chen adjusts to her new life out of the foster care system and with her big brother in an idyllic, Colorado, mining town all while struggling with her ability to literally feel the emotions of others. This game is gripping and riveting in its narrative and fascinating in the choices that it requires players to make. Judging committee member Osama Dorias had this to say:
Life is Strange: True Colors had a very nuanced exploration of childhood trauma and how it relates to empathy in adulthood, presenting it as both a boon and a curse. This resonated with me deeply as an overly empathetic person. I saw myself represented in the struggles of the protagonist in ways I haven’t experienced in a game before.
Winner of the 2022 Dr. Mark Kline Community Choice Award Winner – Spiritfarer
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games | Publisher: Thunder Lotus Games
In the initial nomination phase, the sandbox adventure game Spiritfarer was the community favorite and earned the 2022 Dr. Mark Kline Community Choice Award! Given its stunning art design, the complexity of the story, and the thematic timeliness of a game which addresses grief, loss, and personal meaning, it’s easy to understand why! In this game, you play the role of Stella – a newfound guide to deceased souls, literally ferrying them to their final resting place.
Spiritfarer incorporates serious themes and themes of mental health into its very core – from its overall narrative to its individual gameplay mechanics. The game introduces characters who are truly complex and explores deep and emotional stories that are not just simply resolved. It also deals with the very difficult topics of death, dying, and the coming to terms with death and dying, and it does so sensitively and artistically. This is especially meaningful in the time of the pandemic, where many were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones and lacked that sense of closure. I imagine for some, Spiritfarer was a cathartic experience in that way.
While many games on this list had narratives that touched on mental health themes, Spiritfarer excelled in that every action taken in the game, whether it be accompanying a guest on a tour of a past trauma or simply offering them a hug or bowl of soup, felt like it directly served those themes and advanced the narrative forward. Often in games, narrative and gameplay can feel like two distinct experiences – where cutscenes advance the story and gameplay is the entertainment filler in between, but the best games merge the two into one cohesive experience. That is the success of Spiritfarer.
Winner of the 2022 Dr. Mark Kline Award for Mental Health Representation in Games – Psychonauts 2
Developer: Double Fine | Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
We’re so excited to announce Psychonauts 2 as the 2022 Dr. Mark Award winner! In this platformer sequel to the beloved 2005 original, Psychonauts 2 finds psychic, 10-year-old Raz unraveling the mystery of a suspected double agent within the Psychonauts organization. To do so, he must enter the minds of various other characters to help them confront their fears and memories, as well as confronting his own, all while battling enemies who are manifestations of various emotional and cognitive phenomena like panic attacks and enablers. This game is definitely a staff favorite at Take This. Given how the judging committee members reacted, it’s clear why this game made such an impression.
To me, Psychonauts 2 took mental health and did something that no one had ever really done before. The creative ways in which the developers took the illnesses and made them part of the game designs, threw you into an ever changing world which threw the player into the minds of people that were struggling. Psychonauts 2 manages to make these challenges the player faces into compassionate and educational levels…it just went above and beyond for the representation of mental health. I feel this was a great way to show people the true way that the characters in-game feel through art form, but it never stepped over the line to show the player what living with mental health conditions is like.
Psychonauts 2 made an enormous impact on me in my own personal mental health journey. While the sequel is a wildly competent adventure game, it also provides fantastic depictions of how addiction, depression, anxiety, and nihilism can feel. The worlds Raz explores offer smart environmental storytelling that creates endless points of discussion for players to unpack, and the approachable gameplay format has encouraged many conversations in my own life about mental health struggles and victories.
Congratulations to all of our 2022 Dr. Mark Award finalists and to our winners! Stay tuned for a special edition of Take This Plays on Take This’ Twitch channel! We’ll be playing and talking about our 2022 Dr. Mark Award winners and finalists. We might even have a few surprises.
Author: Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD
Bio: Dr. Boccamazzo is a clinical psychologist in Washington State and has been the clinical director of Take This since 2015, often applying his perspective as an autism and ADHD self-advocate. He is an expert on the applied use of TTRPGs in clinical and learning settings, occasional author, and frequent consultant and collaborator both on and off-camera to the YouTube channel How to ADHD.
Dr. Boccamazzo can be found on Twitter at @TheeDoctorB.