“Learning to breathe and dodge is just the first step.”
May 1, 2019 12:06 PM   Subscribe

How Bullet Hell Games Helped Me Work Through Anxiety [Fanbyte] “As appointments with my therapist continued, I realized that the type of games I gravitated towards began reflecting my mental struggle. The pixel-perfect precision bullet hell games demanded of players gave me something to hyper-fixate on besides my anxiety. I wasn’t running away from my real-life issues, either — I was practicing patience, control of a task, and completion, slowly chipping away at my anxiety. [...] Take a deep breath, and somehow figure out how exactly you’re going to finish this paper due next week, how to weave through this bullet pattern, how to beat this boss, how to leave the house after a whole week of staying inside. It takes failure, trying again, and failing, failing, until you get it right.” [YouTube][PBS][Can Bullet Hell Games Be Meditative?]
posted by Fizz (17 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've sunk more hours into playing Binding of Isaac than any other game I've ever played. I have something close to 200+ hours on my Switch and it doesn't look to be stopping any time soon. When I've told some people this, they often look at me in a kind of wonder, because on the surface it doesn't look like a particularly fun or easy game to jump into.

But for me, this is the reason I love this game. There's always a sense of accomplishment when I unlock something new or tackle a boss that I've previously been unable to defeat. And like the writer of this article up above, I am also learning quite a bit about patience and fortitude in the face of adversity. That it's ok to fail hundreds of times, and that you get back up, you face what is in your way again and keep on keeping in.

I do not think I would have survived the last few years without this game, it was a very safe space during the darkest moments of my mental health and loneliness. I'm in a much better place now but I'm glad that I had this thing, this game, to help me feel a bit more in control, to feel a bit better about myself, to provide me a space where things made sense.
posted by Fizz at 12:16 PM on May 1 [14 favorites]


Interesting, I’ve been playing a lot of Battletech and Mechwarrior Online simply because they’re an outlet for my need to customize things and see how they turn out. I love figuring out different weapon combos for different roles and then sending them out to the field to see how they perform. I think this helps me deal with a lack of control in a lot of facets of my life.
posted by gucci mane at 12:19 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I feel a similar way about the Metroidvania genre. I find the rhythm of exploration and growth to something like Cave Story or Hollow Knight deeply soothing and encouraging. Super Metroid in particular escorted me through a really, really rocky time in my life.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 12:32 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


Interesting, I’ve been playing a lot of Battletech and Mechwarrior Online simply because they’re an outlet for my need to customize things and see how they turn out. I love figuring out different weapon combos for different roles and then sending them out to the field to see how they perform. I think this helps me deal with a lack of control in a lot of facets of my life.

This kind of fascinates me, because I absolutely hate games where load-out is a big focus of the gameplay precisely because they trigger anxiety around lack of control. There are so many parameters involved in what the load-out is, and then so many variables involved in how a given load-out performs that can't be isolated from each other, and it all stops being fun pretty quickly for me.

Mariokart 8 on the Switch has been kind of serving this therapeutic purpose for me (although even its simple choices of car-wheel-kite load-out stress me out a little). Getting three stars on every cup in 200cc is decently challenging: skill is the main factor in the long term but the short term is often dominated by chaotic events outside of your control, so it's a good combination of repeatedly experiencing failure and learning what you can do better from it and then also repeatedly experiencing failure and coming to terms with the fact that a lot of times the universe is going to hand you your ass no matter how competently you conducted yourself and it's not a reason to rage quit.
posted by invitapriore at 1:06 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


I wouldn't have made it through college in one piece without the Metal Slug 4 machine in Lower Commons.
posted by turbowombat at 1:25 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


Celeste is an interesting case because it’s the kind of game that is designed to do this for the player, but also the main character of the game is going through the same experience as she climbs a mountain.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:22 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I came here to talk about binding of Isaac too. I have hundreds of hours logged on the pc version and over a hundred on the PS4 versions that I installed in November. It’s is absolutely meditative. I started on the vanilla binding of isaac, where it took months before I could beat the first end boss, but when I bought the PS4 version years later I beat her on my first try. The learning curve is steep but entertaining, unlike other notoriously hard games that rely on repetition. It has the potential to be a very different game each play through, which not only kept me coming back but also helps make it seem less repetitive as you hone your skills. Endless bullet hells are too stressful for my adhd riddled brain, but it’s the constant decisions to make, not only regarding resources but also risk/reward that keep my brain busy and quiet. Even stressful bullet hell bosses take less than five minutes before I can breathe again, and I’m usually OP by the time I have to fight something really intense. It’s like the game was custom made for my mess of a brain.
posted by Betty_effn_White at 2:26 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


All of you Binding of Isaac fans should really look into Enter the Gungeon . While I burned out on Isaac long ago, Gungeon has a lot of staying power
posted by Dmenet at 2:32 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


All of you Binding of Isaac fans should really look into Enter the Gungeon .

