Disclaimer: Spoilers for Uncharted 4! I’d also like to emphasize that my experience with mental health is not universal. Depression is experienced differently for everybody and should be treated with the utmost respect, and this piece is intended to highlight my experience in taking the necessary steps to seek out treatment.
I sit perched at the edge of my seat, fingers tapping nervously away at the cool granite of the countertop in front of me. The ticking noise from the clock that hangs on the wall acts as a metronome, matching the tempo of my own heartbeat–quick and anxious. He is standing across the counter, scanning over the newspaper. I open my mouth to speak, but there are no words. My throat is dry, and I fidget uncomfortably.
“Dad, I think I’m depressed.”
I’m playing Uncharted 4 on my PlayStation as a friend watches. We are nearing the end of the game, and I talk excitedly over the cut scene of Nate and Elena on the pier. Although my investment in the Uncharted series didn’t start until the end of 2015, I had spent the better half of that year playing through the previous three titles back to back. I mothered Nathan Drake incessantly, berating his poor choices and blaming the numerous times I died as if it were his fault as opposed to my inability to take cover. Hours were spent exploring each section of the game for treasure, listening intently to the conversations the characters had with each other, and becoming invested in their well-being.
The screen goes black after Nate and Elena are finished talking, and I feel satisfied with the game. My friend insists that I wait for the epilogue. I lean forward, my grip around the controller tightening as the excitement I hold slowly turns into confusion, a gasp, and followed immediately by tears.
“They have a kid!” I say, reaching up to wipe at my eyes. “Oh my god, there’s a dog!” A rush of emotions overtake me. After we finish exploring the epilogue and the credits roll slowly up the length of the television, I fall backwards onto my couch and exhale. It’s over. With that realization, I become hollow. The feelings of happiness and contentment become replaced with nothing.
After finishing Uncharted 4 I realized that the emotions I felt while playing a video game to completion very much mirrored the ups and downs of my mental health throughout the course of my adult life.
When it was release day, I drove to pick up my collector’s edition and strapped it into the passenger side with the seat belt stretched carefully over the box. The anticipation to play was unreal. Picking up the controller before starting a new title rejuvenates my sense of excitement and eagerness. Clocking in hours spent exploring new environments, creating relationships with characters, and becoming invested in the narrative all mirror my “good” days. I’m content and happy.
The state of mind I’m in before playing a new game is a parallel to when I feel normal and completely functional.
Watching as the screen goes black and transitions to a wall of text full of developer names and acknowledgements following the end of a game brings a familiar emptiness in my stomach. It’s something that I never knew how to describe, but it happened every time I finished a game that really resonated with me.
That desolate, vacant feeling parallels my “bad” days. I’m withdrawn and lethargic. The emptiness is crippling and strange.
There were a lot of scenes from the game involving Nate that roused something in me, but chapter 4 was what got me to realize how my emotional fluctuations related to this medium and my mental health. The beginning of the chapter A Normal Life features a domesticated Nathan, hunched over a desk and working haphazardly on paperwork. Clearly, this wasn’t the life he had pictured for himself but this is where he was. He sits, staring at the manilla folder that holds the details on the coveted Malaysia job that Elena suggests he take. It would be back to normal- his idea of normal.
“Nope. No way. You’re going back in with the others.” He reaches over to open a file cabinet full of what are assumed to be rejected jobs or offers of adventure. He and I are alike in this moment. Unhappy, but trying to be a peace about the current situation.
When he picks up the toy gun and shoots plastic balls at the targets from his past, he becomes excited and animated. He becomes nostalgic as he roams around the attic, looking at trinkets from adventures long ago. The memories are good. He’s back to normal. But he’s pulled back to reality within a few minutes, to the mundane routine of life.
Later on in the chapter Elena and Nate are on the couch sharing a tender moment. Their laughter quickly dwindles down as she reaches up to caress his cheek.
“Hey, are you happy?” She asks, her voice low. He breaks his gaze from hers for a moment before answering.
“Yeah, of course.”
Playing games have both helped and hindered my mental health. They’ve helped me through rough patches and provided comfort. They’ve also prevented me from tackling my mental health in a positive and constructive way. Finishing Uncharted 4 was the final push I needed to confront what I had been avoiding for so long.
I identified with Nathan a lot because he and I were similar. We were both lying to ourselves.
Throughout the game, Nate had a hard time starting an honest conversation with himself because of his own standards–sic parvis magna. He believed himself to be destined for great things, and pride often got him into trouble. Another parallel between us.
Seeing characters that I loved go through hardship and come out of it stronger and in better situations struck a nerve with me. Just as Nathan had to be honest with himself, I did too. It’s not easy. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to lie to my wife or be betrayed by my brother in the process…but seeking my fortune came in the form of a different adventure.
There will be weeks where I’m content and happy, and then there will be several days where I crash. Depression is something that never really goes away. It’s cyclical.
But since this epiphany, I’ve begun to better understand my depression and how video games have both helped and hindered my mental health. Drawing a parallel between the emotions I feel after I start and finish a game to my “good” and “bad” days have made me feel comfortable with actually saying the word “depression.” It’s made it okay for me to talk about my mental health.
Games should not be used as a replacement for seeking out therapy, of course. Asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of, and acknowledging that you need it is something that has hindered me from having that conversation. It’s a task I’m actively working on.
But videogames are a great form of escapism and have helped numerous people like me get through tough times–sometimes, just by providing some much-needed relief.