A SCOTTISH lecturer's video game is helping those who play it to journey through the difficulties of depression – and saving lives in the process, through a work guided by personal experience.

In this particular context, those booting up the title are not your ordinary game-players. They are sufferers, helpers, the curios and, especially, the endangered among us, whose chances of survival might depend on their 10-minute encounter with The Longest Walk.

The Longest Walk is a digital game because it deploys the artistic and mathematical skills that are required to make any digital game actually work. This is where the "playing" element of game-playing departs the scene and the harrowing reality of one man’s journey through depression begins.

Alexander (Sandy) Tarvet is a lecturer in game design, a PhD student at Abertay University, Dundee, and, with a background in commercial games to complement his academic credentials, he created The Longest Walk.

He is no stranger to deploying games that are designed to help people. As an undergraduate student he was the brains and developer behind Forget-me-Knot – a game that generates the same degree of confusion in the player’s mind as is endured by those who live with Alzheimer's Disease.

Tarvet describes The Longest Walk as a documentary walking-simulator game and is part of his PhD research funded by The Northwood Charitable Trust, which backs Dundee-based projects. Dundee suffers a high suicide rate and Tarvet witnessed the horror of a suicide attempt unfold as he and his dad drove across the Tay bridge.

The National: The Tay Road Bridge in The Longest WalkThe Tay Road Bridge in The Longest Walk

His dad, Jim, plays the key role in the game’s development because it his interview that describes his lived reality, that forms the narration and monologue in The Longest Walk and without whose brave testimony the game might never have been possible.

Tarvet explains: “The Longest Walk aims to reduce feelings of isolation through shared experience and encourage those who are struggling with depression or experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out for help.”

Through sharing his dad’s depression experience openly and frankly, he aims to provoke discussion and tackle the stigma around opening-up about mental health issues.

The game can be watched passively as a video documentary or played as an interactive game; allowing the player to take control, explore the story at her/his own pace, and contemplate whilst walking in Jim’s footsteps.

Walking and contemplation are key elements of the game. The subject matter dictates that it has to be played slowly, unlike other games where speed and guns are of the essence. Players who are absorbing the sheer enormity of one man’s struggle with depression, especially interactively, cannot possibly do so quickly.

It’s in the cleverness of Tarvet’s game design, in some invisible way, that he almost prevents the player from running, encouraging walking and contemplation, perhaps through the sadness of the monologue, and this holds true regardless of whether the player utilises the documentary or interactive version.

Tarvet’s mission is simply to show players that there is light at the end of the depression tunnel. But this he does beautifully, as you would expect from someone who clearly understands depression, the mechanics of building an engaging computer game and the complexity of knitting both such that the subject matter is treated with appropriate gravity.

The sound effects and visuals complement the bleak monologue perfectly and, as the game ends, the player is entranced, staring at the very real suicide warnings on the screen while attempting to comprehend the sadness they’ve just undergone and resisting, at least immediately, the temptation to rewatch and endure the grim waves of depression again.

Among this, it’s important to remember that, as an academic, Tarvet’s work is more than a labour of love pursued by an enthusiastic hobbyist. It is thoroughly grounded in the same rigorous academic literature that underpins all serious academic output and from which he provides a neat summation of his craft: “The creative treatment of actuality which involves the midwifing of others into eloquence.” Others, in this particular case, being his dad.

Dr Robin Sloan, senior lecturer in the Division of Games and Arts at Abertay, said: “We believe that games technologies and game-design knowledge can have meaningful impacts on the wider public, and projects like The Longest Walk are a great demonstrator of what is possible.

The National: The Longest Walk serves up thought-provoking imageryThe Longest Walk serves up thought-provoking imagery

“The work that Sandy is doing, bridging games and health, forms part of our wider interest in Applied Games at Abertay, where we draw on our expertise in design and development to propose ways in which digital games can bring value to society, with one such area being mental health and wellbeing.”

Over a year in the making, the game is free to download, despite benig equaly in quality to games on the market that players pay to download. Commercial profit is not on Sandy’s agenda, despite it being remarkably easy, not to mention lucrative, to charge even £1 per download or view, of which there have been 500,000 since it was released on May 11, 2022, during Mental Health Awareness Week.

Forget-me-Knot has similarly impressive commercial potential, forgone in favour of Tarvet’s mission to generate a help route for those who need it via his artistry in building digital games.

The term "raise awareness" has drifted into everyday vocabulary with such frequency that it seems to have lost its precision and impact and this is where digital games matter because, while they do indeed raise awareness, they more importantly facilitate experiences and, in environments of sufficient gravity, like the ones in which Sandy operates, experience matters.

The Longest Walk is a digital game that is not for playing. It’s a game to experience seriously and hope that that its monologue does not become the player’s reality while remembering that there are those who, were it not for The Longest Walk, might not be here today.

Thankfully there are those among us brave enough to tell their story through those who utilise their academic and digital skills for a cause so much greater than commercial success.

The Longest Walk can be downloaded at: https://thesandymancan.itch.io/the-longest-walk

Forget-me-Knot can be downloaded at: https://thesandymancan.itch.io/forget-me-knot

Samaritans are always available on 116123 and at https://www.samaritans.org/