Depression and the daily grind: Michael Levall on his game Please Knock on My Door
31 October, 2017
When I sat down to speak to Michael Levall, the Swedish main developer of Please Knock on My Door, my first instinct was to tell him that I enjoyed the game. On reflection, I wondered if 'enjoy' was the right term to use for a game about depression. Levall saw this as an issue with how games are typically perceived. 'There are books that are not supposed to be strictly fun,' he said. 'There are movies that deal with very heavy things, and I feel games have this idea connected to them that they are supposed to make you laugh, but I don't think that's the case at all.'
Please Knock on My Door focuses on a fortnight in the life of a character who experiences symptoms of depression. It's a down-to-earth tale, with the player seeing the main character through everyday tasks at work and at home. In portraying this, the game shows how deepening depression can affect daily functioning.
Initially a prototype he had developed at university, Levall's game was inspired by his own experiences. 'I wanted to use the game medium as someone else would use a diary. When you use a diary, you write with the purpose of having a moment of reflection. I decided to use game development for that same purpose.'
He returned to the prototype three years ago to begin development proper. The writing process for the game was stressful, at times. 'I would write late in the evening. I would prepare myself mentally for an entire day just to get a couple of hours of writing done. I have a ton of respect for the subject matter, which means that I would rather release nothing than release a game that deals with this poorly. So it was very important for me to make sure all of the texts were serious, genuine and respectful to the subject matter and to people who had similar experiences.'
The scenarios within the game offer a candid view of the trials someone with depression can face. 'I had done the initial prototype when I was depressed,' Levall said. 'That was a way for me to cope and to deal with what I was going through. Many of the stories I wrote for the game are actually taken from my own life.'
On top of this true-to-life foundation, Levall elaborated with fictional elements, as he 'didn't want to create an autobiography in game form.'
As a result of Levall's perspective, Please Knock on My Door is a particular take on depression that won't necessarily ring true to all people. 'I felt there was some higher value in the player being forced into this specific narrative that followed only one person and their struggles. As long as there are parts of it you can connect with, you can still empathise with the main character.'
Levall resisted taking a broad view in order to preserve the 'soul' of the game. 'I don't think you can generalise too much. If the game was entirely relatable to any other person, would it still be personal?'
However the game resonates with players, Levall intends for the game to have a wide appeal. 'One core idea was that I wanted someone who was depressed to be able to use the game as a catalyst for discussion, essentially offering the game to a family member or friend and going 'Hey, I can't explain what I'm going through, but if you play this game, maybe you'll be able to understand, and we can talk.''
Central to the game is the main character's 'mental fortitude', a measure that isn't explicitly explained, but might be thought of as a summary value of the character's mood, energy, motivation and confidence. As this value decreases, the player becomes less able to engage in certain actions.
The first actions to become unfeasible involve communicating with others. As the mental fortitude continues to dwindle, even simpler tasks become impossible to complete. 'I wanted to convey that when things are going your way, you're able to deal with things and talk to people about how you're feeling, but when your mental state declines, all your effort goes into, for example, being able to do the dishes.'
Almost every action in the game has either a positive or negative effect on the mental fortitude value. 'It is a way to make the player explore how their actions affect the mind state of the character,' said Levall. 'If you don't eat, if you don't sleep well, if you don't talk to people, that's going to have its effect on you.'
Some actions can have different effects in the short term compared to their eventual long term effect, as Levall explained: 'I made that to show that some things can make you feel worse at the moment, but they can have positive effects in the long run.
For instance, facing difficult thoughts or talking to people about difficult things; those might be difficult to do, and might make you feel worse in the moment, but can increase your mental state going forward. In the opposite way, if you use games as escapism, or watch TV shows to avoid dealing with life, that might make you feel better for the moment, but in the long run that's only going to bring you down.'
Stacking the odds
Levall is open about the fact the game stacks the odds against the player. Maintaining mental fortitude is difficult, and all the more difficult when you can't do things that might be helpful, such as reaching out to others. 'I wanted players to always feel the weight of every choice,' he said. 'I get the sense that most people feel like there's something that they could do, but they simply can't figure out what that thing is, which to me is one of the central emotions when you are depressed. You feel like there should be something for you to do, like you should be able to deal with this, you should be able to snap out of it, but it's just impossible.'
