At GDC 2022, narrative designer (and former Game Developer contributor) Emma Kidwell talked about healthy approaches to making games that deal with serious, traumatic issues.
The topic is one that is significant for game developers and artists in general--many times when making semi-autobiographical games, creators will immerse themselves in past trauma, using the creative process to cope. This isn't a healthy approach, said Kidwell (who also stressed that she is not a professional therapist).
Kidwell, who has had her work shown at The Smithsonian and was narrative designer on Annapurna Interactive's upcoming Hindsight, drew from personal experience making Twine games like Nod If You Can Hear Me, which explores degenerative mental disease, in this case seeing a loved one suffer from Alzheimer's Disease.
"I didn't fully process my feelings so I used this game as a coping mechanism," said Kidwell. She made it over a couple days while at college during a particularly stressful time in her life. But instead of seeking professional help, she just immersed herself in trauma without truly processing it.
"Games tell their stories through mechanics--it's used as a vehicle for storytelling," she said. "[They] offer the ability to be super intimate because of the way they ask players to engage."
Her most recently-published game is I Wish I Were a Robot, which deals with suicidal ideation and employs a mechanic that keeps track of how many times the player listens or tries to ignore these thoughts. She made it over the course of a year and had enlisted professional therapy instead of using her creation process as her primary coping mechanism.
For her, this was a healthier process than the one she used when making Nod If You Can Hear Me.
Kidwell said she originally finished I Wish I Were a Robot two years ago and planned on releasing it in 2020--but then the world was flung into the pandemic. She opted to release the game just this year.
"It's important to take timing into account," she said, adding "it wouldn't be appropriate" to release a game like I Wish I Were a Robot at the start of 2020 when people were already struggling with mental health.
One of the main takeaways from Kidwell's inspiring talk was that as a creator, it's best to "not be in active trauma" when making these personal games. She said it's a misconception that an artist must suffer in order to make good art. "That sounds romantic," she said, "but that's bullshit."
"Games are not worth sacrificing your health over, and they never will be," she said.