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The First Break: Exploring Mental Illness Through Virtual Reality

According to the World Health Organization, one in four people in the world will find themselves affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. In any given year within the United States alone, 1 in 25 adults experience a serious mental illness that substantially interferes with or limits major life activities. Despite this prevalence, media portrayals of mental illness are oftentimes inaccurate, reinforcing stereotypes and falling prey to what many might consider trope. Video games are no exception to this unfortunate rule, but one indie development team wishes to change that by offering an accurate portrayal of mental illness through the immersive qualities of virtual reality.

The First Break: A Priori (TFB) tells the story of a young girl named Jessie, afflicted with schizophrenia and sent to stay within the confines of a mental institution in the 1960s. Created using HTC Vive technology, the game will allow players to walk in Jessie’s footsteps as she interacts with other patients while dealing with the repercussions of her illness alongside the trials and tribulations that accompany adolescence and coming-of-age. Designed by a six-person team consisting of a diverse group of programmers, artists, and animators, TFB aims to both entertain and educate, showcasing the real-life horror that is living with mental illness.

OnlySP had a chance to sit down and chat with TFB’s Creative Director and Lead Programmer Alisha Bunting, who offered insight on the team’s creative process, as well as its desire to fashion an authentic depiction of mental illness. A long-time gamer who taught herself the skills required to develop and program games in virtual reality, Bunting spoke candidly when asked why she chose to tackle the subject of mental illness through video games.

“None of us personally, as far as I know, have been afflicted by mental illness, and none of our families have,” she said. “However, we all come from backgrounds where we’re really concerned with media representation. Not just from mental health, but everything—from gender identity to race. And we thought that, while we all love horror movies and games, this would be a really cool topic to look at. Also there’s been no major games, except from Hellblade, that accurately portray schizophrenia or mental health at all, really.”

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The truth is, horror games often depict insanity or mental affliction as temporary and transient—or supernatural and induced by an outside force. Furthermore, television and movies have long used outdated and often exaggerated stereotypes to depict characters suffering from mental illness. “We thought it would be cool to raise awareness for this,” Bunting told OnlySP. “[There are] so many people who don’t know about schizophrenia in general because the way it’s represented in media is pretty inaccurate. We are working with a psychotherapist as a consultant, and a lot of the stuff she’s been telling us has left us like ‘Wow! This is totally different  than what we thought it actually was!'”

Saying she discovered the majority of schizophrenia cases are auditory rather than visual, Bunting went on to describe what she has learned while working on The First Break. “I actually thought most people had daylight hallucinations, and our psychotherapist, Joy, told us that when she has a [schizophrenia] patient who starts describing what things look like, most likely they are lying. On television we see [schizophrenics] see something weird and then they begin to create this whole fantasy, but usually it’s the other way around, where the voices come first, and then they begin to attribute normal things they see in real life as something else, but isn’t actually the case.”

While accurately depicting Jessie’s illness is an important part of creating TFB, an equally crucial component of any game is the setting in which the characters reside. American mental institutions were widespread in the 1960s, housing patients with any number of mental or neurological disorders, running the gamut from autism to simple anxiety to psychosis. “There was no formal treatment for schizophrenia until the late 60s, early 70s,” said Bunting. “The 60s is also a really awesome and interesting time socially, in terms of the different people you’d meet and the interactions you’d have, so it was a perfect environment to put this teenage girl who is just coming into being an adult.”

“She’s separated from her family and is put into this horrible health system,” Bunting continued. “She’s sort of left to fend for herself, do talk therapy, and figure out what’s going on.”

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Though alone for the first time in her young life, Jessie is not the only patient living within the confines of the asylum. “We’re hoping to set [the game] up as something that is episodic,” Bunting said as she listed off four other characters players will encounter in The First Break. “There is going to be Abigail, Cassidy, Esther, and this dark entity known as the Unknown Character. All of these different characters are real people, but they are meant to be different artistic representations of Jessie’s personality to illustrate how she’s figuring things out as a growing teen.”

These supporting characters all suffer from mental illness as well, though none quite so intricate as Jessie’s schizophrenia. “Abigail has situational depression,” Bunting explained. “And the main issue with her depression is that she’s suffering from it due to a bad home life with her family. The way relationships are going to work in the game is, when you meet her, for example, she’s not going to want to talk to you, so she’s closed off.” Using clues provided through interaction with the environment, players will discover Jessie’s mother and Abigail’s mother know each other and will be prompted to seek out Abigail to learn more of their current situation.

“When you go to her, she is not into it at all, and you have to ease into the relationship and do stuff for her, and that’s what will get you to open up more conversation options and talk to her. There [are] going to be different options, you can sometimes do things in multiple ways, and if you do it one way you could possibly trigger her and close off a branch of dialogue by bringing up a bad memory for her. So, it’s going to be similar when interacting with other characters, but they’re going to have a different ‘trigger element’.”

