Thoughts on Shorts: Elude

Aaron likes to procrastinate. What better way to do so than by playing countless free games online…especially ones that make you think about aspects of everyday life. Thoughts on Shorts is a series that documents these kinds of games, what they mean and, ultimately, if they’re worth playing.
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Remember, sadness is always temporary. This, too, shall also pass.
– Chuck T. Falcon.

I don’t understand depression. Admittedly, there are quite a few things that I don’t understand, but depression is something that I have tried to get my head around many, many times. Despite my cynicism and mock-pessimism, I’m a very happy guy, not a lot of things get me down, and when they do, I’m never down for long. Depression, then, is something which is as foreign to me as the slums of Delhi or paedophilia. I find it extremely difficult to understand how someone can so easily fall into despair for no apparent reason. I usually (and wrongly so) look at it as a form of attention-seeking.

It was with this kind of ignorance that I ventured into the bleak world of Elude, a game by Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab explicitly intended to raise awareness of what depression is like. The game focuses on an unnamed character – who I shall refer to as ‘Smith’ – and his lonely adventure through a dark and forbidding forest. When the game begins it instantly drops the player into the forest with no real explanation of what to do, besides using the arrow keys to move and pressing spacebar to “resonate”. The game is spread across three different areas: the forest, treetop canopy, and underground.

The forest is the default state of ‘Smith’s’ existence, a place where he searches for birds to “resonate” with, thus granting him the ability to jump higher and break through the leaves of the tallest trees. Once up on the much brighter forest canopy, ‘Smith’ can use falling leaves and flowers to shoot himself high into the air, trying to get as high as possible before his means of flying eventually disappear completely.After falling back down to the forest floor, ‘Smith’ begins his ascent once again, searching for birds to “resonate” with in order to reach the canopy. He finds, however, that some birds refuse to “resonate” and he is forced to journey farther afield to find ones that will. As he searches though, the forest grows dark and roots creep out of the soil in search of him. They inevitably find the poor boy, dragging him into the deep darkness underground.

This begins the next section of Elude, a section that gives the player little control over ‘Smith’ as he is sucked deeper and deeper underground. Eventually, the player regains control and ‘Smith’ can begin his ascent back to the forest.

After ‘Smith’ is back in the forest, the process repeats itself, only when ‘Smith’ finds himself underground once more there is no pathway back up to the forest. Instead there is a slow and ominous descent, a walk that eventually causes the background to turn red before ‘Smith’ inevitably steps off of a cliff into oblivion. This is where the game ends.

Upon the end of the game, a graph is presented to the player:

The metaphor is obvious here; someone with depression can swing from happiness to sadness very quickly and often without warning. Each section of the game represents a particular emotion (forest – normal; canopy – happiness; underground – sadness) and the ending conveys the worst-case scenario of someone suffering from depression: death. However, this is not the only ending the game has to offer. If ‘Smith‘ can reach the canopy before the second lot of roots drag him under, the game finishes in a more positive light, representing how – by constantly fighting it – a person can overcome depression.

But the game offers so much more insight than just this. The lonely figure of ‘Smith’ traversing the ever-changing landscape represents how utterly alone people with depression feel. Often, they believe that they can’t talk to anyone about how they feel, or that people won’t understand them. They think that they have to deal with these emotions on their own.

As the game progresses and more birds refuse to “resonate” with ‘Smith’, it takes longer for him to reach the forest canopy. This represents the way in which normal stimulants – things like music and art – can cease to positively affect people with depression. Things that usually resonate with the person’s interests fail to invoke the same excitement that they once did.

The helplessness that the player feels as ‘Smith’ is dragged deeper underground represents the helplessness of a depressed person; the helpless feeling that nothing will get better and nothing matters anymore. Once depression grips someone, it can be difficult to escape, a desperate struggle to free themselves from the inevitable degradation of their positive emotions.Which brings me to the title of the game. There are two interpretations of the word elude; one is positive, one is negative. On the positive side, elude means “to evade or escape from”, which the game showcases by allowing ’Smith’ to escape his depression,  albeit for a short time, and soar through the sky happily. On the negative side, however, the word also means “to escape discovery or understanding”, which the game presents to us as the eventual disappearance of ‘Smith’ into the void. People with depression often feel that they are ignored or forgotten and that the depression, which is so evident to them, eludes their family and friends.I’ll admit, the game doesn’t help me to understand how or why people get depression, but it does a nice job of highlighting the emotions and experiences that depressed people go through. Elude is an interesting little time-killer (10 minutes max.) that helps to give its players a better understanding of depression as a mental illness. The atmosphere and art are really nice, too – they’re not dissimilar to Limbo – so it’s worth a look for those alone. But the shining light comes from the fact that this terribly short, free game can teach us so much about the effects of such a complex and misunderstood illness.

In the depth of winter, I finally found that in me there was an invincible summer.
– Albert Camus

You can struggle with depression in Elude here.

5 Comments

  1. Matt Darling

    Haven’t been able to play the game yet, so I don’t want to read the article, but I’m really happy to see this piece in the first place. Glad the game exists, and glad somebody is taking the time to write about what it means.

    Will be sharing this article, and the game, with everybody I know!

    • Aaron Myles

      Awesome! Be sure to let us know what you make of it when you eventually make the journey!

      • Matt Darling

        Looking at the game graphed out like that, it makes me think more of bi-polar disorder than depression proper. If you cut out the part about “flying high,” so to speak, it would be more accurate. Deep cycles that sometimes come back into normal, before settling back into the rut of rumination.

        But the thing about the birds is quite nice. It doesn’t come across all that well, though – as a player, it feels more like I’m being ignored by the birds, not that I’m unable to enjoy their presence anymore. It might be a bit more effective if you could still “resonate” with the birds like normal, but it had little to no effect.

        All that aside, glad you tried to understand a little bit better. The way you really can’t help but have the tentacles catch you, and the game gives you no choice but to tread in a circle and dig a deeper rut when underground, are pretty good metaphors for a darkening mood. Certainly not something anyone in their right mind would do for attention 😉

        • Aaron Myles

          Bi-polar disorder (also known as manic depression) is a type of depression. But yes, I think the game speaks to this specific strain than depression as a whole. Hell, there are many different kinds of depression, so tailoring the game to all of them would have been difficult, I guess.

          In terms of the birds, you could look at it as though you’re not enjoying the gift they usually bestow upon the protagonist. ie, the ability to jump higher.

          And no, it’s certainly not a form of attention. = P

          Since playing the game, I’ve educated myself a little more.

  2. Wennet

    Played this and just…No. Depression doesn’t feel like this, doesn’t feel like if you just work harder something good will eventually happen. Doesn’t feel as if you have the weight/presence/existence to work at all. Try “The Terrible Whiteness of Appalachian Nights” if you want something that’s less educational but more emotionally accurate.