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Level Design of the Mind
Studies of the design of inner worlds.
Content Warnings: this article discusses general themes of mental health, dissociation/dissociative states, psychosis, and hallucinations. There are also depictions of “cartoonized” gore, frightening imagery in screenshots, and overt symbolism to pregnancy loss in an embedded video.
Please note that this article also contains spoilers for Alice: Madness Returns (2011) and Fran Bow (2015).
Overview: Analogous Fictionalized Spaces
Alright. I’m gonna do it.
I’m gonna make up my own term.
I’m so sorry.
I searched TV Tropes from top to bottom to find a concept that fit the bill, but couldn’t find one which carried the proper nuance… so I’m going to make one up. I know this is incredibly pretentious. Forgive me.
Have you ever watched a movie or played a game wherein a character might be attempting to do something: say, in a purely hypothetical sense, obtaining an object that can produce fire which they were prophesized to need in order to escape a mental institution before they’re about to be lobotomized, and while in reality they are likely just slinking down the hall to swipe it, in their mind we see them infiltrating a castle under siege in order to slay a dragon and steal the fire-producing crystals that live within its throat?
Yeah. Me too!
It’s a device you’re likely familiar with: in real life, a character is trying to achieve a great feat or struggling with a difficult situation - but in their mind, they are an action hero or a secret agent. It’s a fun device - a character may, through mental health problems, magic, science, or otherwise, find themselves in an often fantastical fictional interpretation of what they are struggling with. In these spaces, we see the subconscious take center stage: ironically, the addition of this lens actually removes many of the layers of subterfuge.
…Okay, here’s where I start making things up.
The internal is transformed into the external via these analogous fictionalized space(s) (AFS), which allow the player to literally walk around and experience the furniture of someone’s mind. By doing so, they usually gain a greater understanding of the circumstances as they manifest in this inner world’s many details. Sometimes they come out the other side having neutralized the distressing situation or feelings - sometimes they merely gain a sense of understanding. Either way, the journey is well worth the effort.
AFSes, while not inherently a product of horror, often deal with frightening or otherwise intense subject matter, and thus often appear in horror media. The town of Silent Hill, for example, could be considered an AFS, as it’s merely a reflection of the thoughts and experiences of the protagonist of its various installments. Or we could consider the mansion in the first Layers of Fear to be an analogous space, as it becomes clear that its never-ending twisting halls might be representative of how the protagonist feels trapped by their quest for their magnum opus.
The stark intimacy AFSes provide is a natural fit for the horror genre, as it explores and confronts that which we find frightening, “othered,” or uncomfortable. But of course, perhaps the series that most famously utilizes this device isn’t horror at all!
In the Psychonauts series by Double Fine Entertainment, the player steps into the role of Razputin “Raz” Aquato, a kid with an uncanny knack for the extra-sensory. More than anything (to the point that he is willing to infiltrate a government-run summer camp for the psychically talented), Raz wants to become a “psychonaut”: a person from an elite, highly-trained group who use their psychic powers for good! That is: they can go into the “Mental Worlds” or “Mindscapes” of various characters, often with the intent of helping resolve any issues that might be causing the person distress. The character’s background, personality, and the nature of their struggles all play a role in shaping the appearance and contents of their unique analogous fictionalized space.
For example, Milla Vodello, a bona-fide psychonaut and one of the staff at Whispering Rock Summer Camp, has a groovy 1970s aesthetic - so the content of her mind is no different. She teaches Raz the skill of levitation by inviting him inside her mindscape’s dance party. But even dance parties have their secrets hidden away…
The long-awaited sequel to the series released in 2021, expanding upon the concept of the first game and its characters. And beyond the Psychonauts series itself: perhaps one of the most charming elements of games that utilize this device is that they often draw inspiration from, and are sometimes in direct conversation with, others which do the same! It makes sense: when using a device that wheels and deals with things getting meta, why not get super meta?
This is also indicative of how games draw inspiration from (and sometimes are in direct conversation with) its closest-kin artform: theater.
