Heroes in our Reflection: Why We Need to See Characters Dealing with Mental Illness

Rise of the Tomb Raider’s first E3 trailer was groundbreaking. With such an explosive and action-packed first outing, every frame of the sequel’s trailer could have been stuffed with dangerous falls from dizzying heights, silent stealth kills, and story beats describing the urgency to discover lost artifacts.

Instead, it featured an emotionally vulnerable Lara Croft sitting in therapy.

I personally found this deeply moving. With this trailer, gone were the days of the original Lara Croft, whose devil-may-care attitude and nonchalance of killing people and endangered species made up the bulk of her personality. Instead of a cold avatar, I saw a young woman who was strong enough to drum up the courage to deal with her demons.

For the first time in a long time, I saw me.

I remember my first day of therapy. I sat first in a waiting room in the basement of an office building, trying to control a shaking hand as I filled out patient information and consent forms. I remember my voice being shay and strained as I recounted incredibly personal feelings and issues to a sympathetic stranger. I remember feeling restless and terrified to be there, and dealing with the shock of being diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Seeing Lara Croft-a character I already had a strong attachment to-going through the same thing was a powerful experience, even if it only lasted for a few seconds. I lead an active lifestyle, but I can safely assume I’ll never climb vines and solve ancient puzzles in a foreign tomb. But I will continue to cope with my own challenges every day of my life, and seeing a powerful character do the same thing granted me a not-insignificant amount of strength.

Our heroes are at their best when we see ourselves reflected in their actions. Not only can we borrow from their strength, but we can glean the hope that if they can conquer their demons, maybe we can too.

It’s sadly a rarity to see these things depicted well in media, thanks to various stigmas that have plagued conversations about this topic for decades. But, that doesn’t mean it cannot be found.

There’s a lot to dig into by way of mental illness in Dontnod’s Life is Strange, but there’s one moment in particular that sticks out to me as particularly powerful.

While searching Chloe’s house, the main character Max discovers Fluoxetine tablets, the generic form of the commonly-used antidepressant Prozac. This is just a brief moment, but its implications speak volumes.

Taking medication is an intensely personal decision that should only be made between a patient and the medical professionals they see for their respective illness. It’s a scary prospect; taking something with the ability to alter brain chemistry is no small matter, and its effects can sometimes be frustrating or demoralizing.

But it’s an important step for those who feel they need it. Therapy and cognitive re-training is important, but there are some cases that require a prescribed boost to help the patient better deal with their recovery. As someone who has been taking varying doses of medication for the better part of a year, seeing this was encouraging. There was no condemnation, no jokes, no negative assumptions.

Seeing the results of Chloe’s choice to go on medication normalized it, helping me take another step toward viewing it with the same familiarity as an antibiotic or an anti-inflammatory.

The upcoming Hellblade from the makers of Heavenly Sword will be used as a vehicle to explore the effects of mental illness (in this case, PTSD) on a warrior in a fantasy world.

Of course, there are potential pitfalls and problems an ambition like this could fall prey to, but the fact that it’s front and center will not only add another flawed, relatable character into the video game oeuvre but will also encourage conversation and move us one step further toward eradicating the stigma surrounding discussion.

I’m tired of stoic, stony, do-good heroes. I’m tired of the infallible, the indestructible, and the relentless. It’s the relatable heroes who struggle with the same realities as the players that make a difference, those heroes who not only deal with immediate threats, but the demons that plague them as a result. There is strength in fragility, and power in vulnerability.

Because when we see our heroes wrestle with challenges on par with ours, something amazing happens. Their struggles reflect real life, their willingness to change empowers the beleaguered, and their victories become our own.

Cassidee Moser
Cassidee is a freelancer for multiple outlets on the web, including IGN, Kill Screen, and CG Magazine. When not writing about games, she’s usually drawing something or watching adorable corgi videos on YouTube. You can chat with her on Twitter @CassideeMoser

Cassidee Moser
Cassidee is a freelancer for multiple outlets on the web, including IGN, Kill Screen, and CG Magazine. When not writing about games, she's usually drawing something or watching adorable corgi videos on YouTube. You can chat with her on Twitter @CassideeMoser

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