From personal struggle to indie acclaim: An interview with ‘Please Knock on My Door’ creator Michael Levall

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In an apparent response to a number of big-budget video games increasingly forsaking immersive storytelling for mindless combat mechanisms, the indie game genre has revolutionized narrative depth and player interaction in video games. A prime example of this indie movement, Swedish developer Michael Levall’s top-down management game “Please Knock on My Door,” employs a well-rounded narrative approach to tackle the subject of mental health with remarkable precision and authenticity.

Relaying the story of “Please Knock on My Door” through his own personal experiences with depression, Levall folds a sense of genuine emotion into the game, adding to its incredible impact.

Rich in its narrative, the game gives the player control over the daily tasks of the protagonist, who suffers from depression and social anxiety. As the game progresses, every decision the player makes, from guiding the protagonist to eat or sleep to resolving his conflicts at work, has a devastating impact on the protagonist. The player inevitably struggles to simply push the protagonist through each emotionally taxing day.

“All of the interactions that you do take different amounts of time every time you do them, as in real life. That is one of the challenges,” Levall described in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It can be frustrating playing the game, because the character doesn’t do what you want him to do, but that’s also a part of it. The character is limited, and if you try to push those limits, they will push back.”

While studying game design and development in Sweden, Levall banded with a group of friends to form the game company Dead Shark Triplepunch, which won the Make Something Unreal Live 2013 competition with the game “Epigenesis.”

“It was after that that I had my period of living with depression and feeling very heavy emotions of loneliness,” Levall explained. “It ended with me sitting down with everyone on the team and explaining that I was not feeling very well and I needed to take a break. They were all very supportive.”

In relation to the game, Levall said “The whole idea of reaching out to other people, I wanted that to take center stage. Not because it magically makes things disappear, but because it makes things so much easier. All endings essentially end with the main character getting in contact with someone in some way.”

“Please Knock on My Door” initially began as a simple flash game developed by Levall during his time in college. Returning to the prototype later on during his career, Levall decided to expand upon it, embarking on a three-year-long journey of writing, design and development that culminated in the final game.

Using text and voiced narration to expand upon both the plot and the protagonist’s most intimate thoughts, “Please Knock on My Door” indeed shines in its candid writing — the game claims an emotional stake on the player, as the protagonist’s raw feelings are explored through his journal entries and anxiety-inducing late night thoughts. Drawing from his own emotions, Levall persevered through the mentally strenuous process of relaying the vulnerability that accompanies depression.

“I knew that many of the texts I would not be able to get in the mood for during the day, so I would just leave a notebook and pen next to my bed, and I would lay down at 11 at night, and I would immediately sit back up and start writing,” Levall discussed.

“Some of (the texts) were very difficult to write, and when I decided that I was going to have a writing day, I just took like half a day mentally preparing myself. It was definitely not something I could do for a full workday,” said Levall. “The next morning, I would take the notebook to my computer and start transcribing the scribbles, and it was weird how much of it just remained the same. Those 11 o’clock sessions were very unfiltered.”

It is undoubtedly these roots in Levall’s personal struggles that lead “Please Knock on My Door” to be such a complete and authentic exploration of the difficulties of depression and anxiety.

“Please Knock on My Door” is poised to make waves in the indie game genre — the game manages to tackle the most complex emotions associated with mental illness in a way that is both painfully realistic and simultaneously positive, providing an entirely novel narrative experience to the player.

“I haven’t really come to terms with how to deal with this,” Levall laughed, reflecting on the overwhelmingly positive reception of “Please Knock on My Door. “I was super frightened that people would think that I was a fake and that (the game) wouldn’t make sense to them. But above everything else, I was afraid that it would just be received with silence.”

“Loneliness is kind of a theme of the game,” Levall explained. “The fear of not being heard is worse than being received poorly. Seeing that people are willing to take the subject seriously is very heartwarming for me.”

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