Every decision is wrong: Portraying social anxiety in a game

How do you capture what social anxiety feels like? Make a game about difficulty of completing a simple task when every action feels like a misstep and all options seem to result in awful outcomes.

"I've been soliciting player feedback for a few months now," says Andrea Ayres of Lemonsucker Games, "and one of the constant bits I've received is 'How do I make her happy?'. That response brought me a considerable amount of joy, because I've spent most of my life asking myself that question."

The game is The Average Everyday Adventures of Samantha Browne (Samantha Browne). In it, Ayres explores social anxiety through a simple lens: players help college student Samantha go down into her public dorm's shared kitchen to make some oatmeal.

Stand up, walk down a hall, make oatmeal. Sounds easy.

Yet all along the way, there are these tiny obstacles in Samantha's mind. She is hungry, but is afraid of what she will run into when she steps outside of her safe space. Will she have to talk to other people if she goes to the public kitchen? What will she say if she does? What if those people talking in their rooms are speaking about her? Are those girls in the kitchen laughing at something she did? Should she speak to them? Is she making her oatmeal right? Should she ask for help, or would people judge her for that? Her mind is a quagmire of ways for life and the people around her to make her feel bad about herself.

The possibilities of screw-ups and embarrassments swirl in her head. For the player, every decision also contains a small failure, and the every decision, no matter how small, can lead to the culmination of Samantha's fears.

Had Samantha Browne featured an optimum path, it would encourage the thought that people with social anxiety just need to make the right decision in order to get through it. With a stress-free route, it shows a correct way through the game's challenges. From Ayres' own experience, this is not what social anxiety feels like.

"With anxiety, I've always felt like I was choosing between two terrible situations," says Ayres. For the player to feel that sense of anxiety that the character was going through, each choice had to result in a failure. From Ayres' own experience, this is what social anxiety feels like. It is a sense that all of your options are awful.

Hiding and not feeding herself seems the least stressful option. It means she can stay in a safe spot and hide from her fears. But this will lead to harm to her body. For players who've saved the universe or fought ancient evils, this should be easy. How hard is it to make the right decisions and succeed at making a meal?

"On the rare occasion I'm at an event that requires my engaging with other people face-to-face," says Ayres. "It's a constant battle between two thoughts: running out of the room and hiding in the bathroom, or standing there and trying to make small talk. Neither of which really appeal to me."

"I hate giving into my anxiety, yet I feel equally dissatisfied with my ability to engage in conversation,: she says. "I just end up saying 'cool beans' over and over again, and it's not even a phrase I use in my day-to-day life. It only comes out when I have to speak to strangers. So it's a choice between various degrees of displeasure and that's what I tried to convey with the game mechanic."

"There are numerous ways a player can fail," says Ayres. "Some will be obvious, some won't be, and sometimes you'll realize it only too late. My anxiety tends to manifest itself in decision impotence. By the time I've finally made a choice, I'm filled with dread that I've made the wrong one. Then I ruminate on the consequences and even if something turns out alright I think 'Yah, but it could have been better if I'd only done this...'"

A first time Samantha Browne player is likely to think the same thing - had I chosen a different route, I would not have made Samantha suffer more stress. It gets the player second-guessing what feels like minor decisions, but that is the key to feeling what Ayres wants you to feel.

"I also liked the idea of playing with automatic assumptions people have when they hear the word 'game.' I wanted to toy with the conventional win-loss scenario." says Ayres.

"I wanted to create a task that people wouldn't normally associate with feeling anxious," she says. "If the main task of the game was giving a speech in front of a crowd, there's a certain amount of anxiety that's expected. Making oatmeal doesn't feel inherently anxiety-producing and that felt like a great jumping off point to me. It also helped to keep the game focused on a task which seemed accomplishable. The game really isn't so much about succeeding at making oatmeal as it is about exploring the possibilities of how you could fail at it."

One of the important aspects of what Ayres wanted players to experience with Samantha Browne was the simple ways in which social anxiety affects people. It is something more than regular nervousness, and affects every aspect of a person's life when they have to interact with others. A grand moment might have helped players instantly connect with the fear, but it is the disorder that Ayres wanted players to experience.

Samantha Browne catalogues these failures in various ways, showing the player a gradually increasing the stress bar, Samantha's inner monologue, and her movements and pauses. Samantha stops to ask the player what to do often, which is useful for keeping them engaged, but also shows how often she has to halt her actions and think them over. Every step to the door and through the hallway asks the player to consider what they are asking her to do, as she runs through every possibility that can go wrong.

This can stir up several emotions surrounding the character. It can make players frustrated that they have to navigate something that seems to be so simple to them, mirroring Ayres' own frustrations with social anxiety. It can also show the player just how the mind works in these situations, drowning every decision in a torrent of ways it can go wrong. No matter what, these decisions make the player feel something along with Samantha, giving them a little sense of what it is like for her.

"It's a story about a girl who is learning about herself and the player is alongside her to witness and partner with Samantha as this unfolds," says Ayres. "Whether or not people like Samantha depends on their own experience, but hopefully her character is strong enough that they have a reaction one way or the other."

The world of Samantha Browne isn't subdued or dark, but is filled with bright colors and vibrant characters. It looks upbeat and happy at a glance, but stress lurks underneath that facade.

"I wanted the outer wrapping of this story to be cute, innocent, and polished," says Ayres. "In my mind, Samantha puts a lot of effort into making sure she appears this way to strangers. As the story unfolds you get to know someone who isn't nearly as okay as they pretend to be."

Part of social anxiety is acting like you're fine and that none of this is bothering you, even though your mind is a raging storm of horrible possibilities. In that, Samantha Browne's exterior works best when it appears happy and fun. The art style tells the player that this will be a lighthearted romp, and in its action, it can be. There is still that awful stress that runs beneath everything, though. The game says that your loved ones, happy as they may appear, can be hiding some pain within them that makes their lives extremely difficult. It tells us to look deeper.

"Our emotions can sometimes feel like these huge unexplored chasms within us," says Ayres, "and I wanted this story about oatmeal to be the player peering over that chasm and being, like, 'Well, f***.'"

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