A featured series on LadiesGamers.com is Memory Museum. Where you can read about our gaming memories to the backdrop of what was happening both in our personal life and in the world back then! This time, James takes us on a personal journey from pain to creativity. If your interested in reading the other articles in this series you can find them here.
After being heavily inspired by my fellow writers at Ladies Gamers, I couldn’t help but contribute to this delightful series. However, the big question loomed of what to talk about? I have stories from the micro computer era. I lived through the 16 bit wars between Sega and Nintendo. I have many a tale to tell. Instead I’ve decided to do something quite different for me and show a side of myself I rarely like to discuss openly. I’m going to take you back to 2011 the year I created my own video game.
Back in 2011
2011 – I was around 25 at the time. I had completed a long period of learning. From University to postgraduate study to on the job learning. This involved moving away from my family and friends and trying to make things work in a new city. I earned a less than minimum wage salary and even sold my car and Wii console to afford books to study. It was an interesting time for sure. My plan was to work my arse off with the hopes that I would eventually take some time to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. My girlfriend and I were also braving a long distant relationship as she was making her own way through University at the time. So after seven years I decided to move back to my parents temporarily in the hopes that I would figure things out.
I’d taken a job in a major city in the UK and only managed to last a measly six months before being let go. The day it happened still kinda haunts me. All my hard work, all my efforts just to end up in failure. I broke down on the side of the road and just wept for hours as I just could not face my parents and the thoughts of letting people down. Life felt pretty rubbish that day.
The Long Trip
I ended up working in another city, only I decided this time it would be sensible to spend around four hours of my day commuting to and from work. This left me with a lot of time to think about things, although a lot of it was also spent listening to a horrendous amount of gaming podcasts and playing PSone games on my PSP. My favourites in rotation being Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy VII. I decided to try some long distance learning to fill my time when travelling. I wanted to do something more creative, something different from work.
I ended up glancing at a Game Design module. My mind said it wouldn’t be possible, often telling myself I was too old for this. But deep down it was something I’d always wanted to have a go at. I’ve written journals since I was younger and I loved video games so this seemed like a fun thing to try. If nothing else at least it would keep me busy on those long commutes and take my mind off a lot of the pain I was feeling at the time. Unfortunately, gaming is something I’ve never been proud of and I didn’t discuss it openly with my family, so this project was something of a secret from the world for me. The only exception being my girlfriend, one of the few people I felt comfortable being myself with. To my family and work I was just boring James who went to work and didn’t do anything childish like play video games let alone design them.
It certainly made for interesting studying. I would print out my lecture sheets before I went to bed, then read through them on the train on the way to work. On the way home I would pull out my rubbish laptop and practice programming games. I used to make myself laugh on the journey, as I imagined being one of the few game developers who created games on a train of all places on a laptop with an 11 inch screen. Look, I’ve never been wealthy, I made the best of what I had. While the course covered the basics of game design and programming, the main event was to produce a fully functioning game. Something rather terrifying but a challenge I was willing to take on.
My game product started out as a game called ‘Shock’ the premise was that you played a ghost and the goal was to scare as many people as possible before you passed onto the next life. The design was a simple arcade game where you accumulated a high score. The concept was born from my love of horror but the project just didn’t seem right. So the idea changed into something a little more serious while maintaining the spirit of ‘Shock.’ And so it was that ‘Help Me’ was created to this day, the only game I have designed that made it to completion. Still reeling from the effects of loosing a job as well as a lot of unprocessed baggage from my past, I thought to myself whether it would it be possible to create a game that maybe helped someone mentally.
Help Me was a game designed for a Mental Health charity and was not really intended to appeal to a wide audience. That being said I was keen to make an experience anyone could play and therefore even if the subject matter didn’t speak to them directly they might think of others and get them the help they needed.
No Experience but a Fiery Passion
With the concept down I spent hours doing written designs of the game in my handy red notepad. I doodled sprite designs as well as brainstorming features many of which never made it to the final piece. A the end of the day, Help Me was a small maze based arcade game built by a heavily inexperienced game developer. Considering this lack of experience I was rather pleased how the final piece turned out.
The main character was called Elims. A blob looking fellow who appeared rather blue. Before you started each level you were presented with a tutorial screen that you could interact with. Each of these screens offered small snippets of encouragement. I spent ages studying Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in order to implement it into the game. This technique is a common starting point to treat many mental health conditions in the UK.
I attempted to design the levels to mimic a mental health challenge people might relate to. One level zoomed in on the character Elims. The view was severely restricted and your job was to just find a way out the horrible maze. The intention was to instill a little stress but at the same time encourage the player to pause and look for the handy arrow hints left on the walls. The logic I took from studying some CBT techniques was to encourage people to stop and think problems through.
Other levels featured Pac Man style ghosts or ‘Bad Thoughts’ which could be attacked with good thoughts provided you picked up some smile tokens. My favourite design was the final boss. A demonic demon creature that was the ‘Nastiest thought of them all.’ This final level had multiple solutions. The thought could be attacked with positive thoughts but this was a grind and very difficult. But if the player looked carefully there were multiple friends scattered round the level. Interacting with them all would make the demon disappear. The point of this design was that you can tackle things alone but the job will be hard. Asking for help, something that some people find very hard to do in real life will lead to a solution that required significantly less energy.
Of course mental health isn’t that simple as a silly video game I programmed. Its complicated and not every solution works for everyone. The point of the experience was to encourage people to ask for help. I guess overall, Help Me ended up being something that helped myself more than other people. It brought me a lot of joy working on it when I was in such a dark place at the time. At the end of the day this was a project I was very proud of. Even if I did have to keep it a secret from everyone but my girlfriend.
I would love to say that this story has a happy ending and that James went on to have a job in the creative industry and now works as a writer, living in a nice house by the beach. But that is not how this story ends. I ended up passing my module but I was unable to continue with the qualification as I would move to another city in the UK to begin yet another career. At least this job had a significantly shorter commute. One may even say this story is still being told, much how life is for all of us. I still struggle to be my true self with people and I still work myself too hard and haven’t taken that long overdue break I should have taken years ago to think about where I’m heading.
If you need a happy ending though that girlfriend I told you about I did end up marrying. If it wasn’t for her support I probably would have given up my dreams long ago.
Thank you for reading this entry. I often don’t like discussing my personal life openly, but I thought I would brave it for this time. It’s rare I speak up from the heart like this. Going through my notes for Help Me sorta brought me a little to tears. Looking back on it now I believe the project, while stressful, helped me deal with a truly dark period. So I guess I want to end this entry with some advise. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and do something creative. No matter how small. Take little victories as they come and most importantly cherish these memories. They may help you immensely in the future.
Thanks for sharing this meaningful story, James. Finishing your creation, even if you felt it was a “silly game”, is still something to be proud of! And asking for help is hardly silly content 🙂 It was nice reading about how games played a part in your life in that season.