When a Game Becomes a Troubling Psychological Self-Portrait


#1

A few weeks ago, when she got sick with the flu, my partner started playing Stardew Valley. “I need a soft, sweet game,” she said, and she’d been pretty taken with what she’d seen over my shoulder as I went about my routines of feeding chickens, tending gardens, and giving gifts to friends. So she gave it a try.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/wj4zp4/when-a-game-becomes-a-troubling-psychological-self-portrait

#2

I played Katawa Shoujo when I was 17 in high school and pining very heavily for some affection. It was the first visual novel I ever played. By the time I was getting to the end, I tapped out.

I was legitimately uncomfortable with the feelings I had for this 2D character (Lilly). Or more specifically, how real those feelings felt. In retrospect I assume that had to do with my inability to be a romantic or otherwise engaging person in the real world. Didn’t talk to many people, read a lot, had my headphones on when I wasn’t in class-I skipped prom to play Portal 2, I wasn’t exactly prime date material. I was worried about what people would think of me. To be honest I don’t think feeling that way in a VN is necessarily bad. It was certainly a sign that I thought the character was well-written and felt life-like. But she wasn’t alive, so…I haven’t played a VN since.

Six years later I realized I was asexual tho so I guess it all worked out, lol


#3

This was neat but honestly woulda loved a deep dive into meritocracy/capitalist alienation with this.“I was supposed to relax but was completely directed but what I felt like I needed to produce” is real as hell and i deal with it in my organizing work all the time


#4

Universal Paperclips, within my first five minutes of play it started pulling up the worst of my anxiety, I immediately had to stop. I will never play that game again.


#5

I’d say this is a normal reaction to a lot of visual novels. Normal as in, a lot of people deal with it for their first visual novel. I remember one visual novel I played when I was in high school although I believe I was 15, Sakura Wars: So Long my Lost Love. I literally spent 2 days straight playing it, only stopping for a quick 4-hour nap. By the end of that weird marathon (which was emulated at around 2fps for combat sections) I had developed some very confusing feelings for the character I had romanced. Although I still play Visual Novels, I never quite felt like that again for a video game character. It’s definitely a wild headspace.

On topic with self-portrait games; I’d say any management sim, open-world game, or strategy game really brings this out.

Factorio really brings out my inability to put substance over aesthetic. I will work extra hours just to make sure my Factorio map looks nice, rather than works well. I much prefer when something has a nice feel and look to it. Having turrets placed symmetrically, placing mines in a way that they’re all next to each other rather than weirdly staggered, things like that.

Red Dead Redemption is an odd one. As a younger person, I was all about that chaos. I would tie women to railroad tracks, shoot random strangers, etc. Essentially, I was a horrific bandit living out some weird Snidley Whiplash fantasy. When I returned to it after coming into my own and no longer being a shitheel, I played that game so much more passively. I used the lasso a lot, trying to make sure I didn’t kill anyone I didn’t have to. It was certainly a contrasted experience but it also felt nicer, and made me connect more with John Marston, as much as I could connect with that character.

Stardew Valley also did this for me. Rather than the ruthless efficiency, I just made friends. My farm was a pittance, a sad little thing off to the side of a prosperous town. But I was married, and had a wonderful wife so I was happy with it. I was content only ever growing one type of plant and spending most of my days just wandering through town, poor but happy.


#6

Piggybacking on something that was said in the article, but the number of games where I’ve realized I care more for the animals than the people is too numerous to count. Danse is getting beat around by some super mutants? Hey, suck it up. Someone looked sideways at Dogmeat? Sorry, your entire camp must die now.

Most recently it hit me after giving Monster Hunter Worlds a try. The beating up, chasing down, and killing monsters made me queasy. So, I decided to take a break and try out… Ghost Recon Wildlands. Yeah.


#7

First off “Jeff Bezos Comes to Stardew Valley” is the perfect description and an incredibly unsettling image.

What’s a game that made you suddenly hyper self-conscious, or surprised you with how it reflected your personality?

The game that made me hyper aware of just how left-brained-to-a-fault I was in my approach to everything was roller coaster tycoon 3. Not initially mind you, but after my twin brother and I started comparing parks and approaches to the game. Where sandbox mode with unlimited money was his home and where he made beautifully detailed parks, I mostly played the scenarios or used limited amounts of money. Where he was designing walkways and sight-lines, I was trying to design the most exciting roller coaster for the least amount of money. He may have always made the prettier, more pleasant parks, but I took solace in making an actual profit!

As someone who aspires to be creative and always be working on tiny projects, seeing how I approached this game and other simulation/strategy games helped me figure out a lot about my creative strengths and weaknesses and how I should approach creative projects. I am at my best when I’m working towards solving a problem. I’ll never write a good story for any of my RPG campaigns I GM, but I thrived when one of my story’s made me solve the puzzle of designing rules for cutthroat kitchen in one of my Pathfinder campaigns.


