Digital media, simulation technologies, such as AR, VR, and XR, and in this case, videogames have brought about a renewed interest in psychoanalysis. The digital world breathes new life into psychoanalysis, as simulations achieved with new technology challenge our notions of self, identity, and representation (after all, on the internet, nobody knows you are a Wolf). Of course, my interest in psychoanalysis quickly grew to include many disparate fields, which have included philology, philosophy, biology, the history of culture, aesthetics, sociology, and in this case, pedagogy. There are many uncanny theories to explain an understanding of the relationship between player and videogame from Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.
In this blog, I explain the crucially benefits of video games as they stand today in the mental health sector. Were it not for the uncanny valley; videogames would reach a level of simulacra or better known as a simulation in a real-world process through imitation, such as a video game. I extend this discussion of realism, the uncanny, and basic understanding into Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis behavior throughout this article.
Last month, I was given a chance to speak with the CEO, lead writer, creative director of Jo-Mei Games, Cornelia Geppert, and her experiences with her own mental health journey that created the innovative title, Sea of Solitude. Company Jo-Mei Games, founded in 2009 in Berlin, Germany, the title Sea of Solitude was supported by publisher Electronic Arts and their original digital play platform, Origin. Sea of Solitude was released on Xbox One, PC, and PS4 in July of 2019. Cornelia Geppert and Boris Munser, founded Jo-Mei Games in November 2009, both of whom successfully collaborated with the publisher Electronic Arts in 2016. The title has been nominated for several prizes, such as ‘SXSW,’ here in Austin, Texas in 2020, ‘The Game Awards’ in 2019, and won several, such as ‘Unity Awards’ 2019 and ‘Games 4 Change Award’ in 2020. Renowned publisher and developer Quantic Dream and Jo-Mei Games collaborated in 2020 to developed Sea of Solitude: The Director’s Cut exclusively for the Nintendo Switch, released on March 4th, 2021.
Today, I wanted to share my experience meeting with Cornelia Geppert, CEO of Jo-Mei Games, and her journey through difficult times and various psychoanalysis that she developed through therapeutic factors and educating herself during the time she spent reflecting on hardships in her life that produced her award winning masterpiece. Let’s dive in.
The Wolf You Feed Is the Wolf That Wins
The bewitchment circle of the videogame is a safe environment for mentally healthy individuals to behave in such a way that they most likely would not otherwise consider in real life and those who have experienced traumatic events to escape or express themselves. Geppert, the writer, creative director, and head of game design for the newly released Director’s Cut and the original Sea of Solitude experienced hindrances that succumbed and formed the title. In this case, Cornelia experienced a traumatic event that forever changed her but for the better—revisiting your pain for the greater good of an industry that lacks focus until it is being brought more into light, recently, on this topic. “Sharing your stories and how it has made you feel, makes you feel better to help those you can relate to feeling less alone. It’s the best feeling”, said Geppert.
Throughout the game, Geppert shared the meaning behind the creatures that symbolize emotions that she has experienced personally, along with friends, colleagues, and families’ personal experiences that have been implemented into the game. One fact of philosophy is that Aristotle believed tragedy had the power to make the audience and, in this case, players, into better people, and Geppert is no different in her work.
During my interview with Connie, she elaborated on experiences that she felt the willingness to share allowed her to dive into creating her masterpiece. Like many of us in this world and those fortunate enough to not experience this, toxicity in a relationship is widespread and can last months to even years. She said she was a part of a relationship that many others can relate to the feeling that felt everlasting when you love someone and wanting to spend your life with that significant other but was cut off too soon due to unamended issues within yourself. In this case, it was her previous relationship at the time. On a relatable note, I know the feeling and relate to being in a relationship that feels like oil and water between two people who care about each other but have their demons to overcome.
“I need to mention that myself, I have never personally suffered from mental health issues before or have experienced anything traumatic from a relationship before, like in 2014. I was in a relationship with a man who wanted to marry me.” It wasn’t until 2017, and almost the whole production of Sea of Solitude was completed, that I encountered problems within the relationship. At first, we were super close and planned our life together, but then he started to vanish for hours, for weeks.” In the game, she would put increments of time, such as, “14 days, which was excruciating! When he came back, he showered me with love, and he was so nice, so I didn’t dare to ask serious questions like, ‘why have you been away?’ I was just so happy he was back again.”
