Analysis: Game Narrative & Achilles on the Couch

Writer and designer Emily Short looks at examples of conversation-based gaming such as Monkey Island's insult swordfighting and a new iPhone App, Think Like A Shrink, which puts Greek hero Achilles on the psychiatrist's couch.
[Writer and designer Emily Short looks at examples of conversation-based gaming such as Monkey Island's insult swordfighting and a new iPhone App, Think Like A Shrink, that puts Greek hero Achilles on the psychiatrist's couch.] Achilles' reaction to being told his dearest friend Patroclus is dead: "Oh man, I gotta go." At least, that's the take found in Think like a Shrink, a new iPhone app from Mind Gamz. Think Like a Shrink invites the player to learn the techniques of a therapist, and then apply them to Achilles, hero of the Trojan War. I find this fascinating in three directions: as a new idea in conversation-based gaming, as a reception of a piece of classical literature, and as a blend of narrative and procedural play in general. Conversation As conversation-based gaming, I saw some things to like and some not to like. Mind Gamz has invented a new mechanic of interaction: you can "focus" Achilles on feelings you want him to explore more, or "challenge" him about what he's saying. If you choose to challenge, you have to identify the dodge you think he's currently using and which you want to get out of the way (anger, displacement, avoidance, etc.). Structurally, this is similar to the insult-fight model in Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble or (originally) in LucasArts' Monkey Island: for each action there is usually a single appropriate reaction (or occasionally a double reaction where you challenge Achilles about two things at once). Unlike the insult-fighting in DHSGiT, though, any given reaction can correspond to more than one provocation, which means that the challenge is to learn strategies of response rather than memorizing specific call/response pairs. This introduces a consistent model for communication, one appropriate(ish, but we'll come back to that) to the circumstances. And that's a potential strength: it allows the player the sensation of some agency while tightly channeling the kind of conversation that can occur into the general format that the designers wished to explore. The challenge of recognizing Achilles' diversionary strategies and countering them was mostly fair; there were a few points where I felt that a given statement could convey one of several things, but generally I thought it worked. Two things are absent from this conversation model, however, that might make it a bit bland to play especially over the long term. (This episode took me about 15 minutes to get through, but I gather that further episodes are intended, so the "long term" would presumably mean "for many future installments".) One, in contrast with the communication systems in Fable 2 and Sims 3, there's no sense that conversational responses should be tailored to the personality of the other person. Achilles has specific problems and strategies to which the protagonist responds, but there's no sense that we would handle him differently if he were another character; on the contrary, the game encourages the belief that there is always a consistently applicable method of therapy. Second, there's no potential for the expressive side of communication, an issue that arises partly from the therapist-protagonist's deliberately dry speech patterns, and partly from the fact that at every juncture there is only one possible correct answer. In other words: the procedural elements of this conversation design allow for consistent gameplay, but they do not in themselves contribute to characterization either of the protagonist or of Achilles. Reception The story of Think Like a Shrink is framed in a goofy fashion, with the player going back in time to complete therapy training on Achilles. The time-traveling therapy couch and robot receptionist at the beginning of the game led me to expect little fidelity to any classical source text. Surprisingly, Mind Gamz has retained several often-smudged-over plot points from the Iliad. When the game opens, Achilles is brooding over the loss of his "girlfriend" (they don't go so far as to explain that Briseis was a captured slave who got traded around between her captors as a prize). Achilles is now sulking in his tent. Admittedly, the Trojan horse is drawn in the background -- incorrectly, since the episode of the Trojan horse does not occur until after Achilles' death -- but hey, at least they kept some pieces of the plot. Fond as I am of this story, I didn't find it immediately obvious why Mind Gamz thought this, of all stories, the most suitable fiction to use for this particular gameplay. Why not just have a game in which the player offers therapy to a present-day person with problems? There are lots of compelling stories of that kind to be found. Maybe it's because Freud indulged in psychological readings of mythology and the designers felt inclined to follow his lead; perhaps it's they felt a video game about psychotherapy would be lacking some pizzazz if it didn't contain at least the hint of possible violence, as there's always the lurking threat that if you anger Achilles he will run you through with his sword. But I think we can't overlook the ideological reason, namely, that Mind Gamz wanted to make a statement about the universal applicability of psychotherapeutic techniques to the human condition. In fact they spell this out with the blithe in-game introduction: "Achilles deals with problems the same way people do today...". That in turn is important because the game is framed as educational, as teaching a skill. "Real Doctors worked on the game design for authentic experience" says the ad copy. And "Learn how to analyze people and find out what your friends are really thinking." Mind Gamz further states that the game is designed to promote "emotional fitness" in concert with the "mental fitness" supported by puzzle-challenge game styles. So both the source fiction and the procedural structure of Think like a Shrink are chosen to promote the idea that psychotherapy involves a set of easily learn-able maneuvers that can be applied successfully to persons of all eras and conditions. Framing the game in an ancient setting (the game explicitly gives a 12th c. BC date for the Trojan War, which is reasonable) and within a well-known story allows it to claim a level of universality and gravity that might otherwise be lacking. The Narrative and the Procedure Unfortunately, the narrative arc of the game is both incompatible with the source material and rather unsatisfying in its own terms. The player spends three sessions with Achilles, during which we discover that a lot of his avoidance issues (as evidenced by the sulking in his tent) are due to his overbearing mother, Thetis, who is constantly dogging him to seek promotion. In the original, Thetis is concerned for her son's glory, but at his request, and only because he has avoided her original attempt to save him from death in battle by preventing him from attending the Trojan War at all. But the psychological storyline requires that there be some pattern of behavior in Achilles, and his mother seems like a likely person to blame, so Thetis' character is remodeled for the purpose. In further conversation, we find that Achilles' trouble with Agamemnon is due to his sadness at a lack of intimacy with his "boss". Once again the Homeric social structure has been rather drastically remodeled, this time to turn the complicated oath-bound alliance of Argive kings into an American office hierarchy, and to gloss over the fact that Achilles was not bound by the same oaths that governed everyone else. And so the story wraps up with the tranquilizing conclusion that Achilles must learn to let others -- Agamemnon and Thetis in particular -- "be useful" to him, as a form of emotional closeness. This is an outcome so false to the premise that it narratively subverts the procedural message of the game. In Homeric terms, Achilles has lost the prize that acknowledged his greatness in war, and his honor is now slighted. In the terms of the game, Achilles' boss has stolen his girl. Either way, it's hard to see how Achilles' inability to accept the "usefulness" of others instigated this problem, or what it has to do with the potential resolutions. From the game you might never guess that immediately after it ends, Achilles goes off on the battlefield, kills Hector in revenge for the death of his beloved Patroclus, and then savagely defiles his enemy's corpse by dragging it around the walls of Troy. Then again, maybe in this timeline Achilles' violent impulses have been so soothed by the player's intervention that he is able to channel his negativity about Hector into a nice productive dialogue. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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