“More Than Just a Pretty Face” – Cosplayer Profile: Anniechie Designs

20170913_110023_HDRMy never ending journey to fully, or even marginally, fathom the exact nature of mental health issues leads me through many retrospectives. There is, after all, no shortage of things to ponder: what specific events lead me to this point? Why does it seem that chronic anxiety tends to affect particular demographics more visibly than others? Of the frequent thoughts I have, are they unique to my own mind or do others experience similar?

Sufficed to say, many of these questions are some that I certainly cannot answer just by puzzling it out on my own. Cue sudden idea: I’ll talk to someone else about it. Truly, I am a genius of untold proportions, eh?

But, more-over, I had this particular thought while breezing through my Facebook feed, as one is prone to doing when they’ve nothing better going on (or whatever social media app it is people use these days; I can’t be bothered to keep up with the changes). This is when I scrolled over another of the plentiful photos of cosplayers I follow online. In particular, an otherwise anonymous figure by name of Annie.

Now, for those who don’t know who Anniechie is (to specify, pronounced Annie-ch-ee; you’d not believe how much time I spent figuring that out before I just came out and asked her), she’s an Ontario-based cosplayer who predominantly focuses on video game characters for her creations, even more specifically from the Legend of Zelda universe. I’ve been following her work for some odd two years now, I think, and only have communication with her because she made the mistake of commenting on one of my sister’s old vlogs she made.

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Lissa photo courtesy of Soulfood Photography

For starters, most of us are accustomed to a certain degree of professional distance that online personas don when interacting with their fans. I can’t blame them either: these are people who we don’t know and their motives can be suspect at best of times (for further proof, just search online for stories of web-based harassment for those in the cosplay community from anonymous/near-anonymous fans). But, Annie isn’t quite like that.

No, she possesses a very small-community mindset when talking with her fan base (because I find it impossible to believe that I’m the only one she talks to like this). We’d communicated once or twice, at the very least, to coordinate marking her social media link to the aforementioned vlog to give credit where credit is due. Not only was she very polite, but she seemed uncannily cheerful as well.

Getting back a few paragraphs now, I got wondering about my present conundrum about those who suffer anxiety and what their experiences are like. Sure enough, there’s one of Anniechie’s photos and I thought, “I wonder…”

I reached out and she responded. Indeed, she does suffer from some nasty anxiety issues, and furthermore, was more than happy to share some of her experiences with as many people as possible: “I am really happy it’s a topic that more people are covering since the more it is talked about, the more people will be able to face their anxiety or depression problems since they may not be as scared too.” It also takes a great deal of strength and emotional fortitude to come forward about these issues, especially for those who are in the world of cosplay.

Think on it this way: many people turn to their idols for strength, compassion, or escapism from their issues. It can severely tarnish a fan’s faith in those they look up to if you find out that they, too, suffer from similar issues. However, the converse may be true as well; in an online world where simply smiling and looking perfect is what people flock to the most, opening up yourself to that potential judgement can be daunting.

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Symphony and Silk Cosplay LITERALLY lifting me up” -Anniechie

As you might have guessed with Annie, this isn’t the case. A Master-level cosplayer who not only shares her photos about her various projects, but she’s also earnest and open about her anxiety issues. It’s something that’s been a part of her life for quite a long time now, earliest recollections going back to the “sweet sixteen” part of adolescence. Most curiously, however, Annie (not sure if she’d be okay with my just calling her Ann… or An… or A…), it took her some time to realize what, exactly, it was she was experiencing.

It’s about that time when, for most teenagers in North America, you’re in high school. Certainly, there is a great deal to be anxious about: classes, futures, social life, work life, talking to that cutie you’ve had a crush on since forever, etc. And Annie thought this was very much the case for her: just a normal experience for a high schooler to be going through. And besides, other people have it far worse, so just suck it up, right?

For about a year, this was her mentality: I don’t have it that bad, so I shouldn’t feel this way. In hindsight, she’s thankful that she finally came forward and sought help, where she was diagnosed with chronic anxiety and started to receive proper treatment for it.

