TACK N°5 : WORK, DEPRESSION AND VIDEO GAMES

by Bastien Silty and translated by Nolwenn.

If this tweet from Siobhan Thompson is sarcastic and only partially true, it makes us see that depression holds a huge spot in video games. Rightfully so, because it plays a great part in the making of a game, and for very different reasons, wether if we study a Triple A (or AAA which stands for every game made in a big production), or an indie game. So in this very article, guaranteed without any spoilers, we are going to see the links between work and video games.

Let’s begin with the independent games, which seems to have a favorite theme, grief and depression. We are going to talk about two indie games, Celeste (Jan 25th, 2018), from Matt Makes Games and Sea of Solitude (Jul 5th, 2019), from Jo-Mei Games. We will finish by talking about the burn outs caused by Epic Games and Fortnite (Nov 2017).
An indie developer, as suggested by Bounthavy Suvilay in her book « Indie Games », has too much problems to handle during the creation of their story, that they cannot think of what’s next. She insists that an indie game is a total investment. A financial investment, but also and foremost an investment of time and energy. The creators of Flappy Bird (2013), Antichamber (2013) or even Ridiculous Fishing (2013) sunk into depression at the launch of their game. For diverse reasons ; they found themselves without a goal after the launch, or they were guilt ridden when their money incomes were far more important than what they had hoped. This brutal change of situation added to the incomprehension happen with most indie games, especially in debut games, a creator’s first game. Indie games are made by groups of passionate, often 10 to 15 or less, either in a garage or small locals. For instance, in Extremely Ok (Celeste and TowerFall’s creators) there are 7 people, Jo-Mei Games are 13 and at Nomada Studio (GRIS’ creators) they are 10, with 7 for the music only.


Celeste tells the story of Madeline, depressed and trying to climb a mountain. On her track, she meets several characters who are going to help her in different ways. To rough it up, the story translates her will to get back on her feet helped by her friends. Matt Makes Games, after the success of TowerFall, went to live in a shared-flat with three other creators to create their next game. Nonetheless, he found himself surrounded by work on the development of TowerFall on other consoles. He explained that TowerFall’s loud success could crash his relation with his flatmates as most of the large money incomes would come to him. A new source of anxiety coming from creating video games, which he got over with the help of his flatmates. A similar scheme can be found in Cornelia Geppert and Boris Munser’s Sea of Solitude’s creation.
We follow Kay in her introspection who is trying to fight her demons, helped by her boat and her memories. Each phases of metaphoric depression can be seen. Cornelia Geppert had wanted to tell her own story through the art she excelled best in : video games. That is how we find ourselves lost in a sea of solitude in this depression filled work. In several interviews, Cornelia Geppert has described herself in her depression as a mere shadow of herself, and this metaphor is the game’s base design (cf. a picture taken from the game showing principal character Kay). In those same interviews, she has explained that the characters depicted are her own friends and family; the second to last being her ex boyfriend, suffering from a mental illness, who brought her to depression in 2014. Thus, when an indie game talks about depression, it often is because it is the creators’ (only) way to exteriorize everything they can feel inside, work becoming emancipatory for them.

For AAA games, what happens is the contrary, burn outs are present but for other different reasons. In big productions, there is a lot of people. I am not teaching you anything here, but it defines work as a whole, there is a LOT of people. In capitalist’s logic, a game has to be sold to the greater number, the story must therefore be marketable and watered-down, the artists’ visions and personal work being wiped out. Not only that, but with the logic of competition in the industry, games have to be released ever quicker and at their maximum quality. Employees are then forced to do as quickly as possible. This regularly leads these people to have burn outs. An investigation has been made with Fortnite’s developers after its global success in 2017 by Colin Campbell, from the website Polygon. He exposes the real necessity for the game to keep its leader position, Battle Royales being the most popular play mode of the last couple of years, and competitors beginning to make these kind of games. First observation, a vast majority of employees admit they have worked between 70 to 100 hours per week during the making of Fortnite. Quick reminder, the french legislation sets the maximum legal working hours at 35 per week. These overtime hours can be explained by two major factors. The first one being the practice of the « crunch », an efficient pressure tactic consisting of asking employees to work harder and for longer hours only until the game or one of its extension is launched. At Epic Games, these crunches have lasted for weeks, even months, and have often been renewed. The second explanation is the lack of syndicate in the video game industry. The IGDA or International Game Developers Association calls to an important unionization to stop these destructive practices over the employees’ mental health. The latter, often called to work on menial or precise tasks, are hired as temps, so that they cannot gather up and fight their employers and their ideals. This article still brought a bigger feeling of empathy towards the developers from the players, who then asked for release dates to be postponed, to allow the employees to have a personal life outside of their work. In 2019/2020, several games have seen their release dates delayed, without any outrage from the public. Some players have even asked Masahiro Sakurai to take a break from developing Super Smash Bros Ultimate as he seemed more and more exhausted in interviews. Thus, if Triple A doesn’t speak publicly and freely about depression or burn outs, it is mostly because it is experienced by employees who cannot express themselves, forced to follow strict agendas from their bosses, whose only concern is for their competitors’ sales revenues and always making better ones.

Links :


The Story Behind Celeste
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gZr40T9rvY&t=0s

Celeste’s creation team
https://exok.com/team.html

Sea of Solitude’s creation team
https://www.jo-mei.com/team

Colin Campbell’s article
https://www.polygon.com/2019/4/23/18507750/fortnite-work-crunch-epic-games

Trailer Sea of Solitude
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3EDcrwDCYqo

Trailer Celeste
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70d9irlxiB4

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