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As I walked into a dark alley of the fictional Santa Monica, rain falling on my character’s newly upgraded leather jacket, I noticed a hideous figure crouching in the corner. I stepped cautiously towards it, clutching my knife. I was less concerned about who this crouching figure was than whether it meant any harm to me. I wasn’t looking for a conversation, I was merely looking for another outlet to exhibit my power fantasy in this fictional world.
Instead, the moment I stepped close to it, the crouching, grotesque man turned and began talking to me.
I was taken aback by the idea of having a conversation with someone who my mind immediately identified as another enemy. Another body to add to my ever-increasing count in the game. But instead, here I was, talking and trying to coerce information out of someone who was clearly an intelligent being. This seemingly mundane occurrence of gently subverting the horror genre’s traditional Othering of its enemies into flawed but complex portrayals was one of the many achievements of Troika’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
Games, particularly the ones that rely on having the players commit violent acts, have a poor reputation of stigmatizing mental illnesses through a negative portrayal, often equating people with such illnesses to monsters. Such games rely on Othering to antagonize the player towards those it seeks to portray as in-game enemies. Othering enemies often involves emphasizing certain negative stereotypes and misunderstandings, whether they are racial or cultural differences, or mental health conditions.
One common way the horror genre antagonizes those with mental health issues is by depicting them as exhibiting violent, psychopathic behaviour that threatens the safety of the player character. The endangerment of the player’s own well-being in the virtual world is a condition many action-based horror games use in order to justify the violent actions the player is then encouraged to commit towards the disabled bodies.
However, Othering goes beyond the problematic representation of enemies. Mechanics like sanity meters are commonly used in games like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem to describe the mental state of the player character.1 If the meter is filled to its maximum, it would generally result in the player character going “insane” and trigger a fail state. This mechanisation is deeply problematic, as on top of reinforcing existing stereotypes about a group of people, it further deepens the stigma surrounding them by misrepresentation.
One of the most common misconceptions perpetuated by the stigmatizing mechanics of horror games is the false notion that mental illnesses lead to criminally violent behaviour. Many horror games use mental asylums as their setting and task the sane player to fight against the demented patients and escape alive. Moreover, these games encourage the reaction of the player towards such patients to be negative, by Othering them as sub-humans or monsters. Such games carry problematic values in their representation, which could negatively affect behaviour towards actual people suffering from such conditions.
Bloodlines is a strange and fascinating game on several levels. This is apparent already in the character creation scene. One of the six possible clans the players can role-play as, the Malkavians, are a group of vampires who suffer from a variety of mental illnesses including hallucination and schizophrenia. However, within Kindred — the colloquial term for the community of Vampires in the game’s universe — they are respected and treated as equals, and are often regarded as seers and oracles. Even within the Camarilla, the ruling body of the Kindred, Malkavians are given an equal seat of power, and thus represented fairly. By establishing a setting which treats characters with mental illnesses with respect, Bloodlines tries to humanize key Malkavian non-player characters, and communicate empathy to the player.
Bloodlines consciously avoids this negative stereotyping by carefully portraying every Malkavian NPC you meet during the course of the game as non-aggressive. Doing so separates Bloodlines from the myriad horror games where every “abnormal” thing is either violent (and thus meant to be killed by the player) or behaves in a manner which makes it easier for the player to Other them. The lack of emphasis on their “abnormalities” lays the groundwork allowing Bloodlines to portray Malkavians in more positive manner. This representation is also consistent with the Malkavians’ canonized behaviour in the universe as that of seers and oracles. Most of the Malkavians you meet in Bloodlines are aloof, eccentric and insightful, but never violent or aggressive.
Identity is often misunderstood to be a largely monolithic construct. Something which has a fixed point around which a person’s behaviour is always presupposed to revolve around. Such a misconception lies at the core of the social processes which Other those with dissociative identity disorder (DID). Bloodlines deals with this issue in an interesting way by utilizing the same approach it does with Malkavians. It treats them as who they are, first and foremost — humans. This can be seen with how the game deals with The Twins.
Therese/Jeanette Voerman, the proprietor of the Asylum Bar, suffers from DID. Within the game, the player first meets them as twin sisters with distinct personalities, who are in constant conflict with one another. Therese acts as the serious, confident and commanding half, while Jeanette is the playful, flirtatious and friendly one; they each refer to the other in the third person. In addition, through the player’s conversations with them, Bloodlines tells of a deeply traumatic childhood for Therese/Jeanette, where she was in an abusive relationship with her father. While research on this matter is contentious and inconsistent, it was thought that trauma and DID were related,2 and through Therese/Jeanette’s background the game provides a foundation to humanize her character. It also characterizes both the identities in subtle ways for the sake of suspense and the consistency of its portrayal of Malkavians. Both Therese and Jeanette are respected by other NPCs in the Bloodlines world and it presents an example of the game providing a safe space in its universe to the Malkavians.
Seeing the world treat Malkavians like Therese/Jeanette with respect acts as a deterrent for the player to Other them for their mental illnesses. Bloodlines, by adding a personal background to the characters, humanizes them and makes it easier for player to empathize with them. By foregrounding their humanity, Bloodlines allows Therese/Jeanette’s character to evolve without forcing stereotypes pertaining to their condition. However, it doesn’t fully evade the problematic aspects of the representation of Malkavians. By presenting their personality traits as eccentric and mystical, it creates a stereotype which reduces every Malkavian to that specific set of characteristics.
