A Simple Change To a Star Wars Video Game Helped Me Fight Depression

Illustration for article titled A Simple Change To a Star Wars Video Game Helped Me Fight Depression

I am a very flawed individual. I am physically flawed, sure, but mostly when I say I am flawed I am referring to my mental state. In the past 17 months, I have had frequent visits with both a psychiatrist and a therapist, and we have been taking aim at those flaws. We have made great strides, but there are things about me that are so innate that it's difficult to wish them away. As anybody who has struggled with severe depression for a long time can tell you, a pill can help, but it is not the ultimate solution. We must constantly reexamine ourselves in order to address our myriad flaws.


Among all my flaws, I have one that is bigger and more impactful than all the rest. It is fundamental to my being, and it informs so much of my life. To tell the story of this flaw, I want to refer to my experience playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, because that game recently laid this particular flaw in my character bare and forced me to face it directly.

In order to explain this, I must get into the gritty details of the game for a moment, because I know many of you don't play it. So please bear with me, as this will get a bit technical.

My main character in SWTOR is a Jedi Knight, with the Sentinel specialization. This was not my first character, but I consider it my main because it was my first Republic character that I leveled to 50, and my Republic guild is far more active than my Empire guild. Because of that, I do a lot more endgame content and am far more involved in the gear grind on that character than I am with my bounty hunter, my first 50.

Star Wars: The Old Republic recently laid this particular flaw in my character bare and forced me to face it directly

Each class in SWTOR has an energy source from which the characters draw in order to do most of their moves. When that energy source is depleted—or, as is the case with the bounty hunter, your heat limit is exceeded—you cannot do any more of your moves that require that energy. For the Jedi Knight, this energy is referred to as focus. You start out with zero focus, and you earn some when you do certain, low-powered moves.

There are two skill points I have earned that, before update 1.4, made me an efficient killer. The first is Focused Slash. This skill point makes it so that, when you earn all the tiers of the point, you will have one focus point refunded every time you use the three-focus move Slash. The second skill point is call Zephyrean Slash, and this point, when all tiers are purchased, makes it so that when you crit [perform a critical hit] on Slash, you have two focus points refunded. Thanks to the skill point Swift Slash and my decent critical rating, that means that 40 percent of the time, Slash is free and does over 2k damage. With those skill points, Slash, which has no cooldown, became the most frequently used move in my rotation, because it was so efficient to do so. There are other moves that do more damage but require at least three focus points, and so I opted for that efficiency.


And then you have the ability called Zen, unlocked by a long-winded combat process I won't bother to explain here, which made Slash free no matter what for six seconds while in the combat stance I used. Because the two skill points I mentioned above refund focus points when you use Slash you'll be rolling in focus after Zen wears off.

I'm sure some players reading this are scoffing at my over-reliance on Slash, but it worked well for me. In PvE, I was doing a lot of damage very quickly without needing to do much to build focus.


SWTOR Game Update 1.4, however, changed things. With this patch, Zen doesn't make Slash free, instead building two focus every half-second for three seconds, which pretty much worked out the same way it did previously; you end up with a lot of focus even if you're using moves that require focus during it.

But it was the change to Zephyrean Slash that really got to me. Instead of refunding two focus points with every Slash critical, it made it so that Slash and a couple other moves slightly reduce the cool down on the abilities Force Sweep and Zealous Leap. I viewed this change as a nerf, because it meant I would have to throw in a lot more focus-building moves into my combat rotation, messing with my efficiency.


I was pretty distressed about this. I had been playing this character and my Sith Marauder—the Imperial equivalent of the Sentinel—a certain way for a long time, and it had been going well. I had found a good way of progressing through the game, but Bioware had messed with my process.


Let me break here to talk about my life outside the game for a minute. As I indicated at the top of this column, I suffer from very severe depression, and I have been struggling with it for about half my life (I am 25 years old). I have suicidal thoughts regularly.