Bunting went on to describe Cassidy, an intellectual girl with deep-rooted anxiety about the state of the world, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the war in Vietnam and the state of world politics during the 1960s. “She just reads a lot, so she knows a lot about everything,” said Bunting. “She knows everything about every topic, super polished and cool, but she’s very anxious and frantic because she just knows too much.”

Alongside the others exists Esther. “She’s probably going to be the creepiest character,” Bunting laughed. A devoutly religious girl, Esther grew up in a church where her father was pastor. “It led her to this life of religious fanaticism, so now she has this obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

“Esther’s going to be that super eerie character, giving nuggets of wisdom while trying to align Jessie with God, but that’s not really the issue here. The issue is that she has a mental illness,” Bunting explained. “The game is about schizophrenia, but not every interaction has a direct link back to schizophrenia. It’s more that we’re showing one person’s story of dealing with it in the 1960s. It’s going to be very heavy on narrative and social interactions.”

The fourth character Jessie interacts with is not a person at all, but rather the ‘Unknown Character’. “The Unknown Character is sort of this dark force or dark entity,” said Bunting. “Not necessarily getting in the way of Jessie finding out what’s going on, but it’s sort of like this thing that’s always with her no matter what.”

“You know how when something traumatic or scary happens to someone, and it wasn’t actually that scary, but, when they think back on it, they make it 10 times worse? This character is sort of like that, but Jessie’s also schizophrenic, so it’s going to be this living, breathing thing that whispers to her. The main gameplay element is that whenever it comes into her environment it eats up all the light around her and you have to run from it.”

Bunting described a concept of two split realities, looking at both the horrors of a 1960s mental institution as well as the internal struggles of Jessie’s mind. “Within the game, the environment, objects, and furniture have two states,” she said. “There’s the normal state and the fantasy version that sometimes may come into view depending on how Jessie is feeling and how far into the story you are. Then, there’s this unknown thing that pops up whenever it feels like and messes up stuff.”

Through the wonders of virtual reality technology, Bunting and her team are relying on narrative and environment to immerse players in the real-life horror that was living in a mental asylum during the time period. “We’re using the Vive, which is natively room scale,” she told OnlySP. “So, it’s going to be pretty awesome. I’m super excited for that.” Going on to say that she had never personally developed a game using the HTC Vive before, Bunting laughed. “I’ve always used Oculus, but after using the Vive it’s so much more immersive, it’s crazy! I spent like five hours playing Job Simulator, which isn’t even a game!”

“It’s a really great experience,” Bunting said of developing with and utilizing the Vive’s technology. “There need to be more titles out that utilize VR properly, because, right now, all the main AAA companies are not really making games for VR; they’re just porting them over or doing it backwards.”

While TFB’s development team is creating the game in VR for a proper “virtual reality experience,” tentative plans are in place to build a desktop version as well. “We do understand that VR is still a premium thing,” said Bunting. “We definitely want people to experience the story. So many people have reached out to us about it saying it sounds really cool and that they haven’t seen anything like this, so we’re excited.”

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The First Break Team (from left to right): Creative Director/Lead Programmer Alisha Bunting, Level Designer/Environment Artist Alexander Donnelly, Concept Artist Arriana Veloso, 3D Modeler/Animator Eric Knittel, and UI/Graphics Artist R Ferari.

Asked about her team, Bunting was cheerfully forthcoming. “We’re all friends,” she said. Starting on her own, Bunting attended a college course where she learned to program on the Oculus DK2, teaching herself the necessary skills with the support of her professor. Writing the precursor to TFB, she created what she called a “super generic walking simulator, but done in VR.” Discovering she enjoyed virtual reality development as well as the theme of the game, she continued to expand upon it.

“I had met the environment and level designer in my school as a freshman or sophomore,” Bunting reflected. “He was like, ‘Hey, I’m really into game development,’ and he’d even made a multiplayer game on his own, so I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy.’ We did this video game design club together, and a few years later I enlisted him.”

Reddit led Bunting to find her 3D modeler and animator. “He was super cool and we hit it off,” she said. “At first he was like, ‘I don’t know, do you have a prototype?’ and I showed him, and he was super into it and thought it was really cool. Concept artist, I met her through a 3D modeling course. She’s amazing, she’s done like, comics and graphic novels. The UI artist I met as well, so yeah, we all just hit it off, and it’s been going great.”

“We’re all super excited,” said Bunting.

The First Break: A Priori is currently in development for the HTC Vive, and interested gamers can check out the title’s website here to see a gallery of concept art, check out the staff biographies, or donate funds towards the creation of the game. Offering players an accurate depiction of mental illness through the lens of horror narrative, the project may well aid in raising awareness and empathy for those who suffer from these disorders.

OnlySP will continue to follow the development team’s progress and update readers on the state of the game, so be sure to check back or follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more!

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