How Draugen’s Approach To Mental Health Helped Craft An Emotional Narrative

This interview contains spoilers for Draugen, as such it is recommended that you proceed with caution if you are yet to play Draugen.

Mental health is certainly an issue that has been gaining traction in recent years, mostly for all the right reasons. The stigma that used to associate mental health with weakness has itself weakened as society starts to realise the importance of staying healthy mentally – or not being ashamed to tackle the issue should you need to.

As the stigma has dissipated, more and more video games are using mental health as a storytelling platform, raising awareness in the process. Games such as What Remains of Edith Finch and Hellblade are examples of games that have resonated with players (and critics) because of their ability to tell stories around mental health without exploiting the issue. Another game that has achieved such a feat is Draugen from Norweigan developer Red Thread Games.

When Draugen first released on PC just under a year ago I loved it, giving it a 9.5 in my review. Not only was it my indie game of the year, but it was one of the best story-driven games I had ever played. The way it told its powerfully emotive narrative left an imprint, largely thanks to the superb writing, voice acting and stellar soundtrack.

While Red Thread Games’ primary intentions may not have been to write a game about mental health, the way that it tells a story about loneliness, loss, and the importance of relationships meant that mental health was always going to be discussed in some regard. Recently I was able to sit down with Ragnar Tørnquist, Draugen’s writer and Red Thread’s founder, to chat about Draugen’s thematic approach, how mental health and video games co-exist for the better, and the importance of sound design (including voice acting) to enhance the emotional experience (we even get a sneaky exclusive right at the end).

WellPlayed: Over the last few years the stigma around mental health has dissipated thanks to a change in attitude. As such the number of video games using mental health themes has risen drastically. Do you think video games are in an ideal position to help raise awareness?

Ragnar Tørnquist: I believe games can help raise awareness about a number of important issues, particularly when it comes to younger audiences, who may be more inclined to play games than anything else. It’s definitely something we’re seeing more of, as developers and publishers become comfortable with the idea that games can be about something, have actual themes and explore topics that can provoke emotions and trigger conversations. That certainly includes mental health, but I want to see developers handle a wide range of issues.

WP: Do you think being an interactive experience helps players relate easier to narrative themes compared to other mediums?

RT: Yes and no. The potential is there. I’m not sure we’ve really seen what developers are capable of yet, given the freedom and resources to explore more serious themes and issues, but it’s happening more and more. Done right, games can have an impact that other media can only wish for.

WP: Given that shorter, narrative adventures tend to be the common genre for these types of games, do you think that indie developers are best placed to have the most impact in games when it comes to mental health?

RT: Indie developers have more freedom to make games and write stories that are more personal, more niche, potentially more controversial and sensitive. When you’re making a hundred million dollar game, there are so many stakeholders, so many factors to pay attention to, it’s hard to do anything that could be considered “risky”. So you end up with blockbuster-style stories that avoid themes or topics that may potentially be the cause of controversy or negative attention.

This is one area where being an indie developer has advantages. We don’t have to skirt controversy or appeal to everyone everywhere. Most of us don’t have to answer to skittish investors or marketing departments. We can target niche audiences, tell stories that the triple-A’s cannot or dare not, and explore themes that big-budget productions purposely avoid.

And this can lead to a game like Hellblade, that makes psychosis an integral part of the narrative and game mechanics, and approaches it in a way that’s realistic, respectful and a truly interesting part of the game. I can’t imagine a bigger studio doing anything like that — at least not until an indie studio has proven that it’s possible, and that it can be done well.

Graavik is beautiful, but it has a dark history

WP: What made you want to write a video game that featured mental health themes?

RT: We wanted to write a game about two people and their odd relationship. The fact that there are mental health issues involved meant that we had to address it, and it’s a theme we touch on, but the story is primarily about how Edward, our protagonist, interacts with Lissie, his companion, and the world around him. It’s about a lonely and isolated man breaking out of his mental prison and travelling halfway across the world to find what he’s lost, and about what he’s bringing along with him. We don’t use mental health as a game mechanic, but we explore Edward’s psyche, his history, his life…and part of that is discovering that Edward isn’t well. But exactly what he’s experiencing, how his mind is playing tricks with him, is something we leave to the imagination. There are many ways to interpret Draugen’s story, and that’s very much intentional.

WP: At the end of the day video games exist to tell stories. How fine is the balance between using mental health issues for the greater good as well as telling a story (such as awareness) to coming across as insensitive and simply using these issues to push a narrative?

RT: Look, that’s a loaded question, a binary choice between “the greater good” and “insensitive”. The answer is on a scale. Does every story that involves mental health have to serve a greater good? If you look at other media, be it film or TV, comics or literature, there are numerous examples of mental health and mental illness being plot-points rather than public service, without causing a controversy. That’s not to say storytellers shouldn’t be aware of what they’re doing, or how it may potentially affect their audience, but I don’t think it’s right to place the burden of always serving “the greater good” on the shoulders of storytellers. As long as mental health isn’t exploited for shock value or used as a crutch for good characterisation and storytelling, I think it’s perfectly fine to use serious themes to “simply” tell a story.

