Making ‘Prisoned,’ A Depressing Game About Depression

August 7, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with Jakub Juszczak of Apertureless about Prisoned, a game in which he explores his own depression through a mix of real and fictional events.

Prisoned is not quite as autobiographical as you might think. The game’s protagonist, Judy, is controlled from a first-person perspective, with players inside her body, moving her around, just as the story is told in first-person. But German developer Jakub Juszczak didn’t design this game to be a 1:1 portrayal of his own struggles.

“It’s a little bit personal. I think this kind of game needs to be personal,” Juszczak told ANIMAL. “But it’s not everything about me. I took some events from my life, also some fictional events, and tried to craft a good story from this.”

Judy is depressed. She hasn’t suffered an insurmountable loss, and her life hasn’t crumbled around her. But her dog is dead, and she’s grown distant from an important friend. In the demo version of the game that’s currently available, Judy doesn’t want to kill herself, but she’s sad, and lonely, and tired. “Is there something wrong with me?” she asks.

Juszczak has a dog, but that dog is very much alive. On the other hand, Juszczak did lose a friend recently, and that hit him hard; he said he felt like he was being sucked into a “black hole.” He began working on Prisoned to help him through his pain, but he chose consciously to make it less personal than it could have been.

“I didn’t want to get too close to it and so attached to it, because I know that the internet is full of ‘nice people,'” he said. “I was pretty sure that a lot of people would not like it, so if I’m super attached to it then it would get even worse for me.”

In Prisoned, Judy walks a dark hallway in her dreams and awakens to a black-and-white world. She downs the pills on her nightstand to add a little color, though it’s a menacing, bloody red that covers her bed frame and the trees outside. It’s all she can do to walk slowly around in her own memories, thinking about her lost friends and wondering how things got so bad.

Judy is no closer to happiness when the demo ends, though the ultimate goal is for her to “find a way out of her depression,” according to the game’s official description, and Juszczak is adding at least five more levels. But for him, making Prisoned has indeed been cathartic, just as he’d hoped.

“I think making the game was the first step in the right direction for me, because I just started to do something and not do nothing at all,” he said. “Turn the bad energy that I had into something positive.”

Juszczak is currently studying computer science at the Westfälische Hochschule University of Applied Sciences in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Game development is a hobby for him, or a pipe dream at most. He’d love to do it full time, but he doesn’t think he’s very good at it. Prisoned is played in first-person partly because he’s “pretty bad at animating stuff,” he said, and the game will remain free even when it’s completed, because he doesn’t think anyone would want to pay for it. And besides, it’s more important that the game reach people.

Fighting depression is an uphill battle, and it’s hardest when you have to it alone. Juszczak hopes that Prisoned will help other people who are suffering. “I know a lot of people who have been depressed or had some life issues, and I think it’s a pretty serious topic,” he said. “People don’t really talk much about it so I think a game could be a good medium.”

The original version of Prisoned took around two weeks to complete, but it was even less polished than the very rough demo that’s currently available online. Now Juszczak has been working for months to improve the game’s writing and art, though he never intended to put this much time into it. “It’s growing and growing and there’s no end,” he said.

But the attention that Prisoned has received has caught Juszczak totally off guard. “It’s pretty overwhelming for me,” he said. It’s his first game, and he doesn’t have much confidence in it. But it’s clear that the subject matter interests a lot of people, especially in a medium where serious topics are rarely explored.

One of the most surprising sources of feedback for Juszczak has been “Let’s Play” style videos on YouTube, in which people record their gameplay and narrate their experiences. “Some people don’t get it at all. A lot of people get some stuff, and that’s pretty cool, because then I see what stuff they’re getting and what’s not that clear, and that can change a lot of the design,” he said. “But the reactions were so positive it’s also helped me a lot.”

Prisoned will be done “when it’s done,” Juszczak said, laughing at the fact that he’s already learned to talk like a “real” game developer, even if he doesn’t yet feel like one. For now a free demo is available from GameJolt.com.