When adversity hits, I don't handle it well. Back in January I lost my job, and two weeks later I was trying to hang myself in my bathroom. The only reason I'm not dead right now is because I was too drunk to keep myself from sending an angry suicidal rant to my best friend in response to a text I got while I had a PSP power cable around my neck. I even manage to foil my own suicide attempts.

My primary reason for existing has been those parts of my entertainment that I enjoy the most, and nothing more.


So now you know what I mean when I said before that I am mentally flawed. When something changes, I get upset. When I perceive that change as a negative, I usually start to think about killing myself. That's the way my mind has trained itself to work over the last twelve years. Sure, I'm getting treatment these days for my mental illness, but it's not easy to undo that kind of mental conditioning.

The big thing that had been holding me back is that I just don't treasure my own life, which is why for most of my adult life I didn't buckle my seat belt when I drove. I have said things in the past like, "I don't want to die because I'd like to see how Battlestar Galactica ends." I said something similar about Mass Effect, and I repeat that sort-of joke about college football every summer. My primary reason for existing has been those parts of my entertainment that I enjoy the most, and nothing more.


When Bioware made those changes to SWTOR, I didn't think about committing suicide. But I did consider not playing the game anymore. That was a shocking twist for me, because I love SWTOR. I have spent more time playing this game than any other in my life. But Bioware had betrayed me, I thought. My groove was no longer valid, and considering that the Knight and the Sith Warrior have the best stories, lore-wise, in the game, I felt like if I had to give them up it might be too painful to continue playing other toons.

After about an hour of that thought rolling around in my head, I realized just how ridiculous that was. All I had to do to continue enjoying these characters would be to change my combat rotation. Force Sweep and Zealous Leap and Blade Storm are great, very useful moves, and I had been neglecting them due to efficiency concerns. Now that my efficient rotation was no longer valid, I could add them back into the rotation, and things would be fine.


I'm sure this seems totally obvious to most of you reading this, but it was a revelation to me. In my life, I seek sameness and comfortable things. Once I figure out how to do something, I don't want that process to change. I crave stability.

In my life, I seek sameness and comfortable things. Once I figure out how to do something, I don't want that process to change. I crave stability...I was slowly coming around and figuring this out.


This change to SWTOR forced me to face that flaw in my character head on. Sure, learning to deal with adversity is the key point in my therapy sessions, but that was theory. In reality, I was slowly coming around and figuring this out, but I hadn't yet been able to promptly deal with what I thought were the bad things that happened to me. When facing an issue like this in the real world, I would fall into depression and not come out until the bad feelings faded, rather than directly addressing those feelings. I was avoiding these issues.

This update put my problem in very stark terms that I can easily comprehend. I could give up on these characters that I enjoy, or I could adjust to this change. Since this was a problem that put my entertainment—entertainment that is particularly important to me—in jeopardy, I had to take it very seriously. Once I made my decision to continue playing while making changes, the real-world parallels became clear.


I have spent a lot of time over the past ten years self-analyzing, but we all have blind spots. Because I hate change so much I had been missing this one the whole time, even while mental health professionals were gently directing my gaze toward it. But, for me, it took my entertainment to make me see what was probably readily apparent to those around me.

That's a blind spot eliminated, thanks to SWTOR. Now you can't ever say that video games never did any good.


Phil Owen is a freelance entertainment journalist whose work you might have seen at IGN, GameFront, Appolicious and many, many other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @philrowen.



Depression. Who needs it. I say, if you're upset and sad then own it. You be the best upset and sad person you can be. No need to feel bad or that something is wrong with you because you want to sleep all day. Life sucks and if that's how you feel, then that is how you feel. Recognize it's not going to last forever and that eventually things will get worse and that this is how things will get better. Life is all about frame of reference. If you have no money and no food you're not going to worry about your mental health. You'll figure out a way to survive and when you do you'll say, "Jesus, at least I'm not poor and starving anymore!"