Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Weaving a Tapestry of Sanity: Alice Liddell and Fran Bow

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

Since this is Depression Awareness Week, I feel it's a good time to address a topic which is often portrayed in artistic mediums: mental illness. I know it can be a touchy subject for some, but that is all the more reason for it to be given attention, as challenging the stigma which surrounds it is something I feel very strongly about. Statistically, 1 in 5 people will experience a mental health problem in their lives, and while it is becoming more accepted in many places, there are still a lot of barriers to break down. And that's why I'm so glad it is being tackled in these mediums, as each one holds a huge audience to which it can speak a positive message.

I've already mentioned this in a similar light in my Bookish Rambles post Getting Into Inside Out, and also in my Book of the Month for March: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. So this time, I want to focus on something a little different. For the most part, I'm not much of a gamer, but the ones I absolutely adore share the topic of mental illness as a major theme: The American McGee's Alice series, and Fran Bow.

Go to any Comic Con and I guarantee you will see someone cosplaying as Alice Liddell, in her bloodstained dress, wielding a kitchen knife. A lot of people in these kind of circles are aware of her, even if they don't know exactly what she is all about. Basically, she is what happened after Lewis Carroll's canon stories ended and horrendous reality set in. In the first game, American McGee's Alice, she witnesses her family burning to death in a house fire, which causes her to suffer a psychotic break and spend ten years as a patient of Rutledge Asylum. Wonderland is portrayed as an imaginary world which has become broken and fractured with her, and stands as her own mental health amplified. This is continued in the second game Alice: Madness Returns, when she returns to Wonderland for a fourth time. In both games, she must use Wonderland as a means to understand her past and how it has come to affect her present self; and by facing the problems head-on in a way she can comprehend, she can begin to overcome them.

Fran Bow maybe isn't as well known, but it's definitely building a lot of buzz among those who have played it. Although its controls are a little simpler than Alice, it also isn't afraid to delve into some taboo and stigmatised concepts. This game tells the story of a ten year-old girl whose parents are brutally murdered, leaving her as the only survivor in the Oswald Asylum. After being given pills that allow her to see a macabre new reality, she manages to escape, going in search of her beloved cat and aunt. Along the way, she discovers the truth about what happened to her family, but the line of reality becomes so blurred that it's tough to say whether a lot of it is in her head or not.
​On the surface, these games sound very similar, and in many respects, they are - and not just because they both feature cats! Both are very dark and very brave, addressing not just mental health, but issues of emotional and sexual abuse, murder, and manipulation by people in power. They both also echo the concept I talked about in regards to Inside Out: using the mind as a metaphorical stage upon which real problems can be solved. All human beings do this, whether we are 'sane' or not - we all dream, problem-solve, use our imaginations to our advantage. There is an argument in evolutionary psychology that one of the reasons we developed such powerful brains, with such a vivid power to imagine, was as a defence mechanism to predict all the ways we could survive. Taking that hypothesis further, some in this field also mention that several mental health problems could be a result of this evolutionary mechanism essentially 'going too far.'

​So why is it such a great thing that it is addressed in games like Alice and Fran Bow?

Traditionally, literature, music and theatre were the key creative mediums in which powerful emotions and experiences could be expressed in the moment. They go back hundreds of years, with theatre also evolving into cinema during the early 20th century. Electronic gaming is a much more recent phenomenon, and modern games have come on so much since their early days that I can't help but marvel at the process. In the space of a few decades, we have gone from the simple tennis games on TV to massive online RPGs like World of Warcraft. It can be easy to forget how powerful this medium is. And like the others, it weaves its own tapestry of creativity. But there is one key difference which potentially grants it a little more power.

​Films, books, music, and traditional art are passive mediums. They can draw out a very strong emotional response from us, but they do so by presenting us with what is essentially a 'stationary' situation. There is nothing really required of us - the receivers of what they are giving us - to facilitate our brain's reaction. Games, on the other hand, give us 'active' situations, in which we must respond to a set of virtual external stimuli. They fire different sections of our brains, making us think and assess as if we ourselves are personally involved. But when your main character, who you are playing as, may or may not be completely sane, it also forces you to view the world as they see it.

I remember the first time I played the Alice games and Fran Bow, and with each one I loved trying to figure out what everything meant or where it could lead - as I was literally discovering them for myself. Games like this not only make mental health issues relevant, they also make them understandable, by making you look through the eyes of a sufferer. And to someone who may not have ever dealt with a mental health problem, that is an important experience.

​​Perhaps the reasons why games like this appeal to me is because I have my own mental health issues; perhaps it's because I love dark and fantastical things. But that's not the point. Many people can feel like they are losing their mind at some time or another; for some, it simply becomes a real debilitating problem.

​But at the end of the day, mental illnesses are simply that: illnesses. They share that same term with physical illnesses, around which there is much less stigma and fear. Yes, mental health can be scary, as physical health can be. And yes, the imagery that addresses it might be too much for some. But creativity and insanity can go hand in hand, and forgetting the stereotype of the tortured artist, these mediums can be a real key to understanding and breaking the stigma - by addressing the issues in such an upfront way that you have no choice but to take an active role.

​In closing, expressing these issues through creativity is a very smart and honest way of helping to leave behind the archaic wariness of mental health. It deserves to be talked about, and the more it is, the more it will be accepted. Books, films, music, art, games - whatever you prefer, it's great to know there is something powerful at work to bring it closer. So long as it is done respectfully, I applaud these artists for tackling such a powerful stigma.

Because after all, I'm pretty sure that more than 1 in 5 people find pleasure in creativity!

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