Dementia is a condition which has only rarely been addressed throughout the history of computer gaming, and it is even more uncommon to witness it being presented as the central theme of a game rather than an incidental aspect of it. However, in a challenging new game by independent Russian software developers AGaming+, the effects of dementia have been given centre stage in a manner which proves both arresting and genuinely thought-provoking.
App released December 2013
Released in December 2013 as a free download from the Google Play Store for Android mobile devices (though the developers request a small fee for access to the later levels), the game - simply entitled Dementia - puts the player in the role of an unnamed protagonist who finds him or herself alone in an abandoned house. Like many other point-and-click mystery games of this nature - not least Cyan Worlds’ pioneering Myst - no explicit plot details are made known to the player ahead of time for the purposes of setting the scene, and part of the game’s objective is to establish (even vaguely) what is actually going on before ways of engaging with the narrative strategy are fully determined.
At least initially, the game hints at an ostensibly supernatural plotline, complete with an eerie sense of foreboding and occasional occult imagery. However, it takes little time for the player to realise that the ‘haunted house’ conceit is actually masking a rather more profound objective on the part of the creators. Peering beyond the shadows and the echo of footsteps along deserted corridors, it soon becomes clear that the derelict mansion has been consciously intended to function as an allegory for dementia itself.
Attempt to highlight some of the symptoms of dementia
Specific visual and auditory effects are carefully employed in a deliberate attempt to highlight some of the symptoms of dementia in a realistic and respectful way. The developers make particularly good use of the capabilities of the Android operating system, combining impressive 3D graphics with a control system which makes movement and visual orientation seem almost counterintuitive until the player gets used to the process. Though it seems in stark contrast to the straightforward system of interaction utilised in similar games such as Uru or RealMyst, these touch-screen control issues actually add to the game’s general sense of disorientation (inadvertently or otherwise), as the unreliable control over first-person navigation contributes a further degree of confusion to an already unfamiliar playing environment.
Hallucinations are also fairly swiftly introduced throughout the game, primarily in the form of indistinct, chattering voices and through the appearance of various visual anomalies which stem from - for instance - highly patterned wallpaper or furniture coverings. To explain in greater detail would be to risk spoiling the deeply ambiguous mystery which lies at the heart of the game, but suffice it to say that the judiciously-considered fusion of supernatural phenomena and impaired psychological perception remains significant throughout the game as it builds towards a dark and unexpected climax.
An established gaming framework
With an obvious willingness to confront the effects of the condition head-on, Dementia is a brave attempt to highlight mental health issues within an established gaming framework, thus presenting the relatively unfamiliar using the apparatus of the familiar. Its attempts to combine psychic awareness with psychological disorientation, thus causing a clash between the scientifically confirmed and the supernaturally unprovable, will doubtless seem contentious to many. And likewise, the use of hallucinatory imagery for the purposes of entertainment may not be to everyone’s taste. However, with public enthusiasm for home virtual reality headsets now very much back in vogue thanks to the huge anticipation for the Oculus Rift and other similar hardware solutions designed to augment and redefine the playing experience in increasingly ground-breaking configurations, games such as this one may well prove to be ahead of their time. If its first-person depiction of dementia’s effects can help to disseminate understanding of the condition amongst new audiences, this gaming experience may prove to be as timely as it is demanding.