Level Design As Soliloquy
The act of peeking into the inner world of a character is a time-honored tradition in theatrical productions of all kinds. Soliloquys, monologues where a sole actor is onstage and is directly addressing the audience (in the guise of talking to no one in particular), have long been used to articulate a specific internal struggle or emotional exploration. Arias in opera also fulfill such a niche. Chances are, if you’ve ever read or watched a Shakespeare production, you’re familiar with soliloquys.
Take, for example, Sir Patrick Stewart here performing the famous “Dagger” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s M@ckb*th. While waiting to hear a specific bell toll to signal the time is right to assassinate his rival Duncan, we hear the titular would-be king grapple with the reality of what is about to happen. As his mental health is heavily unraveling at this point in the play, he is arguably feeling an internal struggle via (or potentially even a hallucination of) a dagger that he will use to kill Duncan and become King.
The audience gets a clear vision of his resolve… and the impact his quest for glory is having on his sanity. (As someone of Scottish ancestry: if you can depend on one thing from Scottish people, it’s being neurotic.)
Mental health, often in its deterioration, is a common motif among both soliloquys and horror games. Unfortunately, when terrible things happen or man merely succumbs to their hubris or folly, mental wellbeing is often the collateral.
But onstage where we get soliloquys, in games we often get environments - levels which allow the player to walk around in, look at, and sometimes engage in combat against the various elements which might be plaguing a character. Many of the techniques involved in constructing such environments, such as level design, environment art, etc, help heighten the experience to create a deeply human understanding.
It’s this element of humanization of complex emotional conditions that makes this device so compelling. As we move about and engage with the analogous space, we are allowed to draw our own conclusions and relate to various elements of the character’s experience. These sorts of things ultimately show us that while we are getting an intimate look at one person’s emotions… no one is ever truly alone in what they feel.
But how might someone go about designing one of these spaces? I wanted to look at a few case studies to find out, as there appears to be two primary methods.
Case Study: Alice: Madness Returns (2011)
The “Zone” Approach
In 2011, the much-anticipated sequel to cult-hit horror platformer American McGee’s Alice (2000) was released by the now-defunct Chinese development Studio Spicy Horse - Alice: Madness Returns.
Based on the classic children’s story of Alice in Wonderland, designer American McGee created a gothic re-imagining of the book’s heroine. Alice is now a young lady in her teens with dark brown hair and a haunting past wherein the rest of her family perished in a housefire.
Now struggling with severe post-traumatic stress and survivor’s guilt as a result, Alice’s “Wonderland” is more akin to a dissociative state that she returns to to feel safe. Parallels could be drawn between Alice transcending these two universes and the phenomenon of “Maladaptive Daydreaming,” an officially unrecognized syndrome characterized by excessive daydreaming to the point where it becomes intrusive in someone’s life. Its lack of formal diagnostic criteria is because it is often a symptom which is presented alongside a comorbid, diagnosable mental health condition: such as major depressive disorder or post traumatic stress disorder. Basically: it’s more of a symptom than a condition itself.
While this is a much more medicalized interpretation of what Alice is able to do, the esoteric tradition of astral projection and even the TikTok-ified practice of “reality shifting” could also be considered similar - it all comes down to transcending one’s current conditions in favor of something greater (often, something fantastical).
And when Wonderland is in balance? It’s truly a sight to behold. Seriously: this game is gorgeous.
Only… Wonderland, Alice’s internal safe-harbor, is in critical danger. It’s currently plagued with monsters, tar-like corruption, and a terrifying train which destroys everything in its path. As Alice explores the distinct regions of Wonderland and encounters familiar characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, and the Red Queen, she seeks answers. What has caused Wonderland to fall into such disarray? Why is everyone acting like she’s the one who destroyed it? And what really happened all those years ago when her house burned down, killing all but her?
When it comes to the design of the game and its spaces, Madness Returns utilizes “zone” or “biome” model. Each zone features its own theme, characters, and a fantastic dress for Alice to kick butt in. The zones often correspond with larger themes in the overall story and plot points which directly proceed them individually.
