Twenty Four Caret Games

Mental illness as a driving force behind development: one indie dev speaks about the struggle

Mental illness as a driving force behind development: one indie dev speaks about the struggle

A note from Ben: Retro/Grade is an amazing game, and I was surprised to hear it hadn't done well. I had begun to talk to Matt about the game, his next project, and how his own struggles with mental illness have affected his work. Once the conversation got good I did what I always do: told him to stop talking, write it down, and share it with you. Doing so is a brave act, and I'm very grateful that he's willing to talk openly about his experiences. Enjoy!

Hello! I’m Matt Gilgenbach. I designed the well-received but poor selling game Retro/Grade. Now, I’m working on Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game that is inspired by my own battles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression.

While I used to keep my mental illness a secret, I am trying to be very open in talking about my experiences with OCD and developing games. I think it is important for me to do for a few reasons:

  1. I think many game developers suffer from similar problems even if they don’t fully have a mental illness. Creating games is hard! Finishing them is even harder. I think there is a perfectionist streak in all developers, and putting so much of oneself into a game can make negative feedback hard to deal with. Perhaps some of my strategies may be helpful to other developers.
  2. I think many people may benefit from recognizing that they have mental illness or at least some aspects of them. For a while, I wasn’t a very happy person, and I didn’t know why. I thought that I just had a crappy life, but comparing myself to people who have real disadvantages, it seemed like I should just be happy! That made things worse because I felt bad about feeling bad. Now I understand that mental illness is a very real disadvantage that I have to deal with.

So that being said, let me describe some of the things I deal with and how I try to cope with them.

One of the main things I struggle with is “intrusive thoughts.” I stink at defining things, so let me just quote Wikipedia: “Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate.”

I imagine most people have intrusive thoughts. Have you ever had a thought that you don’t like just pop into your head? That’s an intrusive thought. By themselves, they can be relatively benign, but coupled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, they can be extremely distressing.

My intrusive thoughts come in two categories: self-deprecating and self-injurious. Neither are pleasant, to put it mildly. They can rear their ugly heads at any point, no matter what I am doing, but usually they occur when I am struggling with negative emotions. Even if it is very mild.

For example, let’s say I just designed a new scenario in game. Once I play it, I realize it isn’t quite as fun as I had hoped. As far as I know, every game designer struggles with this. Games don’t EVER play out the way you imagined them, which is why iteration is so important.

A failed scenario gives you an idea of what doesn’t work and usually gives you some ideas of what to try next. Rather than recognizing that, I often have an intrusive thought like, “I’m a failure.” While many people can dismiss that and recognize rationally that “failure” is a natural part of game development, I find the thought hard to dismiss. It carries a lot of weight and makes me feel like a failure.

The relentless idea of self harm

The self-injurious thoughts can also occur at very minor setbacks. Usually, they take the form of a very graphic image of me hurting myself. I don’t actually want to hurt myself, but the thought carries weight, and it’s upsetting to me that I am thinking about hurting myself. As well, over the years, the images my mind presents to me have gotten increasingly graphic and unpleasant. For whatever reason, I have a lot of thoughts about hurting my arms, and often in ways that don’t seem possible.

You can see some of the images I’ve had represented in the end of the Neverending Nightmares trailer. In the trailer, you can see from a first person viewpoint, Adam, the protagonist of Neverending Nightmares, tearing out a vein in his arm as well as using a pipe to rip out a bone in his arm.

These aren’t images I stole from horror films. Somehow my illness invented them in order to make me unhappy. Fortunately, I think the images are pretty disturbing and work well for a horror game, so I’m trying to make lemonade out of the lemons life handed me.

For a long time, intrusive thoughts made my life a living hell, and I thought there was nothing I could do to make them stop. Fortunately, a therapist recommended exposure and response prevention, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. When faced with these unpleasant thoughts, my first reaction, and I imagine most people’s, is to try to get them out of your head. When you suffer from OCD, you actually want to do the opposite – even if it seems counter intuitive.

Instead of trying to get them out of your head, you want to suck it up and just deal with it. As you deal with the unpleasantness, the anxiety subsides, and then the thought loses its hold over you, at least for the time being. It’s tough to try to suffer through the terrible thoughts without distracting your mind, but if you have OCD, the act of distracting your mind becomes the compulsion, which only makes things worse.

Another thing I struggle with is an obsessive attention to detail. I spoke at length about this in my postmortem of Retro/Grade at GDC , which might be worth a watch if you’d like to learn more, but basically, I find it easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees. This manifests itself in many ways – struggling over how to write non-performance intensive code optimally, requesting endless revisions on art assets, and making very small tweaks to parameters that no one will notice.

While I think an attention to detail is necessary for a truly great game, spending time on details that no one will notice is not a good way to finish a game in a timely manner, which is extremely important for game development. Here is a video of different boss expressions I animated programmatically on the final boss in Retro/Grade, including a properly functioning mechanical iris:

While I think they are pretty darn cool, I don’t think anyone ever noticed. In Retro/Grade, you filter out all the background stuff and just concentrate on the lasers. I put a ton of effort in making things in the background look interesting. If you look carefully in the video, the wings react to getting blasted by the laser. The iris also closes when you shoot it, but I don’t think it’s possible to see that.

This is something I still struggle with. Knowing how much work is “enough” is really difficult. While I am trying to work smarter on Neverending Nightmares and have warned my co-workers to caution me if I am spending too much time on minutia, I still might be falling into that trap. Look at the following screenshot:

Does anything interesting stand out? If you noticed the wallpaper design looks kind of like daggers, that’s good. We tried to make them subtle and abstract, so it isn’t super obvious but hope that most people see the resemblance. Hopefully we have a good balance. However, there’s another detail that you may have missed.

If you look carefully through the shading patterns from our lighting system (which are animated to create an eerie feel), you can see a face screaming in the grains of the wood making up the floorboards. Still hard to see? Here’s what it looks like without the shading system:

The question I ask myself is was it worth the effort to do the screaming face or was that me having an obsessive attention to detail? I don’t have a good answer. I recently saw Room 237, a documentary featuring some really wild conspiracy theories about “The Shining,” which I consider to be the greatest horror movie ever and is a huge source of inspiration for Neverending Nightmares.

One of the most interesting ideas was how the floor plan of the Overlook hotel featured impossible spaces – windows that couldn’t exist, hallways that lead nowhere, and many other abnormalities. While one could chalk that up to continuity errors caused by sloppy filmmaking, Kubrick was anything but, so I’m sure it was deliberate. Does it make the movie creepier at a subconscious level? I’d like to think so.

Will my attention to detail do the same or just give me additional headaches during development? I honestly don’t know the answer. That’s one of the difficult things about mental illness I still struggle with. I don’t know where I end and it begins.