Sea of Solitude is the latest high-profile video game to artfully explore mental health, trauma and isolation
'It is a worldwide trend, not only in games, that we talk more openly about mental health issues'
This story contains mild spoilers for Sea of Solitude and Gris.
The inspiration for Cornelia Geppert's playable journey through loneliness and self-doubt was also the person closest to her: a former partner.
He would disappear for hours or days at a time only to return with apologetic pleas, emphasizing his love for her. She describes the relationship as emotionally abusive.
"The maximum was ... 14 days that he vanished and it was excruciating. It was so painful," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Eventually he shared with Geppert that he was living with depression. She then began researching how best to help not only him, but also herself.
The revelation motivated Geppert, co-founder of Berlin-based Jo-Mei Games, to make Sea of Solitude, a video game set in a world where players can explore the complexity of their own emotions.
"I started because it was all so overwhelming for me," she said. "As an artist, what you do when you have overwhelming feelings? You let it out by putting it into your art."
In the game, you play as Kay, a young woman seemingly alone in a flooded city reminiscent of Berlin.
As Kay travels through this world, she encounters monsters — each representing an inner thought or troubling memory to unravel — that guide her to better understand her pain and loneliness.
It's the latest in a genre of games that tackle the challenging subject of mental health and give players a chance to reflect on their own feelings as they play.
And while top publishers once shied away from personal narratives tackling tough topics, Geppert says that's changing.
"It is a worldwide trend, not only in games, that we talk more openly about mental health issues," she told Day 6.
Mirroring players' inner monsters
Loneliness has turned Kay into a monster with piercing red eyes and wild black hair. The player must find a way to return her to her human form.
She captains a rickety dinghy to explore the flooded scenery drenched with metaphors.
The weather, for example, changes based on Kay's emotional state. As the monsters recede and hope lifts, the sun breaks through. When she's struggling to overcome the self-doubt inside her mind, the environment becomes harsh and unsafe.
"What's the meaning of those other characters ... in terms of Kay? How are they connected to Kay? This is what you need to figure out in order to turn Kay human again," said Geppert.
With self-doubt, you never completely destroy it ... You just bring it into a state that you can handle.- Cornelia Geppert, Jo-Mei Games
It's hardly the escapist fantasy of Super Mario World or Fortnite — but that's the point. Geppert hopes players will relate Kay's struggles to their own.
Games like Sea of Solitude, or Gris by Barcelona-based Nomada Studio, are designed to offer a hand to players who are struggling with their own "monsters."
In Gris — Spanish for gray — players are tasked with bringing colour back to a black-and-white world.
"That's, for us, the best and the most important mechanic of Gris: this unlocking which represents this evolution of the state of mind of the girl," technical director Adrian Cuevas told Day 6.
Though the story of Gris is more subtle than Sea of Solitude, it's clear you're helping the main character, a girl also named Gris, overcome her grief by pushing against the forces that hold her back.
Early in her adventure, for example, Gris is given the power to transform into a heavy block. She must use it to ground herself against winds that knock her down.
"One of the things we wanted to get the players to do is to project their own stories," Cuevas explained, adding that there's no dialogue throughout the game.
"Hopefully, if you connect with the game ... you will experience what the girl is experiencing which, at the end, is overcoming this pain."
Therapy with a controller
Neither game pretends to be a solution for player's mental health. Both Geppert and Cuevas recognize that confronting one's own inner turmoil is nuanced and deeply personal.
"[Sea of Solitude] is about a more human approach," said Geppert. "In order to heal Kay, you need to bring her emotions into balance."
"With self-doubt, you never completely destroy it ... You just bring it into a state that you can handle; that is healthy."
For as much as Gris is about trauma, reviewers have called the watercolour-themed puzzle relaxing. Cuevas describes its format as cinematic.
Meanwhile, Sea of Solitude could be interpreted as a vision of a dystopian future, despite its personal, psychological narrative.
According to Geppert, it's the connection players create with Kay that helped Sea of Solitude rise from indie darling to top-billing at Electronic Arts.
"There are more and more games I see coming out, tackling the issues of mental health," Geppert said.
"Because it's started to be a bigger and bigger topic, publishers have been extra interested in our game, so it was an advantage."
Written and produced by Jason Vermes.
To hear the full interview with Cornelia Geppert, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.
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