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  • Hien Le

My first time making a game - Counter Attack Therapy

Updated: Jun 20, 2021

Welcome to the first post of my professional blog. On this blog, I will mostly post about my professional experiences (similar to LinkedIn I guess, just a bit more visually appealing).

So I had an accident back in March, which was one of the reasons I had to go back to Vietnam (I originally planned to apply for a temporary graduate visa, which would allow me 2 more years in Australia). It was a broken wrist that required surgery, a joint retwist and cast for nearly three months, so I obviously couldn't stay in Melbourne. While having my entire right hand being in a cast, I thought I couldn't really do anything until I talked to my friend Michelle, who invited me to join her MENTAL Jam project.

Michelle is a PhD candidate in Design at RMIT. Her research topic is an interesting one that combines both her technical skills (she's originally a game programmer) and creative flair: Knowledge translation of lived experiences of depression and anxiety through video game co-creation. In other words, the project involves interviewing people who have gone through depression and anxiety, then invite them to create a video game based on their very own experiences. These games will serve as a medium to erase social stigma and raise public awareness about mental health.

Counter Attack Therapy, or CAT, is the first game of this project. In the game, you will meet Alex, a humanoid cat in their mid-20s who works full-time. One day, they encounter some trouble at work and fall into a hole of depression and anxiety. As a friend, you will help Alex escape the evil cycle and stand firm on their feet again.

Enter Alex’s world of tangled thoughts while you listen to their story. Can you guide Alex through the situation?

Play the game at:

TRIGGER WARNING: The game deals with the themes of depression and anxiety; therefore, some words or images may trigger an adverse reaction.

Demo Video of Counter Attack Therapy

Screenshots from the game

How the project started

Back in March when I was still in a cast and about to leave Melbourne, I talked to Michelle about an incident I encountered at work in 2019. Long story short, I made a stupid mistake at work that eventually led to serious consequences. I was then having trouble dealing with demotivation, crashed my motorbike and fell into depression for quite a long time. Luckily I was studying my part-time Master's degree at RMIT Vietnam and thus able to access counselling service there, so I talked to a counsellor that helped me through the anxiety (that summed up pretty much what happened with Alex in the game, actually). Upon learning my story, Michelle invited me to join her MENTAL Jam research, which I later brought in my other friend Melinda, who had been dealing with the same problem over a few years. That was how the team came into formation.

You can find more background information of the project and the game in Michelle's speech at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival in this video:

Some behind the scenes information

Though I've had quite some experiences writing content for websites, social media and the press, this is my first time I'm writing for a game. So yes, before I started writing the script and along the way, I've actually researched about writing for games scripts, taglines and description. I've learned that writing for games should be more of "showing" than "telling" - the script needs to be more descriptive than just telling a story. I've actually used Thesaurus to help me find more words, went to mental health forums and read people's feelings to visualize the feelings of depression and anxiety into words.

Some of the coping techniques in the game are inspired by my counsellor's advice - for example, the breathing game and the mosaics puzzle. Originally she suggested a coloring book, but Alex is in a cast so we obviously had to change the idea. I recalled my ex-flatmate buying some mosaics' books before the first lockdown in Melbourne last year, and doing them was pretty calming. That was how the activity got incorporated into the game.

In another scene, Alex is seen flipping some oracle cards with encouraging symbols and messages. This idea was brought up by Melinda, who is interested in tarot cards (I'm one of her regular clients actually). To build the set of 12 cards, we had to study sacred geometry, and it was quite difficult to find the appropriate symbols and came up with short, succinct messages for each of the card. I felt like I have truly stepped out of my comfort zone.

As aforementioned, CAT was developed when I was in a cast. And the pre-game jam interview took place when I was still in the quarantine camp (after landing in Vietnam, I had to stay in a quarantine camp for 14 days before going home and quarantine for another 7 days. Crazy isn't it? But it's all for the safety of our community during these times).