Now, every professional who’s worth the degree on their wall will tell you that simply medication alone will not solve the problem. It’s also about lifestyle: finding means to combat those nervous landslides that envelope their unfortunate victim. Surprisingly to me, but perhaps not to others: cosplay itself was a great source of strength for Annie.

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“Myself as Esmeralda with Tsuki No Star Dust and Mae-Gwyn at a local cosplay meet up” – Anniechie

I mean, I was (and to a lesser extent, am still) very impressed to hear that not only her personal cosplay page, but the community by large is the source of a great deal of positivity in her life. After all, we’ve all heard the horror stories of cosplayers, especially those of the female variety, who are harassed by people with poor senses of boundaries, or the petty fights over misunderstandings that can result in some very bad publicity for the community on the whole.

Think the Logan/Jack Paul YouTube debacle, but for a community that already gets a bad enough rap as is. Lookin’ at you, Heroes of Cosplay: you were bad and you should feel bad!

“Oh those types of horror stories have occurred to me, just not on the same level as other cosplayers or even some of my friends,” she confessed “I’ve never had a situation where it got dangerous, it’s always just been annoying things online, never a situation in person as far as I can remember. Some online apparently associate female cosplayers with the wrong idea- as you and I both know, cosplayer does not equal “nerdy prostitute” as some may think it does.”

“If anything my cosplaying has a VERY positive impact on my anxiety problems. Sewing, crafting, and usually most things that keep my hands busy help me to calm down, and creating things really helps me keep my mind off of small things that could eventually develop into anxiety. The most positive thing about cosplay though is the confidence it gives me.”

And when you really think about it, it makes a great deal of sense: I’m not a cosplayer myself, but I can certainly imagine how amazing it’d feel to put hours and hours and hours and hours and then a few more hours into a project, assemble it, then just enjoy yourself while in costume. I’ve been to nerd conventions, I know how a well made cosplay can make me excited just as the person looking at it. It shows a sense of community that’s hard to create outside of the cosplay world itself.

Even if the cosplay isn’t Hollywood level, even seeing someone put something together from a game/show/book you love hits a special little place that says “WHAT? YOU LOVE THAT THING?! I ALSO LOVE THAT THING! THAT’S AMAZING!”

Capitals represented appropriately.

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Mae-Gwyn Cosplay giving me a surprise hug while I’m dressed as Tetra, photo by Jason Setnyk Photography” -Anniechie

When it comes to the specifics of what Annie chooses to cosplay, I made an observation that turned out to be quite accurate. Amongst her repertoire of various characters (all of which you should go check out and appreciate as soon as you’re done here) are characters like Zelda, Merida, Lissa, and Sakura. Those familiar with those characters and where they’re from: congratulations, you may stay. All these characters are powerfully minded, confident in their goals, and much more than just another pretty face. It’s facts like that that draws Annie to her particular creations, “A character’s personality can make or break my decision to cosplay as them, so I won’t usually just cosplay something solely because it’s pretty. I would consider myself a bit of a feminist so a strong female character can really stand out to me. I really just have a strong admiration for strong female characters as when I was younger and felt quite weak mentally they had something I wished I had- confidence.”

“And you’d be surprised how confident one can feel dressed as these characters, it’s actually pretty awesome.”

And isn’t that the point of our idols? To represent that which we aspire to be and want to see more of in ourselves? Speaking as someone who also lack confidence in himself, Annie’s work and her ability to bring these characters to life is astounding and fills me with a sense of awe that’s hard to express in words properly. What I see standing there is someone who is bursting with a degree of confidence that I wish I possessed.

Perhaps that’s the biggest take-away from all this? Annie’s various works all look like they’re of someone who is un-phased in the face of adversary, of one who knows precisely what they want and how to obtain it, and never second-guesses their ideals. Beneath that, however, is someone very human, very real. Annie, not unlike countless others all around the world, battles her own internal war against anxiety. She was fortunate: family and friends who support her during her bad times, the ability to receive help and treatment to make her mental health livable, and an outlet that gives her the support and positivity to keep doing what she loves most.

Based on what she’s said to me in the past, she’ll be finishing her post-secondary program and venturing into the world of design to bring her unique values and views to a larger audience. To reflect this, her Facebook page was renamed Anniechie Designs, and I for one very much look forward to what sort of world she helps to create.

