Depression, catharsis, and game development—Matt Sanderson on Shadows and Dust
Content warning: depression, mental illness, suicide.
Every once in a while a game comes along that tests the limits of what’s achievable through videogames. It might facilitate conversations and create a better understanding of taboo or difficult topics like grief, depression, or loss. It could have us take a second look at the consequences of our behaviours or actions. Perhaps it turns the standard game formula on its head. Maybe it creates greater empathy between strangers.
Shadows and Dust is one of those rare games.
I was lucky enough to be allowed a sneak preview of Moloch Media’s latest game, and I was utterly floored by it.
It’s not a fun game.
In fact, it’s an emotional punch right to the heart-guts. However, it’s one of those games that takes a lot of risks in creating an experience that many people might relate to, and because of it, feel understood and less isolated.
Matt Sanderson was kind enough to sit down and have a chat with us about the development of Shadows and Dust and the themes that it conveys.
PowerUp!: Shadows and Dust is quite a different story from your previous game, Mars Underground, in just about every aspect.
What prompted this change in direction?
Matt Sanderson: I wanted to do something different, I wanted to challenge myself, in terms of making games and also in terms of writing. With Mars Underground, it was more about humour, and it didn’t really go into anything emotional.
In some ways, I was a bit cautious because I didn’t know how good my writing might be, and I didn’t want to put something out that was overly corny.
I learned a lot about making games and about how to write. I thought I’d start stretching myself again with something that, when I thought about it, sounded like the right thing to do next. But it was definitely difficult.
PU!: Would you mind sharing with us a little about your own experiences that are portrayed in Shadows and Dust? Why did you choose to portray them as you have?
MS: They’re sort of half-remembered bits of dreams and a lot of working instinctively. It’s hard to say; I can kind of draw and analyse why I wanted to put things into it. I was trying to approach some of the more surreal stuff—like, I could write music or lyrics, and someone could hear it and say, “this means this to me,” rather than it means anything specific to everyone.
I’m keen for people to experience their own reactions to the game.
The green world that you keep going into is this vision I have of what exists underneath conscious memory, like, if your brain resets? It’s hard! Part of why I portray things this way is because I don’t know how to put them into words, I don’t know how to express it. Maybe it’s so abstract because I have ideas that I don’t know how to express otherwise.
I have depression and anxiety issues, so it’s certainly about that. It’s about—what if I were to take my own life? What becomes of the people I’d leave behind? You know, difficult questions like that.
Not even questions of an afterlife, just of regret at the time of doing it. And I think that, maybe, in a positive sort of way I’m trying to rid myself of suicidal ideation through shocking myself with those questions.
I see quite often through social media that a friend-of-a-friend has committed suicide and a lot of them are parents with children. And then I think about myself. So, I think it’s good to express this sort of stuff more because it often seems that it’s very much hidden, the extent of it.
PU!: Shadows and Dust is one of the most emotionally exhausting games I’ve ever played. I can’t imagine how taxing it must have been on you while you made it, having to work with it every day. How did you manage your own self-care during that time?
MS: It was sort of catharsis to make it in the first place, like, making it was the self-care. The experiences in the game and what they convey—that’s within me, I live with it anyway, but in making the game I’m putting it out there into the world. So, it feels like I’m doing something to put it outside of myself a little bit, and it’s helpful to me in that way.
I will say that writing the central conversation [of the game]—I put that off a lot. That was hard to write.
But there’s also a lot that goes into making a game, a lot of technical stuff and systems that have to work together. So, the edge is kind of taken off the material by just having familiarity with it every day. It was like, it isn’t there so much when you’re working on it every day.
PU!: Even though the visuals can be surreal, the game captures emotions so authentic that I would expect some people might have trouble finishing Shadows and Dust.
That’s a remarkable accomplishment. How hard was it to work those real emotions in?
MS: I’m trying to extend my craft, making games and writing, so it’s good to hear that people might have a real reaction to it like that.
I’m really interested in finding the limits of games and what can be expressed in these sorts of forms. I’m interested in extending that; how game experiences could work when the story is not necessarily an empowerment story, and what value there is in creating other experiences where [the player] is not big and powerful but sort of opposite what we’d all expect.
PU!: Was there any aspect of your experience that you chose not to include because you felt you couldn’t properly translate it to a game?
MS: I thought more about whether I should have more “gamey” stuff in the game—whether I should make it longer, or have some puzzles, or add more conversations. But I didn’t really feel that ultimately it would add anything more than what was already there, like, maybe it would lessen the experience.
PU!: There are many notable movies that focus on topics like those shown in Shadows and Dust. Do you feel that games are a better medium for expressing personal experiences than the more passive experience of a movie?
MS: I wouldn’t say that they’re better necessarily, but I think games are different, and that they’re under-explored. I’m interested in the way that games and game-like experiences require their audience to be active participants. Especially with books, you’re inside someone else’s head. But there’s a highly immersive quality to games that allow for a lot of different experiences to be explored.
I think that this is the type of experience that hasn’t been explored much in games; maybe a bit in interactive fiction, but not really otherwise.
Looking outside of games, I really like a short story by David Foster Wallace called The Depressed Person*. In a way it’s the opposite of what I’ve done here; it has a lot of words in it! Wallace often uses footnotes, and those footnotes lead to further footnotes, and so on and so on. What I like about this particular short story is that it captures these sorts of circular negative thoughts that tend to come with depression.
Yeah, it’s my favourite thing that I’ve ever read or seen in any form on the topic of depression, in conveying what it feels like.
I’ve also got to say that I went back and read it just a few days ago, and I was really happy because I didn’t feel like I related to it as much as I once did. I was like, “I must be feeling better than I used to, that there’s been some progress.” It’s like now I identify less with the protagonist, but feel more for the protagonist.
PU!: Was there ever a point during development where you thought, “this is going to be too emotionally draining, maybe I should pass some of the work off to someone else?”
MS: Actually no, the opposite, which was, “this is too much, I don’t want to show it to anyone!”
I haven’t really shown it to people, to friends or family. I’m just releasing it, just sending it out there. So yeah, I wouldn’t really work with anyone else because I’d have felt strange showing other people the project and having them work on it.
PU!: One thing that’s prevalent in discussions of mental health and suicide is cure evangelism, and it’s really easy to ‘evangelise’ like that with the best of intentions.
Did you ever find yourself ever trying to do that through the game?
MS: I really, really try to avoid that. I’m not a counsellor or a psychologist, I don’t have the answers. This was about trying to express my own experiences for my own reasons. Others have their own experiences and their own ways of expressing them for their own reasons.
PU!: Did more gameplay or story elements get cut from the final game?
MS: There was some stuff towards the end that I felt wasn’t good for the pacing. I cut some ideas because it was like putting too much paint on a canvas, you know?
I thought about having more scenes between the father and son and having more items in the room. Maybe a computer in the room, with emails and stuff going on about life. But none of that went in, and I think it gives players a better view.
PU!: What do you hope that players will take away from Shadows and Dust?
MS: If they relate to the themes and feelings in the game—obviously, I’ve felt them because I’ve created this—and recognise themselves in it, they’ll feel seen and empathised with. It’s not really strange and uncommon to have them. It’s about creating empathy, it’s about creating awareness of these feelings.
PU!: You did a remarkable job of putting a difficult story to a visual form. What’s next for Moloch Media?
MS: I think probably another narrative-based game building on what I’ve learned from making Shadows and Dust. It’s a progression. And like I said before, I’m really interested in extending what’s possible with games.
With many thanks to Matt Sanderson for taking the time to talk to us.
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope, there are people who care and are ready to listen. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.
* The Depressed Person can be read online here.