Hey remember Game of Thrones…that was a thing. If the success of Netflix’s The Witcher has shown anything, it’s that audiences still have a craving for more adult fantasy with moral ambiguity and political intrigue. That said, while I enjoyed the first season of Geralt’s journey into legend, it felt more like…well, like this:
Not that there’s anything wrong with being the next Xena. Definitely nothing wrong there. Much to my surprise, however, I found another Netflix offering did a much better job of scratching that Game of Thrones intrigue itch. If you want complex characters living in a fully realized fantasy world of political complexities and societal strife, you really should check out The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, or as I’ve started calling it: Game of Muppets.
A lot of good shows have ended this year – well, The Good Place and Bojack Horseman ended this year, and I want to focus on the latter. Bojack Horseman really impressed the heck out of me. Over its six seasons, it grew from a zany, crass, Archer-ish animated comedy to a deep, dark, touching piece of art. The show became a reflection on consequence and power abuse, and it also painted an incredibly realistic portrait of depression.
Depression can be difficult to write about and many people get it wrong. The error can come from a lack of knowledge or just a desire to adhere to a traditional upbeat narrative. So let’s dive into writing about depression with Bojack Horseman as our guide to getting it right (warning: mild spoilers ahead).
It’s a Constant Struggle
Before I go any further, let me just say that I have never really suffered from depression (apart from a short stint in high school). I consider myself lucky that way. That said, I am no stranger to its close buddy in suffering, anxiety. Most people have both – I just lucked out with one. Weird, right?
Anyway, back to the first lesson: When writing depression, it cannot be a plot device. What I mean is, when writing, don’t use depression just to compel the plot. For example, let’s say I want to put Character A in the hospital so they can meet Character B. I can’t just write “Character A felt depressed and attempted suicide, landing them squarely in the hospital.” Apart from being a crappy sentence, it is incredibly loaded with unanswered questions. If I never returned to talking about Character A’s depression, my reader will feel cheated. They will know I just brought it up so I could move the story along.
Depression is not a physical trait. It’s much more complex – it is a part of a character’s inner being. As such, it cannot be turned off and on whenever convenient. It must always be. Just having a character turn depressed without prior warning or setup would be like having a nice person turn heinously villainous (looking at you, Frozen).
If your character is depressed, it must inform their being. A character who only gets sad when there is a clear reason (death, loss, etc.) is not depressed, just upset.
Happy Characters can be Depressed
Let’s continue that thought: Depression is not just sadness. Sure, Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh is an example of a depressed character and he is almost always gloomy, but Eeyore is not the model of depression, just an example of a form it can take. In Bojack Horseman, there is no logical reason for him to be as miserable as he is. He is a rich celebrity with friends and an active career. There is a lot to feel good about – but he can’t see it.
Depression blinds Bojack to everything good in his life, instead telling him that it either:
Is a lie.
Is doomed to destruction (through something he will do).
Depression is more than sadness. It is a feeling of personal worthlessness or despair that exists regardless of external stimuli. Sure, Bojack can dress up for the cameras and put on a smile, but inside he is never really happy. His sickness is always pulling him down and, for most if not all of the show, he is never really sure how best to fight against it.
So, while depressed characters can look like Eeyore, they don’t have to. Bojack Horseman is an example of a depressed character as is Diane, his best friend. Both are hard-working, successful people who still struggle with their inner demons on a daily basis. Diane is a lot more upbeat than Bojack (overall), but even she is often tugged down into despair – mostly through blaming herself.
There is No “Cure”
I’m no fan of Iron Man 3. I made that clear in my review. Why am I bringing it up now? Because Iron Man 3 commits one of my most hated lazy writing moves. It brings up a severe mental illness only to immediately cure it within seconds. For much of the film, Tony Stark is suffering from panic attacks and panic disorder. It frequently sends him into a spiral wherein he is rendered an inactive mass as he struggles to regain his breath and his composure.
Que act III where he discovers a lesson about himself and suddenly viola! No more panic attacks. Bull. Shit.
Mental illnesses can be cured, yes, but not quickly. Often times, curing a mental illness means learning to live with it and manage it rather than anything else. There is no “Eureka!” moment. Tony Stark recovering so abruptly from his panic disorder is akin to someone going up to a person suffering from depression and asking “have you tried being happier?”
It doesn’t work.
You can write about your character recovering from depression – but that in itself is a journey. Let’s go back to talking about Diane. While Bojack may not be out of his spiral, Diane appears to overcome her worst problems with depression by the end of the series. How does she do this? She:
Takes medication (even though it makes her heavier).
Abandons her belief that accomplishing a goal will make her happy.
Bojack and Diane are very similar. Each one has selected a fantasy that, once fulfilled, will magically fix their problems. For Bojack, it is starring in Secretariat. For Diane, it is writing her memoir. Bojack gets his wish, while Diane doesn’t. He stars in the film. She stops writing her memoir and opts instead to write a fun children’s series about a girl detective. Why? Because doing the latter actually made her happy. Diane stopped dwelling in her grief. She stopped trying to make sense of it and she moved on (with help from her partner and her doctors).
So, at least at a glance, it appears she is “cured” by the end of the series. Does this mean she no longer has depression? No, but it means she has taken control of it. She is in a much better place because she now allows herself to be happy rather than following her more destructive instincts.
