When a person, especially a young person, is experiencing grief for the first time, it can be incredibly disorienting, isolating, and confusing. If you’re watching from the outside, the feeling of helplessness is…rough, to say the least.
If you’ve been reading our site for a while, you already know that video games can be an excellent medium for telling in-depth stories, for unpacking powerful emotions, and even for alleviating symptoms of PTSD such as nightmares.
No, video games aren’t going to make the many feelings surrounding grief magically go away. However, they can provide perspective, inspire conversation, or give you or your child something to relate to during hard times. The creation of a simulated reality makes video games especially effective when it comes to powerful feelings, because the format is so much more experiential than a book or a movie. The player is an active participant in the story.
I’ve compiled a list of games that deal with loss, depression, grief, or sadness as a central theme. These games are useful both for someone who is suffering and for someone who wishes to understand the suffering of another.
These games cannot and are not meant to replace professional grief counseling. Click here to see the American Psychological Association’s grief help center, or click here for help locating a psychologist near you.
1. Depression Quest
Depression Quest puts you into the shoes of a 20-something, middle-class person suffering from severe depression. It’s all text-based, making it kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. The lack of graphics doesn’t harm the experience: if anything, this made it easier for me to populate the story with details from my own life.
Creator Zoe Quinn acknowledges that each person’s experience with depression is different, but she hopes that her game can both teach about this all-too-common disorder and help people suffering from depression find a safe place to reflect and explore. You can download the game now for free on Steam.
2. That Dragon, Cancer
This indie game by Ryan Green and Josh Larson is deeply autobiographical, chronicling the journey of Ryan Green’s family as his youngest son fights terminal cancer. The game is about finding hope in the face of inevitable loss. It has not been released yet, but those who have played it have described it as an incredibly powerful experience.
Ryan’s son Joel passed away in March, and a documentary about the making of the game is currently in production.
3. Machine Cares
This free browser game by Failbetter Games is a subtle account of a teenager moving into a new home and investigating the suicide of the previous tenant. As you wander through The Tower and meet its other young residents, you slowly learn more about the complex ways this social network has been impacted by death. Machine Cares doesn’t preach, but instead allows you to take what you will from surprisingly genuine moments of dialogue.
Read our full review by clicking here.
Although Journey, by thatgamecompany, is not explicitly a game about coping with grief, it deals with themes of death and spirituality. As you play, you can see the avatars of other players from around the world silently playing the same game alongside you. Journey encourages strangers to help each other as they play. For this reason, it’s easy to imagine that the spirit of a loved one is playing the game with you, helping you to reach your ultimate goal. The experience is incredibly cathartic.
Jenova Chen, Journey’s creator, spoke at the 2014 Games for Change festival and described the thousands of personal stories he heard after the release of the game describing ways in which Journey helped players cope with the loss of a loved one. Journey is available for PlayStation 3 and will be released on PlayStation 4 later this year.
5. Continue? 9876543210
In Continue?, you play a recently deceased video game avatar wandering through the depths of a computer hard drive. You’re trapped in a TRON-esque Limbo, attempting to escape the constant threat of permanent erasure. The game is full of poetic symbols and imagery. It hits on some interesting ideas, but I found that the frantic time limits and the difficulty of gameplay were an unpleasant distraction from the story’s main message.
That said, something about the game’s nonstop impending danger instilled a fear that felt very real to me. Your character is attempting to deny the reality of his situation. That, at least, is true to life.
Continue?9876543210 is available on Mac, PC, Linux, and iOS.
6. Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons
Brothers starts off with Naiee, a young boy, grieving in front of his mother’s grave. Naiee’s father is sick. In order to save his life, Naiee and his older brother Naia must venture to the Tree of Life to collect its magical healing waters. You control one brother with your left hand and the other with your right, helping them work together to assist the many people they meet along their dark journey. The game controls are incredibly tricky to master, and the teamwork required for each puzzle cements the two brothers as a single family unit in a very visceral way.
Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons is all about family and emotion. It uses shared grief to create an impenetrable bond between Naiee and Naia. It’s rated T for Teen and is available on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.
What games are missing from my list? Leave a comment!