It’s a little surprising, when you sit down to think about it, how seldom it is that games attempt to mess with our sense of reality the way drugs do. Sure, it happens now and again – think of the alien invasion Michael has to fight off in Grand Theft Auto V, or those horrid drug-induced nightmares in Max Payne – but for a uniquely interactive medium and massive cultural phenomenon, games are oddly drug-free, at least in terms of the serious kind of sensory hallucinations associated with powerful psychedelics.
What Happened is an exception to the rule. It’s not only an experiment in perception – and in leveraging games’ ability to completely shape a virtual world – it’s also an attempt for the author to wrestle with and contextualise a real-world trauma. The game centres on a high school student named Stiles, whose depression leads him into some very dark headspaces that turn the mundane world around him into a horrifying dreamscape.
Getting that to work was a challenge for developer Genius Slackers, but it was one that game director Arash Negahban was eager to take on. He’d witnessed trauma in his own life: an event he simply couldn’t make sense of.
“What Happened is a societal tragedy embodied in a videogame, developed in media form to have the maximum reach possible,” Negahban tells us. “This game is meant to create empathy and understanding for the broken and the downtrodden.”
Stiles’ troubled psyche overlays the physical world around him, rebuilding his perception of it using his deepest obsessions and fears. Taking powerful psychotropic medications, this effect is amplified to the point that he can’t distinguish what’s real from what’s illusion. And as players, What Happened draws us along for the same hallucinatory journey. At a blink, his school is an abandoned ruin. Monstrous arms paw at him from open lockers. Blood covers a sink that was pristine a moment ago.
“The greatest challenge was to truly understand what are the implications of psychedelics,” Negahban says. “We had to research, question, and outright interrogate the answers out of psychedelic users to create the most intense and real experience.”
Development required more than merely taking users along for a psychedelic ride, however. What Happened also grapples with issues of mental health, and Negahban said it was important to the team that this was treated with care.
“We recognised the many red lines we were crossing with this game. Yet these lines had to be crossed if we were to do any service to the cause of mental health and understanding,” he explains. “We had to step into this very dark subject and we had to take extreme care to not miss the point or mislead our audience.”
Communicating Stiles’ mental and emotional state was key to presenting the visual landscape correctly.
“We not only had to get the visuals right, but the fact that every psychedelic experience is molded and changed by emotions,” Negahban says. “We had to take the character, place it into the emotional mold of LSD in that moment, and render the result in a horrifying format of content.”
The development team turned to the Unreal Engine to bring their concept to life.
“Walking on the cutting edge of technology can be as challenging as it can be fun. It helped immensely when we familiarised ourselves with the technology and used the cutting edge to carve our path through,” technical director Saeed Abbasi says. “Unreal Engine was that cutting edge that we got more and more used to with every passing day. Unreal Engine allowed us to not worry about implementing these crazy ideas inside our game. Instead, we spent that extra time coming up with more crazy ideas.
“Without the technology provided to us by Unreal Engine, none of these would have happened. I think we chose the best platform on which to develop our game.”
Abbasi says the goal for each scene was to create something that was impossible to understand – even for the developers themselves. “If we could understand it, we were doing it wrong,” he says.
Ultimately, Genius Slackers hopes the game engenders a sense of empathy toward people suffering from loneliness, anxiety, depression, or other ‘invisible’ afflictions that can turn the normal world into a hellscape.
“Our hope is for our players to employ a different perspective towards others after finishing this game,” Negahban says. “A perspective of care and understanding, and the knowledge that anything we say or do can affect others beyond our imagination. We want our players to be able to identify that darkness and help root it out, wherever it might be.
“Making a psychological game is a very hard task. We can’t rely on the gameplay because that cannot be the main element of the game,” he continues. “We have to engage the player in stories, environments, and music, and I think creating that emotion that we wanted is really, really hard.”
Difficulty notwithstanding, Genius Slackers stuck with What Happened. The game launched at the end of last month.
“I am proud of every member of our team that spent all these years working and never gave up,” he says. “I am proud of us for hanging in there and creating this game, and I believe that finally we will be heard by the world.”
In this sponsored series, we’re looking at how game developers are taking advantage of Unreal Engine 4 to create a new generation of PC games. With thanks to Epic Games and Genius Slackers.