The main character bounces back and forth from home to work, but as depression creeps in, it becomes difficult to maintain this routine. At home, it is up to you to pass the time, which can be hard when there is little your character wants to do. 'One thing I felt was a common thread for people with depression, and that resonated strongly with me, was that hobbies stopped being fun or interesting. For me, that meant playing games in the evening wasn't something I did for fun, it was something I did to pass time, because I wasn't tired enough to go to sleep. I wanted that to be part of the game.'
If passing time is hard, equally hard is keeping to time. You need to leave for work in the morning, but with a growing tendency to oversleep, and a morning routine that can take longer than anticipated, chances are you'll eventually show up late to the office. 'In the game, you don't get to decide how long actions are going to take you,' said Levall, 'because you don't sit down to watch TV and decide exactly how many minutes you're going to spend there. Of course that has implications during the morning ritual, like do you have time to eat? What kind of food should you make? Do you have time to shower? Should you just take a quick shower? That information on timing isn't there; it's all hidden. I wanted to capture the sense that you merely push the character in certain directions, but you're never in complete control, just like you're never in complete control in reality, either.'
Spiralling out of control
It shouldn't come as surprise that things begin to spiral out of control, both at work and at home. If you are used to feeling rewarded by games, this might be tough to take. 'It was actually very difficult to write in a way that the player wouldn't just get frustrated,' said Levall. 'How do you write a character that has weaknesses that don't come off as frustrating for the player? Usually that's a no-no as far as games go; you want the player to feel powerful and in control.'
The game creates an excellent tension between the mindsets of the player and the character they are playing as. For example, it may seem obvious to the player that the character should cook and eat a comforting meal, but that may be beyond the character's capability.
Similarly, at work, the player may notice social support is available that the character isn't able to appreciate. 'In this case, I had to write characters that would give enough hints so that the player would know 'Okay, these characters care'. They try to reach out to the main character, however they still have to be obtuse enough for it to make sense that the main character, in the state they are in, would not be able to understand or would not have the energy to pick up on it.'
As the game draws to a conclusion, things become increasingly desperate for the main character and their ability to cope. How things turn out depend on the player's choices, with three possible endings. There are no 'good' or 'bad' outcomes, with all endings operating on what Levall labels a greyscale.
Of course, one outcome is worse than the others, and I had to ask Levall about this. 'Personally,' he replied, 'I didn't want it to be too obvious a thing. Think: what could be the most horrendous thing to happen in response to depression? Of course, suicide comes to mind. I didn't want people to expect that to happen, and for me to just give in to those expectations. But, at the same time, if I didn't deal with that, would I still be doing the theme justice? I decided to keep it in, but with my own twist to it. I feel like the most important thing is to be honest and upfront with players, so that someone who does not want to be subjected to that would not be shocked. I wanted to be very upfront with players about what this game is, so that they don't expect this game to be something else.'
Seeing the hope
Such themes can be distressing, but Levall wants players to see the hope in each ending. 'I never wanted to leave the player in a dark place, so I usually tell people to not stop playing once they start. The second week pushes the player very far down, but I wanted to leave the player with an idea that things get better. That was very important to me. I feel some responsibility as a creator that if someone who is depressed plays my game, I don't want to leave them feeling like everything is hopeless, so it was very important for me to make sure all of the endings had some kind of positive connotation to them.'
Like many games that tackle the subject of depression, the prospect of seeking medical attention is not covered. While Please Knock on My Door touches on themes of recovery, Levall is clear that he wasn't producing a guide on how to get better. 'I'm not a psychiatrist, so I don't feel comfortable talking in those terms,' he said. 'All I could do was to try and offer an individual perspective and hopefully add something valuable to the overall discussion about mental illness. I can't say for sure if someone who is depressed would gain something from playing this; I have heard from people that the game was able to strike a chord with them. In the end, I made it more as entertainment than as a tool, but I feel entertainment has a strong place in our culture for dealing with difficult themes and making them more available and approachable to people.'
While Levall is keen for Please Knock on My Door to contribute to the conversation on mental illness, he recognises that encouraging people to play it remains a hurdle, once again striking on the idea that games should be only for enjoyment. 'One of the bigger challenges has been to convince people that the game is actually worth their time. As it is a commercial product, people are choosing between this and whatever other game is made for them to feel happy. So it can be a bit of a rough sell. The way I try to frame it is that this game won't simply last two hours and be over; hopefully it will give you some kind of a takeaway that you can then bring with you during the rest of your life. I feel it has been able to do that, at least for some people.'
Please Knock on My Door is currently available for Windows.
Authored by Sachin Shah