On a personal note, I was raised by all women. I grew up hearing and seeing men come and go from those in my life for extended periods during odd hours, days, and reasons make me furious deep down, but hopefully, you will live and learn never to not have that in your life again. Geppert continues, “Loneliness is not a mental health issue, but it started to crumble my mental health. I began feeling lonely because I couldn’t talk to anyone who hasn’t experienced this before. On the internet, [the forums] would say, “this guy isn’t really into you,” she laughed. “At some point, he opened up to me and said, ‘Connie, I suffer from clinical depression, which is why I can’t get out of bed some days. I hate myself; I don’t want to interact with anybody.” I was shocked and blown away because I never had that in my life; I started to research and educate myself about depression. This was the first time I came in touch with mental health issues. I dived deep into it and read everything relating to my confusion of my future husband and tried opening up to friends, family, colleagues, everyone I opened to; I remember even opening up to the Taxi driver about this!” She laughed again.
I understood the position Connie was in and being in that position myself before. A positive person fed the light within her to progress and be a happy person, while her previous significant other feeding the darkness within him. They both became oil and water. With this experience that lasted for some time, with someone whom she loved, she wanted to tell her story to the world. “We wanted to tell a full story that is realistic or positive, like everything was fine in the end because I was on the path towards feeling better, but at the end of the day, it was hard to come up with my future that wasn’t written. Struggling in private was just extreme; it traumatized me. It was being in therapy and overcoming the trauma of this extreme abandonment from the relationship to gain perspective—all the while writing in a detailed and unique direction that many people can relate to and understand. I would have to work on the painful things again and overcome it slowly”. This symbolizes the previous companion and the stories from those closest to her that came into the game. Even Freud thought that the body and mind were a storage and recording medium and an input or output device. In particular, video games benefit from these theories, as these games provide a digital mirror of our world. When we look upon the mirror, we can learn more about ourselves and how we operate within our rapidly changing world. That is Geppert’s execution and goal towards that concept through video games.
Symbols appear especially in dreams at any point. Comparisons can be made night or day, which are what become implemented into the game. But they are also present in consciousness – in religious beliefs, culture, folklore, and myths. Symbols are also present in neurosis, or, more precisely, in their thought content. May that be anxiety, obsessive behavior, or depression. I remembered making my way onto a gondola to hide from the first creature in the water. I mentioned, “I would love to know which one each symbolizes, could it be someone’s ego, is one for being a pathological liar?” I asked Connie to elaborate on it more.
“Great! I love to tell stories. Just to mention, I did a Ted talk about this. So, we have two types of monsters. The main character, Kay, we ripped apart into her basic emotions. Certain monsters she meets are core emotions of her and her family’s monsters. You have the first monster that is a little girl in a yellow raincoat that always appears happy. This is the first [entity] she sees in the distance, but she can’t touch her until the end, her name is Joy while giving the protagonist hints”. This is what I call the Virgil and Dante complex. A guide you meet throughout the game or story to provide you help on the following steps to succeed.
Geppert continues, “Joy has an issue because Joy is attached to the boyfriend, who was symbolized as a white wolf.” He is the most complex monster, which appears on the third level; you meet him as a shiny white wolf. He is perfect, kind, says all the right things, appears so wonderful. But every time the creature touches Kay, he begins breaking his exterior then a black wolf appears in increments. This symbolizes being depressed and being damaged. “They love each other very much, but they are toxic for each other, so each time [they touch], it gets worst. He opens up because his camouflage is coming off. So, it turns out he is a black wolf, in the end, having to take care of himself before a relationship. He is the last monster that you meet in the Sea of solitude.” and in my eyes, the most heartbreaking because many of us have experienced this. Seeing the potential and the good inside someone that you wish would change for you. Through this feeling, in-game, as in real-life, we become obsessed with them possibly leaving us. With this feeling, Joy turns into a monster, which symbolizes obsession. Geppert continues, “I wanted to portray that Joy goes overboard, that when you are truly attracted to someone, immediately, such as thinking this is my soulmate or in love, then it’s a warning sign.” In the end, Joy finds herself and whole again.
Through Geppert’s experience, you meet the insulting creature that brings you insecurities of your status and who you are, better known as self-doubt. Self-doubt is found with a shell on their back, slumps like a snail, and the first creature that appears. “We wrote her asking questions to make you insecure. Blocking your path, self-doubt to talk to her to overcome her.” The second creature you meet is located underwater; this is self-destruction. This is the behavior when you are already feeling low and filled with doubt. You tend to mend your wounds the unhealthy way through various compulsions, may it be smoking, drinking, doing too much of anything that is considered self-destructive. “It is not completing or removing; you are human, you will have phases of drinking [or a different vice] because too much of anything isn’t healthy but bringing it into balance [and perspective].”