WP: The other side of the argument is that video games provide a form of escapism from the trials and tribulations of daily life for many people and playing a game about such issues may not appeal to some players. When you’re working on the game’s concept how do you try and make your game appeal to as many players as possible without compromising your vision?

RT: If you want to play games purely for escapism, that’s perfectly fine! There’s a vast selection of games out there that have little to no connection with reality, and many of them are great. There’s nothing wrong with using games to escape daily life for a few hours, and no one’s taking that away from anyone. But there are also plenty of people like us who believe games can do both: entertain and be about something bigger.

We don’t make games for everyone. This is not really about compromise. It’s simply a question of what we want to spend our time on. Our philosophy is to make games for ourselves first and foremost. If we enjoy the games we make, there’s probably an audience out there for them. How big that audience is will differ from game to game, but it’s hopefully big enough to recoup development costs and fund our next game. That’s all we can hope for.

We do bring in focus testers to play early versions of our games, but playtesting is mostly focused on usability rather than themes or narrative, since so much of that won’t be ready until the very end. And at the end of the day, the only voice we can really trust is our own. That makes it easier: as long as we’re happy with what we’re making, we don’t have to constantly second-guess our choices.

We don’t use mental health as a game mechanic, but we explore Edward’s psyche, his history, his life…and part of that is discovering that Edward isn’t well

WP: The relationship between Edward and Lissie is an integral cog in Draugen’s story. What resources did you use to help write the game’s story and relationships?

RT: A lot of time was spent researching how people spoke in the 1920s…and then doing a little more of that than was strictly realistic. We wanted to heighten the sense of being in another time, and these characters being a reflection of their society and period. The goal wasn’t to perfectly emulate the 1920s but rather to mirror what people associate with the decade, without becoming a parody. I hope we delivered on that vision. Some people really did say “old bean” a lot!

The narrative itself emerged from long discussions in the writers room between myself and the designers and art director, as we shaped the story along with the game mechanics and overall structure. One thing we wanted to accomplish was to make Lissie feel like a living, breathing human being, and for the conversations between her and Edward to feel dynamic and realistic. We spent a lot of time on tools and technology to support this, and I’m really happy with the result. I think it’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is to pull that off in a game.

The story, as with every story we tell, went through a huge number of iterations and changes, and changed dramatically from the initial idea. That’s the nature of game development, and it’s what I love about collaborative art. You never know where you’re going to end up.

WP: Draugen’s story focuses a lot on loss, loneliness and closure. Was this story influenced by any real experiences, personal or otherwise?

RT: Of course. Everything I write is coloured by personal experiences and by the experiences of people around me. Loss and loneliness are themes I believe we can all relate to. There’s a lot of Edward in me, although, fortunately, I haven’t suffered the losses he has. I’ve personally struggled with rejection, isolation and loneliness in my life, however, and unfortunately I don’t think that’s unique: it’s something many, many people have had to contend with from time to time. And in a way, Edward’s lucky. He has Lissie. He’s never truly alone.

WP: The original concept for Draugen seemed much darker. What influenced the change in the game’s direction?

RT: From the very start, Draugen was about Graavik and Edward and his search for his missing sister. In earlier iterations of the game, it was more of a horror story, but we felt that we were constantly having to balance the horror elements with the narrative and character development, and we were also potentially alienating players who don’t enjoy horror and who might not play the game if it was too scary. So we decided to tone down those elements and focus more on the relationship between Edward and Lissie. And that ended up serving the story well. There are more than enough horror games out there, but there are not a lot of games like Draugen.

Lissie is Edward’s rock

WP: How important are production elements such as voice acting and the soundtrack when trying to elicit an emotional response from the player? I mean if the characters aren’t believable they don’t have as big of an impact?

RT: Oh, it’s critically important, especially in a game that’s constructed entirely around a real human relationship in a real world setting. We cast our two main actors early on, so that I could write with their voices in mind, and we spent a whole day rehearsing and shaping the dialogue at a table read with the actors. Every step of the way we were mindful of how these characters were brought to life, because if we failed to accomplish that, we were going to lose the players.

As for the music and sound in the game, work on that began day one, alongside the design. Audio is a central part of the experience, and Simon Poole, our audio director, is a key member of the team. He takes part in the design and development process to make sure music and audio is on equal footing with every other element in the game.

Without these particular actors, and without Simon’s absolutely wonderful soundtrack, this game wouldn’t have worked — but we knew this going in, and it was part of our vision for Draugen.

WP: Can you see yourself exploring similar themes in future games?

RT: There are other stories we want to tell, but some of the themes in Draugen – loss, loneliness, abandonment – are definitely key to those stories, too. We’re doing something very different with our next game, but you’ll definitely see a red thread through all of our games and stories.

WP: At the very end of Draugen we are teased that Edward and Lissie will return. Something I would love to see. Care to spill any info about this, old bean?

RT: Read the prequel comic book for some hints to where future stories might go! At the moment, the comic book is only available with the console versions, but we’re bringing it to PC in May, along with the visual soundtrack mode. You heard it here first!

WP: Thanks for your time. Best of luck for the future – we can’t wait to see what comes next.

Draugen is available now on PC (Steam and GOG), PS4 and Xbox One.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts