Rarely, if ever, do we think about the mental state of the creator/s and how the design and building of a game impacted them. We take it for granted, perhaps, that their sole purpose in creation is to provide something that affects us.
As with all art, though, ask a creator about what’s behind their work and the answer rarely boils down to simply pleasing an audience.
“There are only three of us at [developer] Acid Wizards, and two of us suffer from what you could call night terrors, whereby we wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and have these hallucinations.” This is Gustaw Stachaszewski, one of the creators of horror game Darkwood.
“Sometimes I wake up and I see something on the wall; sometimes I just stare at it, sometimes I want to kill it. This can linger for a few minutes and eventually my girlfriend wakes me up and calms me down.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds as I rarely remember it... except for the times when I am paralysed and can’t move. That pretty much destroys the day for me.”
For Stachaszewski, fear is something that, through no choice of his own, he must accept as an uninvited and unpredictable companion. He is, however, finding inspiration in it. Rather than trying to suppress or eliminate these night terrors, Stachaszewski is attempting to understand them more intimately by engaging with them creatively.
“Fear is one of the oldest emotions, it lingers in our subconscious and can manifest itself in very different ways. Ignoring [your fears] for too long might really mess you up”, explains Stachaszewski. “I guess each person has a different way of coping with their fears. For me, it’s expressing myself by creating video games.”
“I think it’s a kind of self-treatment. I can’t by myself fully understand these things that I experience and by creating this game I, we actually, discover things about ourselves that we weren’t aware of.”
The design of Darkwood demonstrates how directly Stachaszweski has embraced his desire to understand his torments; it frequently blurs the line between real information and imagination.
“Not being able to distinguish reality from your mind’s creations is a big part of Darkwood and we wanted to evoke this feeling in the player”, says Stachaszewski. “Dreams play a major role, as sometimes they are hard to discern from ‘reality’ and may impact the ‘real’ game world in various ways.”
So, has recreating this troubling personal phenomenon had an effect on Gustaw? Is he able to more comfortably deal with the night terrors through this form of creative design as therapy?
“Yes, I think so,” says Stachaszweski. “At least, I don’t remember getting them for a long time now. I’m not sure if I understand them, although I know now that they are just a figment of my imagination. I think it’s empowering [to engage with them]. Instead of stressing out about it, I feel I can use these negative emotions to fuel creativity in a natural way.”