Geppert explains some of her colleagues, friends, and families’ experiences that were implemented into the game that she did not have much firsthand experience that was relatable to many people and players out there. “In the first level, you meet a huge monster, which is in the core of the first family member, which her brother is bullied at his school. “I constantly thought of backstories for everyone. For him, it was looking outside his classroom, seeing the birds, and just wanting to fly away. That he doesn’t want to be there and wanting to hide”. He becomes a vast dark bird with fog mystifying around him. He is portrayed as a giant raven monster, he can fly, but he is a little clumsy because everything isn’t mentally right. He manifests the core fears in the school, like those who talk bad about him, his family, and portraying that for the players.
On the second level, you meet a vast octopus and a smaller chameleon monster located on a skyscraper, which symbolizes the parents. The mother tries to hold the crumbling family together with her tentacles. At some point, she is lurking under the water and sings to Joy, her daughter. You meet the father monster, which is his office and workplace. He can’t handle the situation, thinking about divorce, but he doesn’t know how to handle it, so he hides at his work—this why he looks how he looks.
Geppert continues, “I spoke so openly about my issues about my [then] boyfriend that people started to tell me their stories. For example, the parents in the game were separating. My parents are happily married for 40 years, but these are stories from other people, from colleagues and friends. Another sequence is that I don’t have a brother; I never got bullied in school, sometimes in the workplace. So, it is a collective work, not my personal experience of loneliness, but it is about my boyfriend opening about mental health issues and relating to others”.
Having the ability to psychoanalyze and relate to others while experiencing some of your first traumatic moments is no easy task. It’s draining. Everyone is struggling with something toxic at some time in their life. The fan messages that Connie received gave her inspiration and a sense of reward hearing how in one instance, a woman played Sea of Solitude and left her toxic and abusive marriage that needed to end and followed up a year later about her progress. That is the type of feeling and understanding that you are not alone. “The game alone has helped others, or there are others that have reviewed it as ‘most boring game I have ever played,’ she laughs. You can’t make everyone happy. But in my private life, I learned that I try to make others happy too much. ‘I need to help my [then] boyfriend somehow’ or those I neglected, like the bullied brother Sunny in Sea of Solitude that didn’t feel listened to. Helping isn’t pressing your opinion on someone and forcing them to put them in your way but listen. This is what I am doing to continue to help others [outside the game]. When I feel like maybe those people have strong issues and talk to me about their past, then I know talking to a professional person can help”.
I told Connie that I felt what she was doing outside of the gaming; while the game still is there to help others gain perspective and analyze their own life and actions, it is crucial to reach out to others or a professional. I know that many of them may feel stuck within the gaming community and only have social interactions via games. You are not alone, especially during a pandemic that has caused many others to feel isolated. “I appreciate what you are doing, Connie. I hope you continue in mental health; it sounds like to me you have found your niche in the industry”. She thanked me.
Videogames have long been portrayed as a site of escape: The player can create and become an entirely different persona through the avatar, as a possible extension or opposition of their natural world self. This is nothing new to players who just started, all the way to seasoned players. Connie Geppert has found her calling in the industry to express through her creative process what feels like the best way to express emotions and relate that to others through interactive games. Players seek transcendence, as the game world invites you, the player, and encourages you in a virtual setting to their corporeal existence. Not all games have to be an escape; it can be a wake-up call that causes you to make better choices and leave toxic people behind you to grow to become a better person. Players are present in more than one domain. Such as for me, I enjoy playing games to relax my mind to think thoroughly about difficult choices in my life. Being ADHD causes my brain to overthink; I need to keep it occupied not to go ramped or make rash decisions. Allowing games like Sea of Solitude to help those struggling to gain control within their limits, take the initiative, self-evaluate, gain higher morals and step away from those who live their life in masochism towards you and others.
As for the symbolic nature that Connie Geppert implemented in her game, I felt they were all very spot on and relatable. Easy to remember for those who are struggling in similar situations or have once been in that position. What is so remarkable about games such as Sea of Solitude is that we have not yet finished creating symbols and most likely never will. We can recognize some, such as an octopus holding a family together or a chameleon father hiding away in his office. It is up to the player to justify the symbol and that meaning at the end of the day. In this case, confirmations from elsewhere, such as Sea of Solitude to help us relate and make decisions if we are struggling internally like Geppert once did.
Sea of Solitude is available today on Origin for $19.99 and Director’s Cut for $19.99 on Nintendo Switch.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.