Before we go, though, I’d like to offer one last story she shared with me. It speaks volumes to those who are debating getting into the world of cosplay and have their own self-doubts. I’ve not yet the pleasure to see Annie performing on the Cosplay Contest stage myself, but based on the video clips I’ve encountered, she seems completely comfortable and at home before an audience.

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“Myself as Zelda and several friends of mine all being goofs at a masquerade award ceremony” -Anniechie

Spoiler alert: this was not always the case: “I entered my first masquerade when I was nearly 17 years old, basically at the peak of my anxiety problems. At this time I would cry and become a mental little mess with just the idea of doing skits in front of my small class of 20; yet I decided to enter a masquerade because I wanted to push myself and I had always dreamed of entering one since I was a kid. And, even though I was a shaky nervous mess backstage during the green room and judging periods, I ended up enjoying myself a LOT! Once I got on stage I just felt so wonderful and enjoyed myself so much. Even today it’s the same. Entering masquerades and performing on stage is almost like a confidence boost or a type of “high” for me, I’m rather addicted to it because I enjoy the atmosphere of performing, hanging out backstage and meeting a bunch of new people and the like.”

“So yes, cosplay has helped me tremendously, and a good part of that is because masquerades push me hard to improve myself in more ways than just improving my costumes”

 

Check out Annie’s Various pages to give her your support:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AnniechieDesigns/
Website/Weebly Site: https://anniechie.weebly.com/
Instagram: @anniechiedesigns
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Bring Her (a Step) Back

20170807_004837There’s been this game running amok in the world of indie games and social media for maybe a few weeks now, something of a different string of game experience. Under clever facades and brilliant writing, the collective internet has been exposed to the next big online gaming mystery that people are itching to solve, piece together, and revel/cower in the presence of. I’m sure the title has popped up on your radar once or twice by now, but it bears discussion for many reasons. Several blogs and online articles do a great job of peeling back the layers as to why it’s been so fascinating an experience, and reviews on Steam race it Overwhelmingly Positive, always a good sign.

Indeedly so, this game rapidly breaking into the realm of infamy goes by the innocuous title of Doki Doki Literature Club. A slow-burn psychological horror that plays on a few uncomfortable meta-tropes and mechanics that, as gamers, most are at least superficially aware of, if not intimately familiar with. But before I delve too far into the subject matter I wish to discuss, I need to preface it with a few disclaimers:

  • I’m writing this with the assumption that the reader knows about the game and its major plot points
  • I’m writing this with the understanding that the material I discuss is difficult for people who are mentally debilitated might have a hard time coping with or reconciling
  • This article is much like the tag-line of the game reads: “This is not for young audiences or those who are easily disturbed

If you’re still reading this, then I’m taking it as implied consent. As mentioned, this game serves predominantly nerve and willpower testing ride. While there is a great deal of “choice of illusion”, the fact always remains that you, the player, are ultimately powerless in the face of the developments for the story. And, frankly, this might be the single greatest tool to educating people about how mental illness and, by extension, how powerless those afflicted with depression can feel.

Doki Doki Title CardThere’s this overwhelming issue with trying to sympathize with a character who has depression in video games: by the very nature of the game, the player is always saddled with options for how to approach and overcome a challenge. This also reflects in the choices a developer of the game chooses to build their options and choice-pathways for players to navigate. You can really get a sense from how the developer feels about depression and, in many cases, suicide, by how they choose to allow the player to contend with it.

In many cases, there are hopeful (bordering on idealistically optimistic) about how you can overcome depression with some pluck, determination and stalwart friends. If it sounds like I’m describing many other methods of overcoming challenges, say dragon slaying for example, that’s because the similarities are certainly there. While these aforementioned traits most assuredly help, they’re often not enough; anyone diagnosed with clinical depression (hello) can tell you that this isn’t enough.

