When I hit the deepest stages of my depression back in March, I lost all enthusiasm for gaming. At the time I had purchased quite a few games rather close together and had barely played enough of any of them to write more than a couple of first impression articles. I made it two chapters into Wargroove, three worlds into Baba is You, and two planets into Starlink and then hit rock bottom. During a time when even eating was more of an effort than I could motivate myself to make, picking up any of these games and playing them felt joyless. As I recovered and returned to a milder symptoms, I found myself wanting to play games again. The problem was, none of the ones I had felt right.
Wargroove is a challenging game that focused on a different type of strategy than I typically enjoy. There’s a resource management component to deal with and rather than having unique characters with their own personalities, most of your units are generic soldiers that will never be any better than they are when you first recruit them. Combine those challenges with a weak story and I quickly lost any desire to push through the game. Baba is You is a fun little puzzle game with a clever mechanic – the rules of the puzzle are the puzzle itself, and you have to change the rules in order to create a scenario in which you can win. I loved the early game and found myself stimulated by the unique mechanisms. Unfortunately, my low mood and the game’s difficulty spike came at the same time, and spending half an hour failing just to finally figure out the solution to one puzzle wasn’t the sort of gameplay experience I was looking for. Starlink, for its part, was a bit on the generic side. The open-world exploration gave me lots to do but little to care about, and the mechanism of swapping to whatever ship parts are the most appropriate for the current situation meant that I didn’t get particularly attached to any pilot or ship in the game.
I think it’s important to note here that a lot of this is different from my normal experience with games. While I may not play games with notorious difficulty like the FromSoft titles, challenge is a big part of why I love to play games. My love of Pokemon was revitalized by the Nuzlocke challenge, an approach to play that makes a normally simple game possible to game over with no hope of return. I earned every achievement in Into the Breach, a tricky strategy game which gives you too many objectives to protect with too few resources to save them all without careful planning and skill. But the level of challenge that once drove me to keep going in a game morphed into a barrier that stopped me from playing when depression hit. Failing to complete a puzzle in Baba is You didn’t motivate me – instead, I felt stupid and worthless.
At any rate, I tried once or twice to pick up some games during this particularly difficult time, and I bounced off of all of them. I was too easily frustrated and discouraged to keep me focused, and every time I started up a game I quickly put it right back down. I finally did get motivated to jump back in by returning to some titles I hadn’t played in awhile, such as Breath of the Wild. Still, I only played sparingly and I didn’t feel the enthusiasm and level of focus that normally comes from my gaming experiences. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I needed a different kind of game, something perhaps outside of my usual fare that would perfectly match the type of experience that my depressed brain would find palatable. Little did I know that the hero I needed was a Pikachu in a detective hat.
I shared my first impressions of Detective Pikachu a couple of weeks ago. The game is a straightforward adventure game that offers practically nothing in the way of challenge. What is lacks in difficulty, though, it more than makes up for in charm and enthusiasm. Detective Pikachu is a love letter to the Pokemon franchise that showcases the wonderful creatures in ways we normally don’t get to see in the games. Some we see in their natural habitats, enjoying their life in the wild. Others we see as partners to humans, and the services they provide in a modern society using their unique Pokemon abilities. Still others we see in the remains of places where humans once dwelled, and we see what it is like when nature reclaims a part of society in the world of Pokemon. Everywhere we see Pokemon, we see them in a different light compared to their representation in the main series.
Detective Pikachu’s heart isn’t just conveyed in the portrayal of all the Pokemon, either. It’s in the human characters and the scenarios that play out in each chapter. Most of the characters fit pretty neatly into archetypes: the motivated journalist, the regretful scientist, the intolerable diva. Despite this they are portrayed with a sort of earnestness that allows them to function well in this setting where they might seem hackneyed in a more mature game. There’s an endearing quality to Detective Pikachu where the game is clearly aimed at a young audience and yet it isn’t written “for kids.” This makes it accessible and fun in a way that makes it relaxing to play. At no point during Detective Pikachu did the puzzles or riddles make me stressed or feel defeated. They were just enough to get me thinking without ever pushing too hard – the exact level of simplicity that I needed to help aleviate my dark mood.
As a Nintendo gamer, I’ve rarely been one to say that my games have to meet a certain maturity level. I play a lot of games that other gamers assume were actually intended for children, or at least gamers younger than I am. I own very few titles with a mature rating. But even though I am not drawn to hyper-violence or games focused on heavy topics like modern war, I am typically drawn to darker themes and I think diving too deeply into those sorts of themes can feed the part of me that’s stressed about the state of the world. I think few things capture that truth better than a tabletop session I played a couple of weeks ago.
I recently had the opportunity to run a session of Blades in the Dark for my usual tabletop crew. Now if you’re unfamiliar with Blades, it’s a game about poor criminals trying to claw their way up the food chain in a haunted city where the rich maintain power by monopolizing the trade of demon blood. It’s not exactly light fare, and the game demonstrates that mechanically through a system where the most common result is success at a cost. The majority of the dice rolls put the players in a position where they get what they want, but it hurts. The world takes things from them, chews them up, and leaves them lesser than they were when they started. Most of the winnings from their scores have to be put to use trying to recover from the success of the job before, and mechanically the game replicates a system in which the people who start with nothing are doomed to fail.
Now Blades is intended to be a tabletop game first and social commentary second, but the commentary certainly influences the mechanics and that became pretty clear to me when my players bounced off of it. I explained to them the idea behind the game and how the fun of it was in playing scoundrels who were in way over their heads, but that didn’t do much to change anyone’s mind. “I get what the game is trying to say, and I’m cool with it,” one player said. “I really like that, actually. But that doesn’t mean I want to play it.” For them, playing out the struggle to rise above impossible circumstances in a world designed to make you fail was not something that seemed fun in their current mood. And I think that even though I do find those things fun, only exposing myself to content of that type and never taking a break has slowly chipped me down to where I was too stressed by the things in my life that were supposed to be fun.
That, I think, is why Detective Pikachu resonated with me so strongly. In a world where I spend my days driving for two hours to attend 10 hour meetings about the opioid crisis, coming home from work to dive into a world where a high school graduate and his Pikachu partner investigated mysteries full of adorable Pokemon was a much-needed reprieve. For a guy who already spent all day trying to stop his brain from telling him that he wasn’t good enough, playing a game that helped in the fight and said “you are smart, you can do this,” was a helpful tool.
I can imagine that at a different time in my life, Detective Pikachu might have been a game that didn’t grab my attention. I might have found it shallow or simple and dismissed it in favor of a game with darker themes. But as it turns out I found it at the perfect time, a time when a simple detective story with heartwarming charm was exactly what I needed to get me excited about playing a video game. It’s hard to review a game based on that, really – I can’t tell you that the game will have the same effect for you if you’re struggling with depression, or even whether or not the game would still seem “good” to me if I played it in a different mindset. All I know is that for me, the time I spent in Ryme City was just the vacation I needed to get back on my feet.