“8BitBoy,” a new side-scrolling title for PC, Mac, and Linux from a Danish designer named Rasmus Sorensen, is a good game and a better story.
As soon as you go to the game’s webpage, it’s clear that things are pretty personal here: “Our hero is this depressed and unemployed 32-year old guy, who hasn’t been able to get a job after finishing his exams one year ago,” Sorensen writes. “Our hero gets sucked into this happy, vivid, and colorful 8-bit world where he has to overcome many obstacles to help him out of the status quo of unemployment and help him support his family.”
So the narrative is by no means subtle, and once you start the game it’s clear how much respect Sorensen has for his source material, the classics of the 8- and 16-bit generations of side-scrolling adventure games like “Super Mario Bros.,” “Sonic the Hedgehog,” and some slightly more obscure ones. “8BitBoy,” which is very tough to play (I had to quickly switch to the easier, unlimited-lives gameplay mode simply to see more than a few levels), borrows heavily from these gems of yesteryear.
Sorensen said in an e-mail that after starting “8BitBoy,” it “ended up totally consuming me, and became a full time project for about a year.” The result is a game that, he says, takes about 12 hours to play through, which is an impressive chunk of time for the genre. (I should admit that I have not gotten very far yet.)
Sorensen said that “8BitBoy” played a key role in dislodging him from depression. “Since I was about 10 years old, I had this dream about making a game,” he told me in an e-mail. “I even tried back then, and made a few, but no serious projects. So maybe this was the way out of my depression.”
Maybe I’m overinterpreting, but I think the idea of making a side-scroller like “8BitBoy” in response to depression is particularly fitting given what depression is like — the nature of the genre and the illness are opposites, sort of.
Depression, after all, is often about brutal exhaustion, endless rumination, and an inability to make progress — or even remember what “progress” is. Depressed people scoff at the suggestions often made by their healthier friends that they should simply “snap out of it,” that improving their condition is as simple as getting out of bed and going for a jog — that it’s a matter of will, in other words. Depression can be suffocating and brutal and can rob from its victims the very notion of moving forward, of getting past the present moment into something better.
Not to directly compare a video game genre to a debilitating mental condition, of course, but a side-scrolling game is the opposite of all these things. There’s progress of some sort every time you pick up the controller — every game, and every level in every game, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, all designed to be beatable. Good side-scrollers reward tenacity and effort — that is, will — in an extremely primal, satisfying way.
So even though I’m often a bit jaded when it comes to hearing the origin stories of video games (which are often fluffy PR plays), in this case it was very interesting to play “8BitBoy” with Sorensen’s struggles in mind. Every time I made it past a new obstacle, every time I reached a new level, it was a small symbolic strike against the unfair condition that helped inspire this game.