Indie gem ‘Please Knock on My Door’ expertly captures mental illness

Levall Games/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department will now assign a numeric score out of 5 to video games, as it does for films, television shows and album reviews.

For someone who has never personally experienced the crippling effects of mental illness, the idea of climbing into the complex mind of an afflicted individual may seem like a daunting experience. But as Swedish indie developer Michael Levall proves through his new story-driven top-down adventure game “Please Knock on My Door,” investigating depression and anxiety at a personal level may be the key to understanding the inner mechanisms of our own minds.

Built around Levall’s own experiences with depression, “Please Knock on My Door” gives the player control over the daily life of an individual navigating depression and social anxiety – the player takes on the responsibility of getting the unnamed protagonist through the routine of eating, working, sleeping and tending to his other needs as he progresses through the work week. Yet what begins as an inconsequential life simulator quickly escalates to an emotionally grueling daily battle against both time and the darker voices in the protagonist’s head.

“Please Knock on My Door” features a thoughtfully minimalistic art style reminiscent of an old-school two-dimensional top-down game – even the game’s protagonist is depicted as a simple Minecraft-esque being, devoid of any detail except for his expressive eyes. Yet the game uses extensive narration and written text in the form of text boxes and journal entries to construct a thorough narrative that delves into the deep roots of the protagonist’s most vulnerable feelings.

Consistent with its art style, the majority of the game takes place in the protagonist’s darkened apartment, which contains only a limited number of objects, such as his bed or computer, that can be interacted with. Throughout the game, the player is also led to make decisions that determine the protagonist’s interpersonal relationships and job performance each work day.

But embedded in these deceivingly simple daily interactions is a robust system of rewards and consequences that factors the player’s every decision into the protagonist’s mental well-being and physical health – making the decision to forsake sleep or work in order to appease the protagonist’s all-encompassing thoughts affects his emotional engagement and the end result of his journey.

As the game progresses and the protagonist increasingly falls victim to his own headspace, completing even the simplest sequence of tasks within the limited time frame each day becomes a near-impossible challenge. Learning from the player’s decisions, the game attempts to push and pull the protagonist against the will of the player, leaving the player to painfully fight the game itself to just survive through each increasingly difficult day.

Yet despite the inevitably heavy subject matter that “Please Knock on My Door” tackles, the game manages to approach mental illness with a sense of realistic optimism – for every isolating interaction the protagonist experiences within his own headspace, the game presents a support system in the form of friends and coworkers, each with a particular personality, that remind both the protagonist and the player that healing is as much an aspect of mental illness as the symptoms themselves. In fact, Levall adds an utterly human dimension to the gameplay by using the game’s unique endings to explore the direct effects of reaching out and seeking help in the face of even the most debilitating mental challenges.

A unique experience from start to finish, “Please Knock on My Door” uses its quirky gameplay to masterfully radiate an unwavering sense of authenticity as it conducts an exploration into the emotions associated with mental illness. The game’s basis in Levall’s own struggle with depression undoubtedly feeds into its hauntingly realistic nature, developing the game itself into an extremely personal journey of varying interpretation depending on the player. Indeed, no two playthroughs of the game are remotely identical to one another, adding to the game’s replay value.

As the protagonist perpetually struggles through the symptoms of depression and anxiety that cloud his days, the player cannot help but reciprocate his raw feelings of helplessness and frailty. Placing the player in the darkest corner of the protagonist’s mind, “Please Knock on My Door” manages to do the unthinkable and force the player into not just observing but experiencing the indescribable effects of mental illness. Through every aspect of the game, Levall showcases his prowess as an interactive storyteller, affirming that video games as a genre can be used to tell rich stories that carry emotional weight, rather than being confined to a series of mind-numbing shooters. “Please Knock on My Door” undeniably cements itself as an indie gem bent on changing the way in which narratives are delivered to the player, making the experience of interacting with a game a highly personal matter.

While the player’s takeaway from the taxing journey of “Please Knock on My Door” ultimately depends on the real-life experiences that the player enters with, the game undoubtedly bestows a level of profound insight upon all – some may experience a mind-shattering introspective epiphany by the end of the game, some may not — but at the very least, the player will walk away with a more nuanced understanding of mental illness.

Manisha Ummadi covers video games. Contact her at [email protected].