Another interesting representation of mental health in Bloodlines emerges from the importance of Humanity for every vampire and how it’s reflected in the mechanic of Masquerade. Adapted from the Vampire universe’s mythos, Masquerade entails that the Kindred vampire community enforces rules demanding its members keep their vampiric instincts concealed from the rest of society. The mechanic of Humanity brings the topic of identity back into focus where the player has to navigate the tension between their instinctual urge to consume blood to replenish health and being civil by not breaking the Masquerade.
The player is often reminded of the punishment that’s meted out to those who break the Masquerade too many times. In fact, the first cutscene in the game offers a brief glance at the harsh punishment meted out to those who violate Masquerade one times too many. But it primarily exists through the mechanic which tracks the number of times you have publicly given away your Kindred identity by feeding on someone or using your powers. The game keeps a track of such grievous offences, dropping your Humanity by a point every time you break Masquerade. Do it too many times and you’re facing the prospect of a permanent Game Over. Moreover, the lower your Humanity, the more likely you are to temporarily transform into a Beast, where players’ control of their character is wrested away. For a few brief moments, you watch yourself go out of control and attack any creature in the vicinity. At first it appears as a unique way of representing the conflict between multiple identities. But such a perspective crumbles when analysed critically.
The formal representation of the conflict between two identities is explored in a unique way in Bloodlines, but that doesn’t absolve it from all problematic aspects. One can argue that by demonizing the ‘eccentric’ as violent, animalistic, it is reinforcing the stereotypes. This is further emphasized by the fact that being ‘animalistic’ is undesirable to the player as it can potentially lead to a Game Over. Rather than providing any nuance to such an ‘animalistic’ personality, Bloodlines simply takes the control away from the player briefly. In absence of a personality to layer such a mechanic, the brief lack of agency seems like a more glaring problem in representation by emphasizing negative, violent characteristics. In addition, by conflating this tension between identities with the Humanity mechanic makes it seem like a more problematic representation. Even if Bloodlines justifies it by framing it as an adaptation of the narrative elements of the White Wolf universe, it doesn’t provide a completely nuanced tension between multiple identities that the Player has to handle.
Bloodlines’ ambition comes to the fore when the you as a player choose a Malkavian character to be your protagonist. Unlike other clans, a Malkavian Player Character (PC) has a largely different script and they often speak in convoluted and vague dialogues to other characters. These dialogues have a vague tone which may be cryptic and opaque to a first-time player.
However, what’s interesting to note is that these very dialogues are designed to serve as foreshadowing to a player on a repeat playthrough of the game. Many of them subtly hint at major revelations well before they are actually scripted to occur in the game’s plot. For example, in Figure 2, the dialogue options provided to a Malkavian PC while they are conversing with an NPC include an option (number 2 in Figure 2) which foreshadows the event where the NPC tricks the player. This dual purpose of the game’s writing suggests a conscious design decision to not just serve different types of players, but also to showcase the insightful, seer-like knowledge Malkavians have about the future. To add to this, a Malkavian PC hears soft whispers in their game’s audio signifying the hallucinatory symptoms shared by all members of the Malkavian clan.
Such an experiential simulation of a player character suffering from mental illness is different from how they are typically portrayed in games. The narrative foreshadowing through convoluted dialogues and hallucinatory whispers in the game audio suggest an experience designed for an advanced player who is already familiar with the game’s storyline. By doing that, Bloodlines also implies that while words of someone suffering from mental illnesses are often relegated to ramblings by society, they may contain wisdom that may require a deeper understanding. It still can be seen as a form of Othering, but without much of the negative connotations that stigmatize people with mental illnesses. The kind of understanding, which in the context of the game, that only players who have experienced the game would have.
However, there are always risks to representation through mechanics, and Bloodlines serves as a reminder of that. While its representation of the Twins and Malkavians might suggest a radically progressive outlook, the methodologies it employs still demand a critical perspective. While representing Malkavians as non-violent eccentrics subverts expectations established by horror tropes, that does not necessarily make them more relatable. Or do the methods Bloodlines employs fetishize characteristics we associate with people having mental conditions? It’s worth asking if representation in media always runs the risk of objectification on some level, no matter how nuanced it might be.
Ultimately, those are the inherent limitations of a procedural representation within a narrative space. That’s the cost of trying to portray a group of people with specific conditions and depicting their subjective experiences. However, that shouldn’t stop from games taking a step in the direction that Bloodlines did and go even beyond that. A nuanced form of representing the underprivileged is often a necessary phase a maturing medium needs to undergo. For games where the defining verb is “to act”, the vocabulary needs to evolve away from representations that stick to demonizing tropes or to Othering those society has traditionally treated as outcasts.Notes:
- http://www.polygon.com/2014/7/21/5923095/mental-health-gaming-silent-hill [↩]
- Spiegel, David. “Multiple personality as a post-traumatic stress disorder.” Psychiatric Clinics of North America (1984). p. 2. [↩]