One of my favorite zones in the game, The Deluded Depths, is underwater: likely relating to Alice’s recent experience of near-drowning in the Thames, only to be pulled out near London’s famous Billingsgate fish market. It’s unclear why she’d fallen into the water - perhaps she had dissociated so severely that she entered some sort of fugue, unable to retain a sense of self-preservation. Throughout the many cutscenes detailing Alice’s past, we learn that she has a history of fainting, seizures, fugue states, and even catatonia, so it’s really anyone’s guess how she ended up in that river.
When Alice arrives in this watery hollow of Wonderland, she speaks to the Mock Turtle, whose boat sank in a recent naval battle. Alice gives him a pep-talk, saying that while captains are to go down with their ships, he should put up more of a fighting spirit. In the heavy, underwater space filled with shipwrecks and coral, she is mentally and physically at a low point, and I can imagine is truly giving this pep-talk to herself.
Another zone, known as Queensland, is a callback to Madness Returns’ predecessor: American McGee’s Alice (2000). The final boss of this first game is the famous Red Queen from the original children’s novel, only the Queen gives Alice a solemn warning: killing her is mutually-assured destruction - to kill the Red Queen would kill them both. But Alice, desperate to escape from her mental health problems… kills her anyway, as she believes her to the source of her problems. At the end of the first game, all appears to be in order in Wonderland once again. So where did things go so wrong?
Queensland in Madness Returns is a mess: it’s literally falling apart, and the card guards are not thrilled that Alice is back after what she did to their beloved queen last time. As she passes the cards and descends into the fleshy, meat-like interior of Queensland, we see a moment of these games with analogous fictionalized spaces in conversation with each other, as she might even see a familiar face.
As Alice finds the so-called “Queen of Hearts,” she also gets down to the heart of the matter: the Red Queen is a reflection of Alice’s intuition, her internal sense of self. And the Red Queen is undoubtedly suffering (and is understandably still a bit bitter about the whole “I killed you in the last game” thing). GLaDOS vibes.
By “killing” the Red Queen and attempting to shut out all the negative emotions and experiences associated with her trauma, Alice has actually created more problems. Wonderland is becoming corrupted by all the suppressed pain and suffering essentially leaking out through the cracks of her firmly-constructed barriers.
This is further complicated by the work of her caretaker and psychologist, Dr. Bumby, who routinely tells her that the best way for her to move on with her life would be to “forget” about everything. (Wow, that’s brilliant! Why hasn’t literally any human who has ever lived thought of that?) And it turns out this selfless psychologist might be up to more than she initially thought - as his connection to a frightening locomotive that tears through Wonderland becomes more concrete.
For Alice, the mission becomes clear as she navigates these recesses of her mind: she must restore Wonderland by championing her sense of self, confronting the painful things which have happened, and recovering the truth about her past if she ever has a chance of living a healthy life in the future. To defeat the monsters and identify how to stop the hellish locomotive is to reclaim these reaches of her psyche. And by fighting and platforming her way through these fictional analogous spaces, she is ultimately able to save Wonderland… and herself.
Case Study: Fran Bow (2015)
The “Duality” Approach
I can’t believe it’s taken this long for this game to make an appearance on this blog. Fran Bow by Swedish developer Killmonday Games is one of my favorite horror games of all time. You play as Fran Bow Dagenhart, a 10 year old girl in the 1940s who is currently living in the children’s ward at a sanitorium. She, like most of the other children there, are suffering from some kind of mental health issue as the result of severe trauma.
Fran, for example, witnessed the murder of her parents… and as you can imagine, she hasn’t ever really recovered. Despite this, Fran is a curious, friendly, and spirited girl who really only longs for a return to normalcy. Her ultimate goal is to leave the asylum and go live with her Aunt Grace, who was given custody of Fran after the death of her parents. Fran also longs for her pet cat, Mr. Midnight, who she considers her best (and only) friend.
Fran’s psychiatrist at Oswald Asylum, Dr. Deern, has recently decided to change her course of treatment for her psychosis by beginning a new medication: “Duotine.” Her file indicates that she has tried a variety of medications, but all have been stopped due to unpleasant side effects.
Unfortunately, Duotine proves no different: only, the side effects are a little… severe…
Fran has a vision of her cat, Mr. Midnight, who says that this new medicine is actually the secret to her escape - and that if she manages to do so, he’s waiting for her in the forest surrounding the asylum. Determined to do anything to get some semblance of a “normal” life back with Aunt Grace and Mr. Midnight, Fran decides that she’s going to leave the asylum by any means necessary.
