Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on UW Bothell’s student-run media blog, The Next. Machine Cares is a wonderful choice for teens—or for parents who are interested in a strong story about exploring mental health issues from a teen perspective.
Much has been written about games as learning tools or to foster empathy. Machine Cares by Failbetter Games quietly occupies this space, inviting the player to take a harder look at some of the serious issues faced by teens today. That makes it sound like a really heavy game—which it is, in a sense. But Machine Cares is careful not to sermonize. It’s a game that lets players come to their own conclusions.
Functionally Machine Cares is an interactive story in the style of Failbetter’s top titles. The player navigates through the story by choosing action cards. In Machine Cares your character explores relationships with the other residents of your new home, Tower 4.
I finished Machine Cares in an afternoon. It’s not a long game, and I quickly became engrossed in the story. The initial “quest,” for lack of a better word, has the player figuring out why Jay, the previous resident of your room, committed suicide. Unraveling this mystery is just the beginning; the player learns a lot about the secret lives of the other teenagers that share the Tower. Though it starts off as a mystery, Machine Cares isn’t about finding a clear-cut solution. It’s about the complexity of life and dealing with the curve balls it throws our way.
Failbetter created Machine Cares in partnership with a UK charity called Childline, which provides services for at-risk teens: from suicide hotlines, to advice, to games. Part of the value of Machine Cares is that it doesn’t underestimate its audience. There’s no clear-cut lesson, no Voice of God explaining “this is how depression works, this is why people get eating disorders,” etc. Even though your treatment of these characters has very real outcomes in the game, you own your choices. In my opinion, that’s part of what makes it such a valuable experience.
Now for the downside. I can’t figure out how to replay the game. The game is accessed through Facebook, and the process was perfectly smooth up till the point when I finished it. I can still log in and click around my inventory, but despite my best efforts I can’t restart the game. There might be a poetic value to this, but if it’s intentional, I think it’s a bad design choice. I think there would be value in going through the game again and exploring different options in non-player-character relationships, especially considering how integral those relationships are to the message of the game.
I certainly can’t say that anyone should avoid Machine Cares for that reason alone. The game provides a safe environment for teens to explore the way their choices affect others. Machine Cares is a wonderfully compelling way to spend an afternoon, and struck me as a stellar example of what interactive stories can accomplish for the most fragile members of our society.