I just recently started to play Enter the Gungeon. The gameplay is a bit more challenging and the drops are less generous (especially with regards to ammo), but I love the world/story it tells and even though the learning curve for this is a bit steeper than BoI, I'm enjoying this game quite a bit. It definitely satisfies a similar itch.
posted by Fizz at 2:34 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


This makes a lot of sense. Not only do they require a great deal of concentration (which helps prevent intrusive thoughts, I assume), but the psychedelic, almost floral patterns of projectiles is soothing, in a way.

As someone who plays these types of games occasionally (I adore shmups, but gravitate towards less intense sub-genres), I find there's often a point when playing when I start to perceive the individual bullets instead as mathematical patterns, and it's an odd combination of tense and relaxing.
posted by subocoyne at 2:49 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


Not only do they require a great deal of concentration (which helps prevent intrusive thoughts, I assume), but the psychedelic, almost floral patterns of projectiles is soothing, in a way.

It's funny, I've never reflected on the fact that this form of concentration (which feels similar to meditation) does just that, it blocks out other thoughts and lets you focus on a single one.

I also think that living inside of a world that has such concrete rules is also beneficial. And while I realize that even programs can glitch/error unexpectedly. For the most part, these rules are fixed and so it's easy to understand how the world works, you live and exist in a place where things make sense and are firmly drawn. The real world we live in is not always like that and there's far more chaos to contend with.
posted by Fizz at 3:21 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]


Precisely. I'd say that the fact that video game worlds are, more or less, other worlds where the rules are comprehensible, limited, and consistent is what makes them such an appealing escape from our often confusing, inconsistent, and vast world.

For bullet hell games in particular, they can appear chaotic to an outside observer, but the patterns do follow mathematical principles which set them on their predictable paths. "Seeing" their paths in this manner is kind of a zen-like experience. I'm sure the fact that they often make spiral-like patterns, which is a shape and motion frequently used to induce trances or hypnosis, factors into it as well.
posted by subocoyne at 4:38 PM on May 1 [6 favorites]


It's funny, I've never reflected on the fact that this form of concentration (which feels similar to meditation) does just that, it blocks out other thoughts and lets you focus on a single one.

I wonder if this also explains why I'm rarely in the mood for "experience" games like Monument Valley. Like, in that particular case, I played through it and enjoyed the experience, but the fact that it's not forcefully engaging puts it in a different sort of personal category for me than games that are. I'm really glad that there are games out there like that for people who don't want something that requires enduring concentration, and it's probably on me that I have trouble fully absorbing myself in games whose mechanics don't come with a sense of urgency, but it is what it is.
posted by invitapriore at 6:37 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


On the switch, Dead Cells is also another good entry in the genre. Tho I think it is even more difficult to really get into than Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon.
posted by Grither at 6:39 AM on May 2 [3 favorites]


I love the world/story it tells and even though the learning curve for this is a bit steeper than BoI, I'm enjoying this game quite a bit. It definitely satisfies a similar itch.

Oi vay. This says a lot to this BoI player who hasn't touched Gungeon yet.... hrm.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:53 AM on May 2


On the switch, Dead Cells is also another good entry in the genre. Tho I think it is even more difficult to really get into than Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon.
It is and it isn't. Ha. Dead Cells starts out tough because the upgrades you earn in each dungeon run are harder to get early on. Eventually you earn enough gold to unlock these upgrades at the start, rather than battling through the actual dungeon to find these upgrades. If you unlock these drops you start each dungeon run with a random sword, bomb, bow/arrow, etc.

That being said, it doesn't feel grind-y at all and you feel like you're making progress constantly and it's super fun and fast. The flow of the game, that feeling where you just start slicing through enemies and clearing floors/rooms is such a fantastic kind of vibe. There are very few games that provide this kind of feeling.
It definitely satisfies a similar itch.

Oi vay. This says a lot to this BoI player who hasn't touched Gungeon yet.... hrm.
I know plenty of people turned off by the arguably childish/fecal theme of Binding of Isaac. Enter the Gungeon is just shooting fantastical guns and lots of gun puns. It's very tongue-in-cheek and it's also beautiful. I'd argue the art style is far superior to Binding of Isaac, and I say that as a life long fan of BoI. It's definitely worth putting on your list, just be ready to get sucked into it in a serious way.
posted by Fizz at 10:30 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


For me what works is games about pattern and geometry, especially those that mesmerize through color and music, like Bejeweled, or have progressions, like Candy Crush and its ilk. But I have played simple games like Tetris or even Poppit for hours because they too can get me to a state of flow. And Qix. I would like to try a game with a good world but I would be in it for graphics and story reasons, not mind calming. I think.
posted by carmicha at 6:07 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


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