Role distribution, background issues and solutions

With her programming background, Michelle took on the role of programmer and designer (and project leader, as this is part of her research). Melinda and I contributed as narrators. I am also in charge of script writing, game marketing and media contact post-release.

All our meetings took place on Microsoft Teams, and we used Trello to keep track of each member's progress.

Screenshot from one of our Team meetings

Normally in a game jam, participants are required to be on site to build a game in a set period of time (usually 72 hours), but for obvious reasons our game jam took place entirely online. I'm based in Hanoi, while Michelle is in Melbourne and Melinda in Ho Chi Minh City, and Vietnam is by that time 3 hours behind Melbourne.

So the first problem is definitely time difference, but that was not too big. Michelle was very kind to set her computer time zone in Vietnam time, so she could organize meetings apart from the 12pm time slot when Melinda and I usually have lunch. In case we start a meeting at 11am and did not finish by 12, Michelle would let us both have an 1-hour lunch break before returning to the (online) room.

The bigger problems appeared when Melinda suddenly had to deal with the loss of a close friend in late April, and I had my cast back on. When I went for a check-up in early May, the doctor noticed that I couldn't rotate my palm normally, and the X-ray found that I did not just broke my wrist, but also twisted the adjacent joint. So they had to knock me out and twisted my joint to its original position, and put a full cast on my right arm for 2 weeks. That means my typing speed became slower, as it depended entirely on my left hand. To solve this, Michelle helped me type the notes during our meetings, and also allowed me extended time to finish my tasks.

I found that Trello is actually quite useful for remote working teams, as you can create separate columns to generate and sort ideas, as well as keep track of everyone's tasks. For instance, we have "to do", "doing" and "done" columns. Once we started doing a task, it is moved from "to do" to "doing", then when we finished it the task can be moved to "done". We can also add the images, videos and ideas to the corresponding columns. In other words, it is like an upgraded version of Excel, more visually appealing and better interaction between team members.

Screenshot of a Trello workspace. The "To Do" and "Doing" columns are obviously empty now as we've finished the game.

Personal Reflection

This is my first time ever participating in making a video game, and I've learned more than what I expected.

Having a Marketing/Communication background, I've always identified myself as someone who practices in the creative industries. Yet I've somehow always pictured video game creators as tech people, because I thought that only programmers can make games. I completely forgot that to make a video game you also need designers for the visuals, musicians for the sounds, writers for the scripts and so on - and if they are not creative industries people, what would you call them?

And now with CAT I could probably call myself a game creator too. Jokes aside, you don't need to be a programmer to make video games. I believe everyone can contribute in the making of games, regardless of your background.

Joining MENTAL Jam and creating CAT have been a totally mind-blowing, life-changing experience for myself. Not only did I get to practice my long-forgotten writing skills but also to build the narratives and script for the game, which was based on my own story. Initially I was ashamed of my mistakes, and if my brain is a chest, I'd have locked it away into a drawer and never reopen. It was a painful memory I thought I'd bury deep down into my mind and never talk about it again.

However, CAT has given me the chance to talk about it safely without being judged, and to turn the seemingly negative experience into a meaningful game that can inspire others who had been or are in the same shoes. This is one of the comments on the game page: "I'm struggling at my work as a new intern who constantly makes mistakes and it's put me down. I'm playing games to treat myself and I couldn't have needed this more than now. Wonderful game!". It makes me realized that bad experiences in the past do not have to be bad forever. With the right team and the right strategies, they can totally be turned into something that can resonates and empowers people.

Like most of my press pieces I've written, I'd like to conclude this post with a call-to-action message. It is OK to be not OK, and seek proper help when you need to instead of trying to solve the problem on your own. Remember you are not alone, and your voices can be heard. By the way, Michelle is actually finding participants for MENTAL Jam, which I think is a great chance to share your own stories and turn them into something meaningful. If you have experiences of depression and/or anxiety and would like to join the project, please check out this post for further info and contact details.

Urbanist Vietnam's feature of CAT. You can read a Vietnamese overview of the game here.

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