As someone who’s both played video games for decades and has a “bad brain,” I’m used to feeling emotions ranging from simple annoyance to outright disgust when it comes to gaming’s treatment of folks living with mental illness. Remnant 2, however, pleasantly surprised me with its small amount of compassion toward a vulnerable group too often treated as worthless by the medium at large.
While using Adventure Mode to visit areas I missed during my playthrough of the Remnant 2 campaign, I discovered an asylum in the Losomn slums I’d never seen before. Losomn is an intriguing world — a sort of industrial-era London with a high-fantasy twist. Due to the game’s randomized elements, most of my visits to Losomn are spent either in a ramshackle parish defended by elvish peasants wielding flintlock rifles and pitchforks, or in a gaudy castle split between two realms and controlled by opposing monarchs.
The former is where the asylum in question resides and, realizing it was an old-timey sanatorium for patients with mental illness thanks to the man gibbering nonsense at the gate, I prepared myself for the worst. Modern-day psychiatric care is far from perfect, with adequate treatment often relying on one’s ability to pay exorbitant amounts of money to insurance companies or private rehabs rather than depend on state assistance, but it’s almost heaven compared to mental institutions of the past.
Upon entering the abandoned asylum, the usual cliches bombarded my senses. Screams echoed through halls choked by barricaded furniture, wheelchairs, and other medical detritus. Straight-jacketed inmates huddled in corners and beneath makeshift box-spring shelters, self-soothing with indecipherable affirmations and manifestos. But when it inevitably came time for combat, I wasn’t attacked by a mob of mentally ill escapees; rather, the nurses treated me as a runaway patient, hurling insults and rusty blades in their attempts to subdue me.
Remnant 2’s asylum — not to mention the game at large — never once forced me to kill characters struggling with illnesses. Not only that, the devs made it impossible to do so. Every patient in Morrow Sanatorium is treated, at least mechanically, as a friendly NPC. Aiming down your sights in their direction turns your crosshairs green rather than the red associated with enemies. Any bullets you fire pass through them harmlessly. In other areas, Remnant 2 lets you gun down wildlife for no reason; I wish I wasn’t so surprised to see a video game not relegate mentally ill characters to the same fate.
Losomn’s slums take obvious inspiration from the days when patients were locked away in disgusting conditions, abused by their ostensible caretakers, and forgotten by “polite” society, and so I fully expected my visit to the asylum to involve eliminating the patients housed within. It’s what many video games do, after all: turn sad, desperate people into grist for the power fantasy as if they were just another monster to be bloodily dispatched. Remnant 2 is a largely mediocre experience otherwise, so the possibility of it bucking this trend was the furthest thing from my mind.
One of the first games I played following my obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosis was Burial at Sea, the new-at-the-time expansion to BioShock Infinite. I liked the main game, for all its regressive faults, and I was ready to numb my anxiety with a trip back to the series’ underwater roots. Burial at Sea placed a particular emphasis on stealth, meaning you would often sneak up on the sick and disfigured denizens of Rapture mid-rant. During one such occasion, I was taken aback by a rabbit-masked flapper giving voice to the same unhealthy, obsessive thoughts that forced my compulsive actions in real life. I suddenly felt uneasy about beating her to a pulp. Here was someone suffering the same way I was suffering. Ignoring the murderous rage all basic video game enemies must possess, was she not worthy of the same compassion?
I don’t remember how I resolved that situation, but since then, I’ve paid close attention to how other games handle mental illness. Unsurprisingly, the answer is often Not Very Well. A significant portion of Diablo 4, for instance, is spent turning enemies with names like Maniac and Lunatic into chum, and that game was released just over a month ago. One could argue no one takes up, say, cannibalism without at least a couple screws loose, but studies show that those living with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. With that in mind, why do video games always feel the need to use psychological issues as shorthand for “bloodthirsty monster”? Can’t said monsters just be monsters without the ill-advised connotations, or better yet, can’t depictions of mentally ill folks simply trying to live their lives be more widespread?
I don’t like to be this guy. I don’t share Twitter infographics on how to awkwardly remove words like “crazy” from your vocabulary, and I certainly don’t think developers harbor some deep-seated hatred for mentally ill characters that manifests in allowing players to slaughter them without mercy. But I do think my shock from Remnant 2 doing the bare minimum to humanize its institutionalized NPCs — and believe me, its depiction is still far from perfect — indicates how much work needs to be done to destigmatize mental illness in video games. We’re all going through something. But more than that, even those of us whose struggles result in ugly thinking and behaviors (sorry Tumblr, it’s not all twee memes about innocuous intrusive thoughts) deserve an opportunity to see ourselves as more than just an unwashed horde of violent freaks, useful only for the experience and loot we drop.