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Disorder Dev Diary #1: To Write

Originally posted on DisorderGame.com, these development diaries explain the process of creating a puzzle-platformer that explores various psychoses experienced by a troubled teenager. #1 discusses the proper ways to express mental illnesses.

Matt McConnell, Blogger

December 22, 2014

6 Min Read

Ambitious from Day 1, Disorder was conceived as a game centered around a character with schizophrenia. Quite the topic to cover. Rather than focusing on the emotional struggle and the mental health aspect, we wanted the gameplay to reflect the illness in a meaningful way. Having researched the affliction, we wanted to touch on many of the various symptoms, but felt a strong central mechanic was key. That’s when the concept of “dualism” first struck. Separating everything — the world, the past, individual thoughts — all into dark and light seemed like a strong and symbolic way to move forward.

But, as they say, 1 step forward = 2 steps back

Stenographer to the POTUS

As the stenographer of troubled thoughts, it was my job to step into the shoes of our protagonist (I won’t say hero; that’s not correct) and return with his feelings. What I failed to do from an early point was correctly diagnose him. Throughout development, we still talked about the game being “based on schizophrenia”, which is only true to an extent. “Inspired by”, sure, but certainly no longer reflecting that particular malady. Our main character had long since stepped out of the trappings of one single schizotypy. Indeed, it would be more accurate to attribute him with: depression (clinical or dysthymic), social anxiety, delusions, paranoia, and so on. Rather than being pigeon-holed into a set label, he had begun to explore more prevalent issues; states of mind experienced, at one time or another, by most of the population. And yet we continued to use the word “schizophrenia”, oblivious to our own changed focus.

To say I’m “The Writer” isn’t quite right. I helped design mechanics and lay out levels, as well as doing most of the implementation in code. From discussions within the team, of how the game should play, how the player should progress through levels — that’s where the writing ultimately happened. From these plans, words organically grew to fill in the moments of the past that the player experiences.

Hold on, let’s rewind. What does the writing in Disorder even consist of?
There are no cut-scenes, no dialogue, no voice acting. You are simply someone traveling through moments of their own past, trying to separate dark from light, fact from fiction. And so the imagery is what was key here. Strong and powerful moments that shaped this character. We chose to add text floating alongside these moments, in the game world, to express the character’s thoughts. A sort of “journal entry of the mind”. So when I call myself the stenographer, it’s because I’m essentially jotting down what I hear from the character as he passes these scenes of creation, despair, hope, or fear.

writing in game

I became an extension of the character. Or he of me. This type of writing is never a one-way street. But again, the issue: this is no longer a game “about mental illness”. I don’t have a specific, diagnosed mental illness. Nor (to my knowledge) do the other members of the dev team. How are we supposed to accurately — or, more importantly, responsibly — depict schizophrenia? Or any specific psychosis, for that matter?

So we changed our language. “You’re entering the duality of a distressed mind” is the closest we get on our Steam page to referencing an affliction, along with talking about a “descent into madness” and telling the player to “try and mend a fragile mind”. Meanwhile, all in-game text has been from the first-person. This hasn’t changed. Our character is reflective, self-deprecating, despairing, and one might say pitiful (as in “worthy of pity”) at points. He is fully aware; his mind is not a healthy place. But not once does he imply that he’s “crazy” or “mad” or any of the other various over-simplifications of mental illness. In truth, he just feels fragile and wants to find a strength he knows he possesses. This is the crux of his journey: he has resolved to improve his existence. “You are human, and you have a very human problem,” as I wrote in one of our earliest pitches.

This is not a game about schizophrenia. It is a game about a human. A person. You may not like it. It might not be your style, or your favorite type of gameplay.
But you will understand it. Because you are human, too.


-Matt McConnell-


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