Playing Monomania: A protagonist in the throes of madness

For those who have been keeping track of my work will Sleep is Death (located here) will know that I’ve become greatly interested in using Rohrer’s game-cum-improv-simulator as a platform to create a quasi-faithful recreation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Since it’s inception the idea of producing an adaptation of the novel has changed relatively little, yet it’s scale seems to have outgrown the scope of Sleep is Death. Now, the project I am working on is a rapidly expanding experiment which hopes to focus on non-linear forms of story-telling within a game, not in a revolutionary approach, but in a way which builds upon already present ideas within mainstream gaming (dialogue trees, branching narrative etc), to produce a game which tells it’s story through a series narrative nodes which are interchangeable and interconnected in a myriad of different ways. For anyone who has had any experience in writing (whether it be for games or otherwise) will probably think me a little mad for taking on something which is going to require such a colossal amount of work. Yes, it may be a bit mad, however, I believe a project of this kind is a long way from impossible (at least technically any way).

Besides my aspirations with different ludo-narrative techniques I also have great interest in the process of adapting a canonical literary text into the medium of games. Generally speaking the instances of direct adaptation from text to game is relatively low to other visual medium such as TV or film. Having studied adaptations for a few years now I believe there are several logistical reasons as to why many adaptations have either not been attempted, or have been attempted but have been a significant failure. If we take a brief look at film-to-game adaptations which are becoming ever more prolific, it becomes clear that the elements needed for a compelling film are often completely different from a compelling game. Recent movie tie-ins (or adaptations) are often based on the more action-centric movie titles, ones which lend itself to action/adventure genres of game relatively easily. The issue here however is that major film studios believe that the licensed characters, settings and “talent” would be enough, sadly a lack of time and money for the those producing the game mean that nothing could really stop the finished project going down in the annals of failed film-game adaptation history.

Dante’s Inferno is the most recent, high-profile, attempt to adapt a canonical piece of literary fiction into a video game. Whilst I’ll choose not to pass judgement on the game here, I have to commend DICE from choosing perhaps one of the hardest texts to adapt into a game. It is clear that there is a considerable amount of strong imagery and ideas waiting to plucked from the text, something that’d work well in a game, but to produce something which was to be considered as a bona fide adaptation of Dante’s infamous work is very ambitious indeed. Anyone who has read Inferno will know that a vast proportion of the epic poem is hardly game-worthy, so the cries of “infidelity!” when the game was unveiled were hardly a surprise, the changes simply had to happen. This ties in nicely with my proposed project, I believe Crime and Punishment to be as un-gameworthy (if not more so), than Inferno, and I expect many of the same difficulties. Whilst I suggested the adaptation Dante’s work seemed difficult, it at least lent itself to the popular trend of producing hack and slash games based on some rich mythology, so as source material for this such title it basically sold itself.

Crime and Punishment on the other hand, well that doesn’t really stand out as an exemplar for adaptation to a game. It is my view, however, that there is enough of Crime and Punishment which can be adapted to suit the project I am trying to make, whether it is the complex relationships between the cast or the conflict between Raskolnikov and his own mental angst, there is a significant case for Crime and Punishment to be a compelling source text for an adaptation. For now however, I wish to look more closely at the mental state of the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, as it is one of the focal points for the novel (besides the political issues). It is remarked throughout the novel that Raskolnikov, is suffering from a condition known as monomania. This condition in short, is a fixation on one thing, one aspect, person, event etc which causes the sufferer to loose their ability for “normal” social interaction and potentially many other serious problems. Monomania bares a resemblance to Paranoia because of it’s tendency to make the sufferer believe that their reality is the real one, that others are wrong and are plotting against him/her.

