A Hamilton video game studio is working with doctors from St. Joseph's Healthcare and McMaster University to buck one of gaming's most notorious themes — the representation of psychosis and mental health issues in media.

Those are common themes in modern video games, but they're often sensationalized, and used for little more than excuses for violence and cheap jump scares.

But in Moonray Studio's upcoming release Debris, players will experience a more authentic representation of what psychosis can really be like, said Dan Clark, the company's president.

"We're not treading lightly on the subject," Clark said. "We're going head on in a way that's respectful. We're coming at it from a compassionate side."

The game is described as an atmospheric single-player/co-op adventure, where players are trapped in the depths of a surreal frozen ocean and creatures lurk in the darkness. Players can explore the game on their own, or with friends online.

Enduring a psychotic episode

But there's a catch: the pressure of the experience pushes one of those characters to a psychotic break, yet the players don't know whom.

"It's about trying to trust reality and trusting the people around you," Clark said. "Players are bound together and reliant on each other."

"One person may be seeing a person talking to them, when that person isn't actually there."

Debris game

Moonray worked with doctors from St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, McMaster University and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Debris. (Moonray Studios)

The game's designers worked closely with an advisory committee of experts from St. Joseph's Healthcare, McMaster University and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, chaired by Dr. Suzanne Archie. She's the clinical director of the Cleghorn early intervention in psychosis program at St. Joe's.

"There's such misconception out there in the public about what psychosis is — and a lot of that stems from media portrayal," Archie said. "It's important to have different experiences out there that people can relate to and understand."

Serious mental illness often starts appearing in the 18 to 24 age bracket, she says. Tapping into video games as a market can help bring information to young people in a medium they care about, and in a way that might sink in more intensely than a pamphlet or book.

Breaking down misconceptions

Archie says she's hoping that through projects like this one, video games will be able to break down a misconception that psychosis only seems to happen to people of a certain socioeconomic status, or that people dealing with psychosis are always violent or aggressive.

"That's not what the psychotic experience is like," she said. Instead, people can deal with changes in perception, vision and hearing.

Debris game

Debris is available to play on Steam on Oct. 2. (Moonray Studios)

The game's designers are reluctant to give away too many details about what actually happens during the story, for fear of spoiling the plot. But, Clark said, one component of the multiplayer experience is working with someone who is having a psychotic break, and trying to help them deal with the situation.

"It's about thinking about how to navigate a threat when you can't see or experience it," he said.

The game is a truly Hamilton project. Moonray is based in the city and consulted with local doctors, and the audio and voice acting was recorded at Threshold Recording Studio and coordinated by CoBalt Connects.

"That's the power of Hamilton," Clark said. "You can really tap into talent and harness the power of the Golden Horseshoe."

Debris will be available on Steam on Oct. 2.

adam.carter@cbc.ca