It’s just a little crush: what a game about anxiety taught its creator about the real thing
There they are, that special someone you have a crush on. There they are, standing across the room. You want to talk to them. You look around you; so many people between you and them. You move forward. What will you say? How will you say it? What will they say? People come and chat with you as you slowly make your way across the room, but their words are empty. You only care about getting to your crush. But you're close now. Close. So close. You can hear your heart pounding in your ears. Your vision blurs with each pump. Too close. Too close. You turn away and retreat, as far as you can, away from your crush. Such is the story – and game play – of Crush.
Crush was created by two-person developer Trouble Impact during this year's Global Game Jam. Cat Musgrove, the art and design portion of Trouble Impact, explained the game's creation process on her blog. She wrote that, after playing games like Dys4ia by Anna Anthropy and watching Indie Game: The Movie, she started thinking about how she could use a game to explore her own issues. “Comically enough, I landed on… the way I get when I have a crush on a boy.” “When I tried coming up with ways to explore my boy-craziness in gameplay, my idea was to specifically explore the heart-in-your-mouth sensation of actually trying to talk to said crush. I thought the panic was pretty interesting, and something that a lot of people would be able to relate to,” she wrote.” As luck would have it, this year's GGJ theme was the sound of a beating heart. Musgrove would have the perfect excuse to explore her feelings of anxiety. In Crush, you use the arrow keys – or W, A, S, D if you prefer – to move a red cube around a minimalist environment. There are many other cubes around you, and they're all a dull brownish gray, save for one blue cube in the center, illuminated by white light. The game's only instructions are “Arrow keys to move. Spacebar to begin. Talk to him.” The other cubes will occasionally move around, trying to talk to you. Speech bubbles appear over them and you, but no words are shown. Once a conversation has been started, you're locked in place for a few seconds before you can start to make your way toward the blue cube again. As you move toward your goal, the edges of the screen will begin to pulse – faster and faster the closer you are to it. Your vision will cloud. If the pulsing becomes too intense, you will turn away from the blue cube and run in the opposite direction. It's frustrating in the best way, and you can download it or play online right now. Musgrove wrote that the game can be beaten, but based on my experience, it may take you several tries. I could never avoid the other cubes successfully; one or three would always home in on me to start up a conversation. The “just get it over with” method of rushing forward as fast I could didn't seem to work either. I even tried angling the red cube so that I would walk backwards toward the blue cube. None of my various solutions worked until I stopped trying to “beat” the game and relaxed. If Crush is a parallel to real life flirtatious interactions, it certainly succeeds in making you feel every emotion of someone who's lovesick: desire (must complete goal) excitement (oh boy, almost there) frustration (stop talking to me, I need to get over there) self-loathing (ugh, stop turning away) and sadness (I guess I'll just give up now).
When Musgrove submitted Crush to IndieGames, editor-in-chief John Polson asked her if she'd learned from the experience. The IndieGames article was posted before she'd sent her reply, but Musgrove shared that on her blog as well. “I'm not really sure that I 'learned' anything specific about experiencing anxiety. Instead I would say that we did a study of it by trying to recreate it in game form. It’s like sketching a figure,” she explained, “Where you need to be able to identify the individual parts and understand how they fit together in order to make a realistic drawing. You know that there are arms and legs – like I know that my heart is beating fast and my mouth is dry – but can you put them all together to make something recognizable?” Musgrove also detailed out why systems in the game play work the way they do. While I grew frustrated with the other cubes speaking to me, it turns out they could actually be used to help my red cube's anxiety. “Talking to others puts you into a 'cool down' state, where your anxiety decreases linearly, although it’s a slow change. Unfortunately, you don’t have any control over how long you talk to them, because you can’t just walk away from a conversation - so they make it harder to get to the guy when you are feeling up to it.” Musgrove also wrote that making the game so simple and minimalist helped strengthen such emotional responses. “Thinking about it now, I think we’ve seen many times that icons can end up creating a much more personal effect than realistic models because you are being asked to fill in the blanks by engaging your imagination. Sometimes when I play, I experience moments that line up too well with reality and it freaks me out. For example, I have had moments where I finish a conversation, turn back to the guy and realize that he is all alone and I am about to approach him - which actually makes my heart race a little bit.” Once you've played the game, I suggest you go through the entirety of Musgrove's explanations and think back on how you played. What does it say about me that I was always feeling “up to it” and wanted to escape conversations? What will it say about you when you're faced with the same? It's fascinating that a simplistic game created in 48 hours can make us think in such ways. We all know the feeling – that stomach-twisting, heartrate-raising, can't-swallow-anything-but-dry-air feeling – of having a crush on someone. Crush is a game prototype which takes those feelings and breaks them down into game play, and the result isn't so much a game to be “played” as it is a tool for introspection and self-analysis. Sometimes that's okay. Sometimes, we need that more than a game.