The gameplay itself is point-and-click based, where the player can explore the world room by room. Fran is a naturally curious and creative young lady, so she has lots to say about the items in the world around her: some of which she takes in her inventory for use later. The player can combine and use these items to solve puzzles in order to progress. All of this is fairly standard point-and-click faire, but where Fran Bow utilizes the AFS lies in the little bottle of pills in the bottom right of the UI.
The player is able to switch back and forth between the “normal” view of the world and the “Duotine” view of the world by clicking on the icon of the bottle. Doing so will reveal the more extrasensory elements of this particular area.
The following are two versions of the same scene: the first in “normal” view (as evident by the closed Duotine bottle in the bottom right), and the second is the Duotine version.
By going back and forth like this, the player can find and interact with new items - and solving puzzles often requires switching back and forth multiple times. Whereas Alice focuses on a different analogous space for each aspect of what she’s struggling with, Fran has two versions of the same singular experience simultaneously.
This element of duality is oddly empowering within Fran’s story - she needs both of her viewpoints (for lack of a better term, her “regular” view and her “psychosis” view) in order to progress and handle the world around her. In this way, the point of view which is frequently demonized and seen as frightening is actually uncharacteristically helpful. Fran’s calm demeanor when encountering frightening monsters is also both a little jarring and very refreshing. For example, she may see a creature with three heads and say something like: “oh! Do you wear three hats on your birthday?” And then, upon closing the Duotine bottle, she is grounded back in reality once more.
Trauma and its lasting effects are objectively horrible, however there is something to be said for the fact that Fran’s experiences have come to let her see the world in a different way. Psychosis (which is a again a symptom/mind-state rather than a diagnosis in itself) can be developed as a result of extenuating circumstances. In fact, there is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that a history of traumatic events in childhood is a risk factor in developing psychosis for a variety of possible reasons.
“Cross-sectional studies have demonstrated that negative perceptions of the self, anxiety, and depression partially mediated associations between trauma (not always limited to childhood) and psychotic symptoms. They suggest strong relationships between negative personal evaluations and low self-esteem, negative affect, and the characteristics of positive symptoms. Lardinois et al found a significant, interaction between daily life stress and childhood trauma on both negative affect, and intensity of symptoms in patients with psychosis, suggesting that, a history of childhood trauma is associated with increased sensitivity to stress.
Biological mechanisms such as reduced cortical thickness and dysregulated cortisol following exposure to childhood trauma have also been recently investigated which may well facilitate the development of psychosis. Moreover, gene-environment interactions are likely to play a role in the relationship between childhood trauma and psychosis.
This lends a compassionate take on an AFS, as we can see how Fran’s life has been forever changed by witnessing the violent death of her parents - and how it quite literally has changed the way in which she navigates the world. This is similar to how Alice in Madness Returns depicts Alice’s mental health declining after experiencing the events of the fire.
But what’s more for Fran: it becomes fairly obvious in the first act of the game that there’s something else going on here - it isn’t purely psychosis or the result of a medication’s side effects… the things that Fran does while in her Duotine state actually change what is going on in the normal world too.
You can see Markiplier (one of the big YouTubers who has played this game) have that realization at the timestamped video below: content warning on this video for cartoonized blood/gore/imagery associated with pregnancy loss. Fran’s Duotine versions of rooms at the asylum often reflect the internal struggles of the characters who are also present, so we can assume that pregnancy loss may be a personal struggle that perhaps the receptionist is grappling with. As such, please watch at your own discretion.
“That doesn’t make any sense! That means this world that she’s in is actually real!”
You got it, Mark! This duality could be speaking to how psychosis is real to those experiencing it. Or… it could be hinting toward something else entirely. You’ll just have to play to find out! :)
Thanks for reading another installment of Resident Anna. Whether “zone,” “duality,” or not… I just love this silly little device! It bridges the gap between magical realism, level design, and often: mental health, so I wanted to feature it.
I’ll catch y’all in the next one!
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