Digital Post by Yirby


Game Development

If I had to describe “HLTD54 (Fall 2019)” and my experience in it, I would say it was unconventional. Conventional implies some semblance of normalcy, and I think my understanding of the academic world kind of got flipped on its head. From the get-go, I was presented with the question of what I would study if there were no consequences attached; I was expected to “read” games and poetry and videos instead of twenty pages of academic jargon; I didn’t have to write an end-of-term essay!

… Yet, we had a “substantial research-related project” to look forward to. This, too, took an unconventional form as a “digital story” project, and as I came to embrace my own unconventional approaches to my work, I found myself gathering impactful creative texts that I read throughout the seminar – ones that could give me inspiration and ideas that I could incorporated into my story.

To be really honest, there were certain readings stood out to me more than others and built the core of my final project. After reading Tysdal’s essay for The Walrus, I entertained the idea of immersion into my favourite forms of media; coupled with the interactive choose-your-own-adventure game of Depression Quest, I got my idea of immersing the viewer into a video game of my illness experience. The way El-Hadi’s piece  contrasted digital and material realities sparked the split-screen division of my two in-game realities: the engaged and dissociative modes. And Hernandez’ Scarborough and The Next Day both gave off the feelings that I wanted to convey in my work, serving as reference points for captivating and humanistic storytelling.

These core creative and critical texts became the basis of my vision for my final project: a digital story on my experiences with mental illness throughout my undergraduate degree, told in the style of a late-80s/early-90s video game. This seminar provided me with the opportunity to take a different approach to research projects: I was allowed the creative freedom to create a video complete with voiceovers and pictures, sound effects and music, and, most importantly, my own health-related stories that I wanted to share. While I met this format in terms of technique (aside from a voiceover), I think I ended up taking an unconventional route for an unconventional project in an unconventional course.

The Process

Something I’m particularly proud of in this project is my choice in design elements. Once I decided on a video game concept, the first choice I had to make was if I wanted my game to look modern or retro. To figure this out, I watched trailers for the latest games in The Legend of Zelda’s franchise (they always have stellar art and direction), and played a bunch of NES and Super Nintendo games. (This, of course, was the most fun part of my process, and gave me insight into technical elements, like sound and camera direction, as well as the overall feel I was going for.)

On top of this, I watched a show I heard about called Hi-Score Girl. Set in 1991, it is a love letter to the nostalgic arcade era, complete with Street Fighter tournaments that really captured the essence of early-90s gaming. Growing up, these sorts of games were a large influence on my life – they symbolize a part of my life that I look back on with endearment. For me, nostalgia is a very strong feeling that I simultaneously love and hate. While I can recreate my warmest memories, they will never be the same. This longing brings me profound sadness, and in this way, nostalgia often exacerbates my depression.

It’s because of the nostalgia I experienced while playing NES titles and watching Hi-Score Girl that I ultimately decided on rendering a retro game. I felt that it would set the tone of my illness, and effectively immerse my audience into my experience when playing older games. In a way, I interpret my project as a love letter to the retro gaming and arcade eras, too.




At this point, I had my idea, motif, and had just built up a shot-list of the key parts of my story that I wanted to showcase. I ended up dividing the story into six major scenes: a “start-up” phase, an ending cut-scene, and a scene for each year of my degree at UTSC. Drawing from El-Hadi’s work (and a round of Mario Kart with my friend), I made the choice to split the screen into two “players” or “modes” that represented how I feel when I’m functioning well vs. not functioning well.

I’m a fan of visual cues that hold meaning, and thought it’d enhance my work if the images in the “engaged” mode appeared sunny, while having rainy, de-saturated images in the “dissociative” mode. For moments that fall in the in-between, painting them in an orange, evening-lit tone helped me to share the short-lived nuances that represent the “am I okay or not okay?” feelings that depression has to offer. These artistic elements then influenced the text that appeared in their respective lights, with calm and collected text in the sunny, more stigmatizing thoughts residing in the rainy, and uncertainty lingering in the evening.

One last visual cue that I wanted to include was one of interruption: a “rage-quitting” scene that represents dangerous moments I had in the UTSC Valley a few years ago. I feel as though my degree was split into two at that time – a before X and after X moment – and therefore, my game would be incomplete without it, too. Framing it as a point of “quitting” and “restarting” felt like the appropriate, most “right” way to share that.


Names were the hardest elements for me to decide on. It took weeks to decide on “engaged” and “dissociative” as my two modes of play, but they were what felt most accurate when describing my illness experience. It was my title that gave me the most trouble.

One day, while playing hallway-hockey with my brother, we were talking about Tysdal’s short film, Humanity’s Wing. We thought that creating a title related to UTSC would be fitting, given the setting of the game. And so, with a play-on-words of UTSC’s Highland Creek Valley, we came up with High Land & Valleys, symbolizing a defining place of my degree, along with the ups (engaged) and downs (dissociative) that often characterize depression.


I Beat The Game… Now What?

As of today, I unlocked some new achievements:

  • I finished this final project
  • I completed HLTD54
  • I made it to the end of my undergraduate degree

In more ways than one, I beat my own game!

While it was a research project in name, I feel like this game is not largely reflective of any formal research I’ve done. Instead, I find it provides a commentary on an accumulation of learning, observations, and experiences that I’ve collected throughout my degree.

Earlier in the semester, I said that this course is essentially the culmination of my degree – it turns out this digital story was, too. It was also an opportunity for me to challenge myself and show the things I’ve learned. This project, this course, and this degree were not at all like what I expected, but I’ve found myself here, at the end of it, feeling accomplished. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to save my file a few times – and maybe once more just to be safe…