Some developers take a slightly more bleak on the subject: depression and suicidal tendencies only end in one conclusive event; where there remains nothing left for those after the tragedy other than to simply move on. Suicide is inevitable, and everyone left behind will just have to live with that. This mentality plays out as a sort of guilt-trip for people who contemplate these thoughts: how dare you do something so selfish to people like that?! Don’t you know they care about you? Again, talk to some people who have contemplated, or even attempted, suicide and they’ll tell you about how little they care about what other people think. And if they do care, guild it the last thing that’ll help in that situation.

Rarely do we see cases where we, as the player, have to rationalize and contend with that logic: games try to put you in the shoes of the person experiencing the problem, and by that very nature, removes some of the problem with depression by giving the player choice. How do you choose to react to this? What options will you pick?

chibi_by_satchely-dbo7yijIn DDLC, we’re given something different. Enter Sayori, your spunky life-long friend who’s always been there for you, even if she’s really tardy and hungry. Of course, it’s revealed late into the first arc that Sayori has depression, and not the kind of “gee, life is kinda hard, isn’t it?” sort that we commonly throw around as slang. Rather, a crippling and self-depreciating depression that permeates every ounce of her action and behaviour.

I played through the first arc a day ago, but was already familiar with how it was supposed to end. I’d seen people try to give Sayori the affection they believed was needed to bring her back from the brink (didn’t work), I’ve seen people try their hardest to distance themselves from the issue hoping to spare themselves the pain of her death (didn’t work), and I myself tried to do what she asked of us by making good friends with another of the girls and being happy for her (didn’t work).

Ultimately, it always ends the same and robs players of the chance to do anything about it. Knowing what’s going on and having fairly extensive experience with the subject matter myself, I could read between most of her lines and deduce what was transpiring from the very beginning. As Sayori admits: the depression was always there. And for the (rapidly completed) two hours you get to know her through dialogue and gameplay, you unwittingly grow fond of the bouncy creature you call friend.

In the end, however, Sayori’s death by hanging was forever bound to happen. And, because of another clever programming trick: it doesn’t matter if you saved before to try something else, the game will not let you go back. No mulliganning here, pal! Though there are some misconceptions on this topic: it was not your actions that lead to Sayori killing herself, and neither was it her’s (or Monika’s, either).

Sayori HangingIn actuality, there is no logic to this choice. This can be a maddening fact for most people to comprehend; we like to believe humans are inherently logical creatures, and that we do things because A + B = C. Instead, in this case, it feels like every answer leads to C, regardless. When that power is ripped from the player’s hands, you suddenly start to get an surface level understanding of the powerlessness of a depressed person against their own brain.

Time and time again, Sayori is shown to be a pivotal and crucial member of the Literature Club. Her enthusiasm brings all three girls to cooperate and disarm fights, her understanding lets everyone find common ground, and it is absolutely her that brings you, player, into the realm. When she misses a meeting, you can begin to see the wheels falling off the tracks as some of that gentle compassion is lacking.

In actuality, the gentle compassion is only because of Sayori contending with her own demons and doing what little she can to bring a measure of value to herself. In her confession to you outside your house after Yuri/Natsuki leaves, she virtually shatters as she explains how worthless and terrible she is. Sayori isn’t, however, blind to the good she does: it’s more that she doesn’t care. The pain and misery far outweigh the good: as it has always been and always will be.

Never before have I seen something so poignant and accurately explained about a sensation that I myself contend with on a daily basis, but cannot seem to express in a way that others who don’t live with similar can understand.

And in that cataclysmic finale to Sayori’s existence, she finally decides to take her life into her own hands. It’s not that she chooses to kill herself, but rather she chooses to alleviate a burden from everyone’s mind. Deep within the core of who she is, she readily believes that everyone around her would benefit from her not being part of the picture.

Of course, as a player whose seen otherwise, nothing could be further from the truth. But this raises the question: what, exactly, IS truth? Truth is information that we as a large demographic agree upon and accept. To do that, we rationalize information we are given and, should it fall under particular quantifiers and qualifiers, we deem it as acceptably factual and, therefore, give meaning to truth.

Did that sound a little abstract? Because it is. Truth, by its very nature, is a construct of the mind. A mind that is mouldable and shaped by experience; experience that is controlled by what our own minds process and fathom. And if your mind is convinced that your very being is a burden upon others, and the only means you find value in yourself is in how you can make other people’s lives better…

The danger comes when that illogic becomes too logical, and the logical becomes irrelevant.