Depression Comes from Somewhere, Even if It Doesn’t
Okay, my last point: Depression may not really come from anything. Current medical science tells us it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – meaning there could be no real cause. A person in a healthy, functional home can develop depression.
That said, for many people, depression has its roots in cold hard reality. Let’s go back to Bojack. His trouble started with his parents – who were abusive, neglectful, and a handful of other terrible adjectives. As such, Bojack was told he was worthless at a young age and never really got over that. Likewise, Diane came from a similar background. Her father was also not great.
My point is, your character will likely have a cause for their depression, even if said event/person is not the real cause at all. They will believe it. Bojack believes his family messed him up (hard to argue that he’s wrong).
In the end, however, depressed characters are more likely to blame themselves than any external force. They see themselves as flawed, weak, and broken. If bad things happen – it is only because they deserve them.
Keep this in mind when you’re writing depression in your stories. It is a complex monster that should be treated with the intricacy it deserves. If you want your character to have an illness they can all of a sudden recover from – give them a cold. Fighting depression is an exhausting struggle and sadly not one that everyone wins.
Don’t take shortcuts. It is a human fight and thus worth writing about.
It took a short while to set up. From getting my phone/headset to being ready to go probably took roughly two hours (for the record – most of this was time spent copying over phone data and driving to/from my house). For those looking to get one of these things, I definitely recommend doing it in the morning, so that VR can occupy the rest of your day.
Jumping in, I was immediately impressed by… the shopping menu screen. Sounds weird, right?
The menu itself was fairly standard. A collection of input boxes like “Store” and “Library” that would not give anyone with any electronics experience pause. No, what made the menu captivating was the fact that, after putting on my Gear VR, I was suddenly in a house that wasn’t my own. Moreover, it was a fancy, futuristic home. While I can’t move around it (to my knowledge) I could look to the kitchen, the pool, out the sunroof – anywhere I wanted.
The couch I was sitting on felt far away and, despite the far-from-perfect resolution, I actually found part of my brain believing that I was really there. Again I want to stress – this was a storefront.
My first actual experience was a Cirque Du Soleil program that came free when I installed the Oculus storefront. When it began, I was in an empty auditorium, sitting in either the front row or directly on stage. Many of the Cirque Du Soleil clowns came towards me, dancing and laughing (as clowns do). Those with clown-related fears, be warned – they come right towards you and hang around at your left and right for the remainder of the show.
Then a rope swing descended above me and I watched as two other performers appeared. They mounted the rope swing and it ascended, giving me a front-row seat to their short performance. They swirled and twirled and did all manner of acrobatic feats in the short time I was able to watch them. This performance, like most VR experiences was on the shorter side, and it was over before I knew it.
I hadn’t even played a game yet, and already I was sold on the experience. With most movies – you watch. That appears obvious to type. Watching Captain America: Civil War – I watched a bunch of heroes fight. I didn’t just watch Cirque Du Soleil – I experienced it. Was it a perfect substitute for reality – no, it was in a place in-between.
This was made clearer by Nomads, a VR-only show that takes the user around the world to three nomadic tribes. It was a short documentary without any narration, yet was still an incredibly immersive experience. I felt like was canoeing through villages, visiting their homes, watching them cook food. VR’s ability to place me within the world led to an incredible, personal, voyeuristic experience.
Remember when the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation came out and suddenly 3D… er limited 3D was possible? Characters were still confined to a 2D screen, but were able to move around freely and explore like never before. VR is an experience similar to this breakthrough, only on such a grander scale. The Gear even enhances 2D experiences like Netflix – I was taken to a cabin in the mountains and provided with a theater-sized screen to watch movies on, surrounded by portraits of the characters from Netflix’ original programming (my favorite was the portrait of Bojack Horseman). I have yet to watch a full movie in Netflix VR – but it is definitely on my to-do list.
Another program, Milk VR, allowed me to play personal movies from my phone as if I were in a theater. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see my dog as a puppy again, chasing her tail right in front of me.
The games I did play included a temple-run style space game, where I controlled a ship by leaning my head to the left and to the right, and a coral reef adventure game where I swam around in a virtual undersea world. I didn’t play much of the undersea one as it appears to be an experience that will be better with a controller. Even with the limitation – it was still a lot of fun.
I also installed Sisters… but haven’t mastered the courage to play it yet.
There are some drawbacks to the device – so far, I haven’t found any terrific social apps – so it can be a little isolating in the VR world. I have installed Altspace, but the one time I have tried it, I could not get past a loading screen (at least I think it was a loading screen). Some of the apps can also be a little nauseating, although that problem too has been going away the more time I spend in VR. Also, while the controls on the side of the headset aren’t bad – it would be nice if controllers were more available. The phone can also get hot if it’s made to do too many things at once – this problem has only been experienced once so far.
One last note – where is the X-Men Cyclops game for this? It is the ultimate no-brainer. Get on that, Marvel.
In short, the Gear is one the cheapest “true” VR device on the market. It cannot do the things that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can… but it is still an incredible device that shows how wondrous the future will be. The age of virtual reality is upon us, with all its strengths and challenges. I advise everyone to dive in as soon as possible, and the Gear VR is a great way to do so.