“It would have been difficult to sink to a lower ebb of disorder, but to Raskolnikov in his present state of mind this was positively agreeable. He had got completely away from everyone, like a tortoise in its shell, and even the sight of a servant girl who had to wait upon him and looked sometimes into his room made him writhe with nervous irritation. He was in the condition that overtakes some monomaniacs entirely concentrated upon one thing. His landlady had for the last fortnight given up sending him in meals, and he had not yet thought of expostulating with her, though he went without his dinner.” (chapter 3)

The above quote is the first instance where it becomes entirely apparent as to the way in which Raskolnikov is suffering. Though, throughout the novel there are of course other signs of his mental angst, more of which that do not just point or allude towards monomania, there are also instances of hypochondria, hallucination and other, less obvious eccentricities. The exact definition of what is wrong is hardly the most important element here though, it is the sum of these issues which is what drives the story forward. It could almost be seen that Raskolnikov actually becomes the illness he is fighting with. It becomes apparent though, that if you are to become the protagonist who is meant to be suffering from a mental health illness having this represented purely through dialogue options does not seem sufficient to encourage the player to really engage in the angst this may case. The player really must have to wrestle with this as Raskolnikov does.

“He only wanted a sling on his arm or a bandage on his finger to complete the impression of a man with a painful abscess or a broken arm… But at the same time he marvelled at the power of controlling himself and hiding his feelings in a patient who the previous day had, like a monomaniac, fallen into a frenzy at the slightest word.”(chapter 17)

This quote characterises the challenge being faced when trying to reproduce the feeling or effects of mental health issues in an avatar. It is clear that a bandage or plaster cast would make it unmistakable that the avatar is suffering from some affliction or another. However, anything beyond the obvious becomes decidedly more difficult to show. Insanity is something gaming has tried to approximate on occasion, but this is on an overt basis, screams echoing around and asylum, the maniacal laughter of the criminally insane as they enact some horrific plan. Yet this tendency polarises the issue, it creates a clear cut divide which doesn’t exist. A simple statement “you are ill” or even “you have monomania” seems completely unable to capture the nuances of suffering from a mental health problem, it also fails to engage with the abilities of gaming as a medium. You could have a doctor describing the condition at length, but this would appear frightfully like needless exposition. In addition to this though, it is not an explanation that is not required or even being addressed here.

The question I’m facing now is, do I try and make a accurate portrayal of a specific illness through the ludic elements, or do a merely approximate an experience which the player would assume is akin to that of mental disorder?  It appears that Raskolnikov becomes monomaniacal after he publishes an article outlining his radical views on “ordinary” and “extraordinary” people. In short, this view is that there are two types of men in life, the ordinary who have to muddle along and live out their lives. The extraordinary, who (like Napoleon or Muhammad) do not have to follow something as petty as rules or law, they must not think twice before acting as their actions are those of “great men” and this absolves themselves of the consequences. Raskolnikov believes that he is one of the “great men” he hypotheses and then acts on it, killing the old money lender.

How do you play as a character who is suffering from monomania? This, sadly, is not an easy answer, the chance that it is a largely unanswerable question could perturb the whole undertaking altogether. The acknowledgement of this fact early on is no doubt a good thing, being content with merely making an approximation, or at least replicating the experience, rather than the illness itself is work enough. The task here is to integrate the symptoms of mental illness (in this instance monomania) into the game’s mechanics. You don’t just get talked at/to about your illness, but you play it. The exact method in which this will be achieved is not yet known, but I have already some ideas floating about. The key here though is to confuse the game’s reality with the player’s perceived reality. This confusion of realities is central to many mental health problems, and it’s implementation within a ludic environment can serve to produce a compelling gaming experience.

This is my theory at least.

Chr15 6r33n (Follow me on Twitter at chrisgreen87 and for Chronoludic updates click here)

[Note: It may not be best practise but I've cited the chapters in which the quotes have come from rather than the page numbers. This is due to the fact that I am using the online text of Crime and Punishment, which has greatly sped up my referencing on the whole. Anyone interesting in finding the quotes can copy sections of the above text and search it using the literature online searchable etext.]

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  1. Nancy manocherian
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    I do not play video games, in fact know nothing about them. I came across this “sleep is death” totally by coincidence….it so happens that C+P is probably my favorite book of all time. While your proposal is intriguing, it is also outrageously scary. There’s a fine line between here and there….some are not built to cross that line.

    • Posted September 3, 2010 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      I don’t plan to cross that line exactly, just come close to it, or simulate – what games do best.

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