If this whole thing makes you feel a little hollow, without confidence in an arguments ability to change anything, you’re on the right track to understanding how deeply disturbing it can be for someone to live with constant knowledge that their brain is out to get them. Cause by trauma, genetics or chemical imbalance, it is a pervasive and invading aspect of life that can’t simply be willed away.

Yuri CuttingI’d like very much to explore some of the other elements that this game brings light to in regards to mental health and those who live with it, but this blog has already gotten quite long as it. I shall wrap my thoughts here for the time being, with intention of exploring other avenues of this game’s narrative mechanics in understanding mental health.

If you’re reading this and feel like you know someone out there who might be going through similar to Sayori: there are one hundred ways to help. Each person is different and each circumstance impossibly unique. As of presently: learning how to comprehend, even if only on a surface level, is a starting point.

Masterful, Merciless, Madness

Darkest Dungeon

Red Hook Studios/ Horror, RPG, Strategy

20170716_212924I’ve had a long standing relationship with the darkness and with hopelessness. Quite likely stemming from a very intimate history with depression; how riveting it can be to peel back the layers of the shadows and to peek into the fragile minds that dare to delve within it. When you realize that the people behind great deeds are, in fact, human and prone to the same weaknesses we all are, it reduces an idol to a breathing soul.

It’s perhaps one of the things that’s always irked me most about fantasy stories and adventures: how inhuman all the main characters are. In human in the sense that, despite overwhelming and impossible odds, or great horrors, their minds remain unblemished after the battle ends. Sure, they’ll be distraught by loss or over joyed with victory, but these are fleeting emotions before they just kind of… move on.

This is why games that have mechanics to really reflect the fragility of the human mind are something I strongly value in many game genres. And while I certainly don’t, for a moment, think that every game needs to have such mechanics: the ones that do are a very welcome change of pace. As such, Darkest Dungeon has become something of an obsession of mine in the recent weeks.

DarkestDungeon_Metadata_BackgroundPDP_1That’s a slight lie on my part: I was infatuated with the game when I first discovered it last year late, late into the summer. I poured many hours into it before I was dealt a series of devastating losses that I , personally, was having a hard time recovering from. More on that later.

Let’s start from the beginning of things here: in the game, you play as the ancestor of a once great and powerful family. Of course, as your ancestor (know in game only as The Ancestor) grew bored of more conventional diversions, he began to dabble in the forbidden and the insane. This dips very heavily into H.P. Lovecraft‘s works as the Ancestor discovers ruins and gateways beneath the family manor.

And anyone familiar with Lovecraft knows that, when you find a door guarded by squid-faced statues, the correct answer is always, ALWAYS nope right out of there. Breaching the gateway, of course, releases unspeakable and unfathomable horrors into the mansion, and a creeping doom begins to infect the lands surrounding.

It is your job, dear player, to play clean-up. Tainted monsters, blood-thirsty brigands and all manner of eldritch horrors need killing. But since you are by no means a fighter yourself, your only option is to hire others to do the cleaning for you. That way, when the terrible realities of what it is they’re seeing start to sink in, you’re no worse for wear. Kinda.

I’m going to by-pass a lot of the mechanics of the game in favour of getting to the real meat of my interests with this game. And in all honesty, if understanding the mechanics in more depth is your thing, you can find 1000 and 1 reviews out there that’ll pull them apart. No, my interests lie in the unique stories each and every of these characters you’ll hire tell. And, most fascinatingly, how the game encourages you to either be a caring or apathetic commander.

Let’s take this one step at a time, shall we. Starting with point one: these strangely unique characters who’ll wander their way into your town, looking for gold and glory. Or perhaps redemption. Aside from the first four characters you get when you start the game, each character is randomly generated every time you return to town from an expedition. And while the base stats of each class are very uniform and all the faces look the same, what’s more interesting is the random quirks that each character begins with.

chesterThese quirks come in two flavours, good and bad. And with a little bit of imagination, you can conjure up all sorts of fascinating potential backstories for each of these new arrivals. Of course, this requires a degree of acknowledging the cannon lore for each class, as according to the official IG write-ups: each class represents one specific person. For example, the highwayman’s name is Dismas, and upon game completion, you can unlock a comic strip that tells a little of his specific backstory.

