I reviewed The Lady earlier this year for a publication it was rejected from. Luckily, one of the creators of the game was pleased by it and posted it on his site, MPR Art, where he has updates on all the interesting things he’s working on.
In celebration of the game’s much-overdue release on Steam this January 29th, I have chosen to share the piece with all of you! And whether you play this particular game or not, please support indie game developers.
I am lost. I don’t know which way to go, nor can I be sure where I came from. I feel like no matter how hard I try to progress, I’m holding myself back – I am my own worst enemy. I am The Lady.
The Lady is an emotionally provocative yet wordless journey into the mind of a person suffering from depression. The game plays as a simple 2D side-scroller, taking inspiration from classic video games, including their incredibly steep learning curves. The Lady isn’t impossible, but it takes a lot to stick with a game when there is no indication whatsoever what you need to do to progress. What helps in one level can kill you in another; you’re constantly adapting your methods, only occasionally repeating simple motions in order to get by.
Unlike the text-based game Depression Quest, The Lady doesn’t spell anything out for you. It doesn’t aim to tell you how she feels, but instead show you and make you feel it too. The frustration of the brutally difficult learning curve combined with no ability to save or go back – you mess up three times, you start from square one – is of course a throwback to the time before games had manuals or memory to save, but it also brings up a lot of the feelings of depression in the player. After a while, you begin to feel like this whole thing is futile, and when the helplessness builds you want nothing more than to click the “Fuck it, I can’t go on like this..” option.
Depression Quest is probably one of the most famous of games to deal with depression in a realistic, everyday way. The static of the background makes you feel the numbness that often accompanies depression, and the writing is slow and paced – anything too energetic wouldn’t work. It elegantly presents the idea that certain choices aren’t yours to make, such as “just getting over it” – these are crossed out to show that this is an impossible decision for someone with serious depression to just make. As the player, you make decisions about whether to ask for help or take antidepressants, and as such it is probably an invaluable game for anyone trying to understand depression, either their own or others’.
The Lady, on the other hand, throws you in the deep end without context or a safety net. There’s absolutely no understanding, no helping hand, no closure. The world is just a terrifying place and you don’t know why. In terms of artwork, it has the same feel as body horror movies, and the Lady herself is a monstrous exaggeration of an emaciated, scarred rag doll with no arms. She drags herself around, either blind to the world or with huge bloodshot eyes bulging in horror at what she sees – which, nine times out of ten, is herself.
In The Lady, you don’t fight against an external figure other than yourself. To get anywhere you have to smash projections of your own self in various forms, before they come to you; it’s a great way to show an all-encompassing self-hatred, and the negative spiral depression leads to wherein you’re depressed because you’re depressed. It also reinforced for me the idea that when you have depression, you can be your own worst enemy.
I’m armless, useless, impotent. Moving is like wading through molasses. I can’t scream for help, and I don’t think anyone could save me anyway. I know this is something I need to do myself, but I just don’t know how. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
Like Alice going down the rabbit hole, you can’t be sure what is real in this game and what is not. Seemingly endless mazes can keep you occupied for hours if you don’t know where to leave. Sometimes, seemingly without reason, you’re plunged into near-darkness and have to grope your way through broken glass and your own fears to get anywhere. But I understand The Lady, I found myself thinking. If things had gone differently, this could have been me.
Short puzzle-based games have been shown to improve the player’s mood, reduce their anxiety and promote relaxation; this is why casual games like Angry Birds and Bejewelled are so successful. The Lady does the exact opposite by withdrawing any kind of reward, cheats or easy progress from the player, but instead forces then to use an important part of any serious gamer’s arsenal – reappraisal. This skill helps with problem solving, acceptance and willingness to change tact entirely, and this ability to re-assess is both useful in everyday scenarios and in dealing with symptoms of depression.
Don’t play this game expecting closure or even a sense of relief at the end. The whole thing was created as an artistic exercise when artist and video game designer Michael Patrick Rogers developed anxiety and depression, and did as so many of us do – lost interest in everything he’d enjoyed. By creating an artistic journey through the haunted house ride that is a panic attack, he hoped to express the feelings of intense fear, helplessness and anxiety that are impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t had one.
The Lady could be considered more of an interactive art piece with a jaw-grinding soundtrack than a traditional puzzle and reward computer game. But like any challenging game, it forces you to think in creatively – despite the oppressive atmosphere – and come out the other side against all odds.