#8

This feels like a weird thing to say, but for me it’s been monogamy. I met my wife in college and have never been with or even desired to be with another person. I’m now in my 30s and to be honest, whatever trait it is that has me wired as such a monogamous person has worked out very well for me. We’re happily married and I think the main reason I’ve never felt tempted to be with anyone else is that I got very lucky and my wife is awesome, BUT…

When I played through Persona 4 Golden, I started dating Yukiko pretty early on. Even as the game went on and I realized that I thought Chie, Rise and Naoto were all much cooler and more interesting characters, I couldn’t bring myself to pursue those romantic story lines because, damn it, I’m already committed to Yukiko! The same thing happened to me in the Mass Effect trilogy where I started dating Liara in ME1 and even though there are tons of interesting romantic options throughout the series, I’d been with Liara since the beginning and I couldn’t throw that away! Even in a video game, I couldn’t flip that switch even when it would objectively make for a more interesting and varied game experience. I played through Catherine and tried very hard to get Vincent to stay with his fiancé and it really took me out of the experience to see that I couldn’t. Again, I think this trait has overall served me well in life, but it’s just bizarre that in games where I fly spaceships through the Milky Way or fight Japanese gods inside of TVs, it feels too unrealistic to have different or multiple romantic partners. :smile:


#9

au contraire, my friend. Katherine Ending: In this ending, Vincent has a meeting with Katherine and asks her to take him back. In the bad ending, she refuses and dumps him. In the good ending, Vincent’s friends and Mutton reveal Vincent’s ordeal, and Katherine forgives him and accepts his proposal of marriage. In the true ending, they are married

Edit: unless you mean you specifically weren’t able to pull it off. Sry if I’m misreading.


#10

Haha, I meant get him to stay with her from the beginning. I wasn’t clear. There are text messages you can send Katherine with a K in the beginning that make it seem like you can just tell her to bugger off. But they don’t do anything. You still have to keep cheating on your fiancé. That’s what I meant had taken me out of the experience.


#11

Ah, gotcha! That’s 100% fair, and I’m honestly in the same boat as you. It’s also why I didn’t finish the game. I learned that that type of story doesn’t really appeal to me.


#12

Ah, i remember extremely well how it felt to be playing Stardew at time of release and, looking through online conversations about it, feeling alone amidst players whose main preoccupation was the efficiency and output of their farms. Their farms were huge, finely organized, optimized for maximum beauty and profitability. Whereas mine was a small, tiny thing that hardly extended leftwards of the house. All i really wanted was to see the fruits, see what new vegetables would grow each season, and for the longest time i thought i was playing it wrong. I really hadn’t seen how the game makes it easy to become that kind of, uh, pastoral industrialist and maybe i was really missing the point of it. For a tiny bit i was depressed to see that even there, for how comfortable the game was, it was also making me feel alone and out of place. I sort of fizzled out of it because of this.

My proper answer is probably Majora’s Mask, i like to think of myself as an empathetic person but the game really pushed my ability to enjoy fruitless empathy. Having to rewind the game and always, always seeing the people go through the same troubles they had before you helped them, it was extremely emotionally tiring and struck at my tendency to help because of a personal attachment to fixing broken things, instead of taking satisfaction from altruistic help. Now i’m older and know how to describe it, but at the time i had no frame of mind to think about it in an healthy way.


#13

I think I must have started and dropped Dark Souls half a dozen times before I started to really dive into it. Part of that was not realizing that the Undead Burg was up a hill I never noticed – and the bad, bad Catacombs and New Londo Ruins were not where I wanted to be – but it was largely due to my propensity to prematurely give up on something once I’m faced with the slightest bit of discomforting challenge. Every time I tried getting back into the game, I sincerely wanted to see what everyone enjoyed about it, but that appeal always washed away once I hit a wall of skeletons or unorthodox combat. When I finally took the game “seriously” (for lack of better words) I had to confront my own personal failings that have followed me throughout my life. I had to recognize that I have always looked for the easy way out of everything, be it a difficult video game or my then-nonexistent career trajectory. Once I was able to recognize and accept that aspect of my personality, I found myself more patient and willing to fail fast at the game. I found myself becoming conditioned into the understanding that sometimes I’ll have to fail before I can succeed.

Eventually I was able to defeat Knight Artorias, and I felt more pride at that moment than a video game has ever made me feel. Not just because I beat an especially difficult boss in a hard game, but because I recognized that I had only gotten to that point due to the game forcing me to confront my own regrettable nature. It’s been years since that virtual triumph, but that whole experience left a lasting impression on me that I call on to this day.


#14

I recently started replaying Dragon Quest Builders and I’ve been trying to make nicer towns than I did the first time around. In the process, I’ve noticed that even in a video game all about building and breaking things down and rebuilding, I was (and still am) incredibly hesitant to actually change things, like the existing structures or landscape.

I built my towns on the existing uneven ground, and didn’t knock down any preexisting walls or rooms in the town. I’d venture as far away from my base as I could to gather resources so when I did have to get a large amount of resources (I love me a chalk wall), I wouldn’t have to see the changed landscape. I’d even refuse to gather certain uncraftable resources that’d doubtlessly make my town nicer because it meant destroying an existing structure in that world, even if it was abandoned and run-down.

