I’m a grab-bag of mental health issues, as anyone who knows me can tell you. Anxiety, depression, anger, low self-esteem, the works. I live with a constant anxiety that’s hard to even explain to other people because it’s such a core part of who I am as a person.
This is exactly why games are a part of my self-care routine. I need to have an hour at the end of my workday to do something I enjoy — read a book, play a game, watch cartoons — or I start getting loopy. And by loopy I mean I gouge holes out in my desk with my okapi knife.
Games transport me to a fantasy world where I’m not troubled by intrusive thoughts. Where I don’t feel sad. Or I do feel sad but I feel ok about feeling sad. I feel relaxed, I go into a flow state, I immerse myself in a story with memorable characters, and at the end of it, I feel better somehow. Sometimes I even get inspired to write poetry inspired by the games I play to process my emotions or whatever’s going on in my life.
Mental health has become an endemic problem during the COVID-19 pandemic — understandably so with the threat of the apocalypse hanging over all our heads. Games are a good way to cope when reality feels too much to handle.
Here are 6 indie games to help you cope with anxiety or depression.
I once described Donut County as a game that feels like popping bubble wrap or like listening to ASMR music.
Donut County is a game about dropping things down into holes. Animals. Objects. Food. Buildings. Cities. You will not believe how relaxing it feels.
Donut County offers silly, absurdist humor, soft, pastel colors, and a short playthrough conducive to quick gaming sessions. This is the kind of game you would play after a hard day’s work for 30 minutes so you feel better about your day.
Celeste is a pixelart game about a girl climbing a snowy mountain. Why? Just because she can and she wants to. Well, it’s implied that she has other reasons but that’s the gist of it.
As you get higher, you start to experience anxiety at increasingly intense levels and even have to race against a doppelganger formed from your self-doubt, then finally learn how to overcome your panic attacks. There’s a beautiful sequence where you visualize your breathing as a feather floating in the wind.
The platforming is brutal in this game, like Super Meat Boy levels of difficulty. It never feels frustrating though, and you get a sense that you’ve accomplished something whenever you complete a level and climb higher up the mountain.
Celeste carries a good message in its narrative about pushing yourself to accomplish your goals, and about regulating your emotions when the outside world seems too much. Do recommend.
Spiritfarer is quite possibly the most relaxing game I’ve ever played.
In Spiritfarer you play the role of Stella, who has been given the task of comforting the spirits of the dead and then escorting them to the afterlife. It tells a story about how to deal with grief and loss, about how all relationships are impermanent and that’s exactly what gives them meaning.
You do repetitive tasks that become more absorbing the more you do them. You connect with the game’s characters and feel sad that they’re gone. It’s a beautiful meditation on death that explores the value of kindness and compassion in the last moments of a person’s life.
Spiritfarer is a must-play. It’s possibly the best indie game of the last 5 years. Just be prepared to ugly cry.
Owlboy is a game I recently played for fun.
It’s a beautiful looking and sounding game about transcending disability. The main character is mute and relies on his friends to defend himself from enemies and communicate with the outside world — and in turn, you enable them to fly.
Owlboy features a beautiful, orchestral soundtrack, 16-bit era graphics that make the game feel nostalgic in all the right places, and gameplay that’s fun but not very difficult — meaning it’s a game you can relax to without thinking too hard.
Disclaimer: Tavrox is a friend and colleague of mine. I’ve interviewed him for the blog before and his process for influencer marketing for indie games was the basis of my first digital marketing case study.
I’ve praised Neurodeck before for its art style, fun, addicting gameplay, and for tackling sensitive mental health topics with grace and tact. The finished version only improves what was already fun about the alpha and builds on it from there.
More indie games ought to be made which normalize taboo subjects like mental health and tell narratives about marginalized groups of people, and games like Neurodeck are a big stride in the right direction.
Neurodeck is a game I can recommend without any reservations.
Night in the Woods
Night in the Woods is one of the most well-known indie games of all time. The arts-and-crafts visual style and anthropomorphic animal characters make it instantly recognizable and it’s often featured on Top 10 lists of the best indie games of all time.
The main character Mae drops out of college because of her untreated mental health issues. As the story goes along, you learn that she almost beat a kid to death with a baseball bat because she suffers from a dissociative identity disorder where she can no longer distinguish people from objects.
This game hits you with some pretty hard doses of reality and it can get abruptly dark and real very quickly. It touches on a lot of the socio-economic issues that have been a feature of American political discourse since the 2016 election e.g. right-wing populism, late-stage capitalism, identity politics.
The underlying plot of the game involves you being chased by an underground, eldritch-god worshiping death cult, but most of the game isn’t even about that. 90% of the game is just you messing around and doing stupid shit with your friends while you talk about life.
It’s a slow-paced game that deals with themes like abuse, mental health, terminal illness, and being trapped in a bad situation.
And that about wraps it up! Indie games have a lot of potential to help people cope with mental health issues, and these are just some of the games that prove that.
What indie games do you play to help cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms? What games do you think need to be added to this list? Tell me about them in the comments below!