As you may have seen across the web, May is mental health awareness month. While a lot of the stigma around the topic has eased, the issues and challenges remain across all parts of society. Throughout this month there are efforts to encourage support, understanding and knowledge around the topic.
There are various ways to help improve and maintain mental health, from basics such as regular exercise and a healthy diet to more complex treatment and support. Yet on a smaller scale other pleasures can help us deal with some tough times that life throws at us, whether it’s a favourite book, movie or, of course, a game. Part of the reason we play games is the joy they bring, offering escapism, emotional connection or just bright and colourful fun.
In this article a number of our team talk about the games that are old favourites, the sort of title we turn to when we need a boost through tough times.
Gavin Lane, editor
It was the late 2000s and I was living alone in London, and feeling low for one reason or another (well, one reason specifically which tied into a bunch of others, but I won't bore you with the particulars — it's a tale as old as time!) and I found myself wanting to inject some colour into a very grey time in my life.
Whether this pair of brilliant games genuinely helped me or not, I'm uncertain — real change only came after moving away and reassessing things over many years to get some proper perspective and genuinely start feeling better — but making my way through both these games in quick succession felt like a way to stop and catch my breath at the time. Each one offered gentle humour and incredibly beautiful worlds to slip into and, thinking back, my mind is filled with rich, warm memories from a time I have very few of those.
Kate Gray, staff writer
The year was 2020, etc etc etc. It was a tough time, like the title says — made even tougher by being in a long-distance relationship, unable to travel to see each other. So we decided to take our relationship to the obvious next step: Minecraft!
I have a tendency to hyperfocus on games when I'm going through a rough period of mental health, seeking comfort in the familiar. As a result, our Minecraft sessions were frequent and long. Pretty much every night, we would both jump onto our shared server and either go on long adventures to the bottom of the ocean or the Nether, or we would focus on building up our little mountain house, all while on a Discord call together.
Soon, the house was no longer little — instead, it was a sprawling farm filled with animals that I'd painstakingly led back home, and indoors there was both an aquarium and a beequarium (at my insistence). But once we had all the modcons, we realised we ought to start afresh, using all of our gained knowledge to create something bigger, better, and more suited to our needs (like a gigantic storage system).
Several hundred miles of adventuring later, we found a little nook in-between two mountains, next to a Tundra village which had a huge cave system beneath it (sadly, the village would later become abandoned after we forgot to protect the villagers). We built an underground palace, complete with everything a person might need: A sorcery room, an underground railway, and a big tube-shaped room with a fish pond window at the top.
It was really nice to forget the troubles of the real world by delving into the virtual world of Minecraft, and it's a game I go back to frequently to self-soothe. It's not an easy game, but it's mechanically quite simple, and repetitive in a way that's quite calming. Plus, it's quite easy to while away several hours without even realising it, which helped pass the lockdown much faster. And now me and my partner live together! In real life!!! Woo!!!!!!!
Whenever we want, we can go and visit that world that we created together, and remember when things were hard — and be thankful for the healing power of time. And Minecraft.
Alana Hughes, staff writer
Looking back, it’s strange to call this a “tough time” out of the many periods of unrest I’ve had, but when I first started university, I needed Xenoblade Chronicles. I suffer with imposter syndrome, and it was particularly bad at uni. I didn't think I was good enough to be there to the point I would struggle to talk to people and lock myself away. But Xenoblade’s stunningly beautiful world taught me otherwise.
The very act of going through every location, finding a new secret, defeating a Unique Monster, or sometimes something as small as helping a villager confess their love, made me feel like I could actually achieve something, and it helped me grow in confidence and put myself out there a bit more. I have a bit of a soft spot for Shulk, too – a kid who can see into the future and who ends up saving the world, among other things, but he accepts his responsibility and overcomes his fears and doubts with the help of his friends.
Xenoblade came to the rescue again in the early summer of 2021. I’d lost my grandmother earlier that year, and both of the family dogs the year before, and I fell into a pretty bad depression. I booted up Definitive Edition one evening and just threw myself into the world. Makna Forest and Eryth Sea ate up my worries, and I felt weightless for just a few hours. I did this for a few nights, and it helped me get through some sleepless anxiety-filled nights.
I’m a pretty firm believer that video games can help you out and teach you things about yourself. Celeste helped me understand my anxiety disorder, and Florence helped me acknowledge that life is full of both love and heartbreak. So I’m sure video games will continue to be a force of good in my life, and hopefully, eventually, I can be consistently kinder to myself.
Ollie Reynolds, staff writer
It’s funny how we view certain media depending on the context in which it’s been consumed. For example, I struggle to even imagine watching 2000’s comedy film ‘Bedazzled’ again without feeling somewhat nauseated. Why? Not because it’s God-awful, but because I was watching it in my little box room back in 2004 when I found out that my parents were separating.
When I think back on that year, much of it feels hazy, and I’m pretty sure I’ve intentionally extinguished much of it from my mind in the years since. I remember there were two very specific pieces of media that I gravitated towards, however. The first was Green Day’s American Idiot album: I listened to it constantly and learned nearly every song from it on my cheap, knock-off guitar.
The second was Resident Evil 4 (yes, it came out in 2005, but it’s close enough to count), which I just became completely obsessed with. I completed the game several times within the first year of its release and rinsed the additional ‘Mercenaries’ mini-game - I couldn’t stop. I started speedrunning it before I’d even realised that speedrunning was a ‘thing’ that people did; I just did it for the sheer love of it.
Needless to say, running around and blasting the heads off the infected Ganados was cathartic for me at a time where I felt particularly hurt and angry. I was surrounded by family and friends that helped me along the way, of course, but Resident Evil 4 was my escape, my comfort blanket. There are plenty of people that joke about the number of times it’s been re-released over the years, but for me, the more the better. Resident Evil REmake is my favourite game of all time, but Resident Evil 4 comes in a close second for good reason.
Thomas Whitehead, deputy editor
In my case I'll focus on the present day, and times when I'm perhaps over-tired (sometimes I'm a terrible sleeper), or glum about something or other. Sometimes I have little micro-periods of being down, a few days where absolutely everything is a big effort but the only choice is to push on.
I often find myself going back to shorter games that give me a boost of either favoured gaming or nostalgia. A go-to over the last couple of years on Switch has been Sayonara Wild Hearts, a wonderful ‘pop album’ experience; after you’ve cleared the stages you unlock Album mode, where you can play through levels non-stop. That’s really the intended way, and I like to put on headphones, sit in my favourite chair and just immerse myself in a playthrough. Not only are the music and visuals fantastic, but the story is touching too – it’s a memorable journey.
My other choice necessitates charging and firing up my 3DS – Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (I know it's on Switch too, but the 3D version is fantastic). This is more about nostalgia, as it was my favourite game as a kid and is still in my top 5. Again, it’s something I can play through within a couple of hours, finding a quiet spot and some headphones. It is sublime Sonic, full of classic levels; if I ever want a more immediate option I can fire up Sonic Mania on Switch.
Those are some games that we turn to when we need a lift, as you can see they vary in genre and style. That's one of the great things about games, of course - let us know in the comments what games you most appreciate in tough times.