Now that I’m replaying it I’m trying to put a bit more work into breaking that impulse so I can focus on making pretty towns, but it’s tough because I still find myself trying to minimize how much I actually end up destroying because oh no I can’t just wreck this old castle that’s bad!!!


#15

This might not be the same sort of thing, but as someone who has a bad sense of direction in the real world, I realize that part of the reason I have such a bad time with games like Prey and Dishonored 2 is that I have so hard of a time dealing with sprawling, complex environments that requires a decent sense of direction.


#16

Last night I had a kind of breakthrough in Street Fighter V. I’ve been messing around with it since launch, mostly doing the trials and story missions, practicing combos in training, watching vods, etc. I only rarely play online, and rarely for very long and have malingered in Bronze (2nd from lowest) league pretty much the whole time. My literacy for the language of fighting games has improved to the point that I very clearly understand my weaknesses and can recognize what I should be doing but normally my opponents are just as bad and my wild flailing will get me a win 4/10 times.

But last night I played an opponent who wasn’t much better than me in absolute terms (was only Ultra Bronze) but he revealed how deeply I lack a plan in how to implement the basic theory of fighting games (oki, neutral, punishing, efficiency, etc) and was unkind about it.

Getting outclassed like that felt bad: where usually I feel nothing at a loss, this felt like a failure. All that time I’d felt like I was getting ok at the game and if I just grinded match making I’d place much higher. However, I was clearly a fraud.

However, it also made me want to actually get better, find him and beat him.


#17

Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Gotta do all the daily things, maybe hit the island and get some cash (even though I’m already ridiculously rich in the game), check the shops for items I don’t have in my catalogue yet (and check them off in my spreadsheet if I get them)… If I’ve street passed someone I have to check their house to see if I can order items I don’t have.

At one point I was trying to get my fiance to help me code a “Happy Home Optimizer” to tell you which of your furniture items in what configuration in a room would give you the most points.

I put the game down several months ago, and while I do want to go back and complete my museum (in my own town; I started out in my fiance’s and completed his museum for him before I ever got my own game)… I think maybe I shouldn’t.


#18

Great article. I am always bummed out at what violent games reveal about myself. The first time was Metal Gear Solid:Snake Eater. I was always compelled to kill the enemy soldiers and drag them behind bushes or somewhere out of the way. I fell into the same routine in Skyrim. I set out going, “I am gonna kill as few people as possible!” Next thing you know there are bodies all over crapping up the aesthetics of the landscape. Then i’m all, “Better clean this mess up…”
Then there are the sandbox type games…seems like it’s after I fail building the best castle in the world I set to building my dumpy childhood home in it’s shadow. I guess that’s so my character can look out his window and see his failures. Perhaps we are “open world” gaming too much?Maybe it’s time to get back into the ol’ linear games with very very strict story lines?


#19

Oh man, this got me thinking. Stardew Valley is probably an accurate depiction of how my mind currently works. My farm makes money but isn’t terribly organized and is fairly small. Despite my love of animals I haven’t gotten any because I have a weird anxiety about caring for video game animals (I never played Nintendogs but learning that the dogs would decline if you didn’t play the game for a while mildly traumatized me). I’ve slowly but steadily befriended a lot of the villagers but I started with the kids, the cute old couple, the animal lady, the homeless man, and the outdoorsy artist. I spend the bulk of my time wandering around and picking up whatever I can find (I’ve dabbled in all the skill sets but it’s noteworthy that foraging is my highest level skill, and the one that I resort to without even thinking). As a depressed and very anxious person I think the way I play reflects an ideal of mine: I can spend as much time as I want exploring nature, having adventures, and (when I choose) socializing with friends, and money isn’t a huge issue. In other words, capitalism doesn’t occupy a central place in how I play this game, or at least not as central a place as it (by necessity) occupies in real life.

Comparatively, how I’ve been playing Persona 5 thus far (second palace, 30 hours in because I’m the person who must investigate every aspect of the open world I can find) reflects who I was in high school (and, to a lesser extent, college). So far my character’s highest stat is intelligence because I make sure to answer every quiz question correctly and I frequently make him study. Proficiency is his second highest stat because I insist on being thorough and getting every ounce of loot from the palaces. My academic career was characterized by prioritizing grades and GPA to the detriment of nearly everything else; my insistence on perfectionism meant that it took up a substantial amount of my time. I’m trying to give my character a healthier balance than I had, especially in terms of social links, and I’m working on raising his kindness stat so he can work on his bonds with people like Ann. It was startling though to see how quickly I reverted back to my old priorities once placed in a high school setting.


#20

I just wanna state this for the record: STARDEW IS ALL ABOUT THE DATING!!! The chicken coups and pickling tubs are just accoutrements for the ultimate end game: dating. I’ve been waiting since the PS1 harvest moon for a proper farming/dating sim.