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How To Design A Game For Maximum Empathy

The clever design in the game What Now? effectively shows how helpless anxiety can make us feel.

Many people play video games to have fun and relax, but the lo-fi What Now? is neither of those things. Instead, it’s a game which seeks to convey the ways stress and anxiety affect the mind.

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The game is simple. You control an 8-bit sprite who walks around a room and journals about the objects you make her interact with. But the emotional depth is anything but.

Approach her kitchen, and the journal gives you the first hint of what’s to come. “I’m more emotional than ever,” the journal reads. “Why can’t I cry? Why is it so hard?”

Walk too quickly or interact with too many things and your character starts to disappear into glitchy chaos. If you don’t slow down and give her time, the small room closes in around her, devolving into terrifying pixelated chaos. Her journal shows half-written, panicked entries like “You left me to rot” and “IT NEVER ENDS.”


And creating this level of impact was no accident. Over at Boing Boing‘s Offworld blog, Leigh Alexander describes how the game’s design adds to its realism:

The combination of the movement constraints, the narrow field of view and the evocative glitching makes What Now? effective at communicating precise things about the experience of emotional distress and panic, the awful ‘white noise’ feeling of unreality that comes with an anxious peak, or even the very knowing that anxiety can peak. Past a certain point, even if you take your hands off the keys Arielle and her world continue to spiral away from you, a fitting metaphor for the surrender to fear that people experience in moments like those.

It’s not unlike games such as the addictive iPhone puzzler Threes!, which has an unrelenting, overwhelming game design that rewards your ability to clear tiles from the board with more that are even harder to clear off, and has been likened to the experiences of OCD and depression.

Grimes told Offworld why she decided to create a game about anxiety. “Games have always sort of just been there for me, not purely as escapism but also in a very productive way. They helped me deal with my struggles, and understand and prioritize goals,” she says.

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Grimes created the game with the hope that it can help other people struggling from mental health issues in the same way video games have helped with her own. She also wants the game to show those who haven’t experienced anxiety how it feels, and to teach them how they can help their loved ones deal with these problems.

The game is free to play online here, and if you like it, you can donate to Grimes on Patreon. For more on What Now?, be sure to check out Boing Boing‘s full feature here.

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About the author

I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.

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