This begins to fall apart a little when you consider how many Dismas’ are running amok at any given time. Not too long ago, I had 3 highwaymen in my roster, one of which was named Dismas, and the other two were very nearly clones aside from their scarf colours (in the couple of expeditions that followed, pretty well all of them died horrible deaths. #adventurerlifegoals ). Upon inspection of each character, their personalities were quite different, and because of how I was trying to save some IG money by not unlocking each and every one of their skills, they all had a slightly different way of fighting and working with a team.

I got to know each of these characters rather well. In one case, a highwayman (I’mma keep using these guys as an example for reasons well beyond my own comprehension) names Meri arrived in town. About as low level as they come, he seemed to be more skilled in swordplay than in the use of his gun. What was interesting, though, was that his positive trait was Weald Scrounger, meaning he was more comfortable in the woods and better at scouting ahead there. But his negative quirk was Witness. At some point in his life, he had seen something unsettling happen in a place of worship, and as a result, refuses to go back inside.

darkest-dungeon-review-crop-a_480.0Like I said, a little imagination and you can start to piece together Meri’s backstory. Off top of my head, I can picture a young lad who was training to be a knight in the service of God. Perhaps it was a scandal from the local abbot, but he saw something in his youth that caused him to turn his back on the church. He was a skilled swordsman already, so carving a life for himself out in the woods as a brigand would be no major difficulty. With rumours persisting of a wealthy family hiring explorers to delve into dangerous ruins and the like for good coin, Meri signed on to the nearest caravan and found his way to the Hamlet.

Kind of hits the realm of fan-fiction in many regards, but a good piece of fan-fiction can serve as the basis for great writing material.

Each and every of these characters seem so interesting in their own way, which made leading them further and further down into despair and danger all the more harder. This ties in that second point I mentioned previously quite nicely, and also relates to that point on a crippling defeat I had brought up some ten paragraphs ago. As you begin to get to know these characters, invest a lot of time and effort into raising and improving them, their deaths become all the harder to burden.

Perma-death mechanics are a fickle mistress in gaming. You either love or loathe them. In this case, I view it as a necessary part of the experience. Because I do feel sad when I lose an adventurer I had grown fond of. Sure, I don’t know them on a personal level, and I didn’t watch any cut-scenes featuring exposition or points from the Writer’s Guide to Making Audiences Love Your Character nonsense. No. Instead, I watch these brave, sometimes desperate souls, fight impossible odds or losing battles against mind-breakingly strong adversaries.

So when I would watch, of that party of four who left confident and full of vigor come back as only one or two, horribly broken both physically and mentally, it can be very draining for me. As I’ve learned, I’m not the sort of leader who can just throw bodies into a meat-grinder if it meets a goal. I want to see as many of those heroes return after the battle and celebrate victory with me.

The last time I had played extensively was November of the past year. I don’t remember all the details specifically, but I had suffered a string of terrible losses that forced me to surrender to the demons, as it were. Many of my best and favourite adventures had died one after the other, my coffers had become so light the only option was to send out more parties with bare minimum equipment and pray for the best. Of course, these expeditions would end in disaster, if it were the best case scenario anyway.

After a couple of IG months of this, I turned back and surrendered the Hamlet to the creeping demonic influence that was laying claim to the land. I lacked the emotional fortitude to keep going and I surrendered.

There’s something very visceral and powerful about experiencing that in a game. Not because it was a scripted loss where the game was stacked against me (though, with the nature of RNG dungeons, that very well may be the case sometimes), but because of the circumstances, I found my breaking point. And the best thing about it is, aside from time invested, I didn’t actually lose anything for the experience. No one actually got hurt of worse, and I personally grew from the experience.

Now I’m back delving into the Darkest of Dungeons (with a new file, obviously) and applying the lessons I learned from my previous incarnation to wage war against the Eldar Ones. And these lessons are also useful outside of this game.

I know now that, in the heat of the moment I will make a choice to sacrifice everything to obtain my goal but will very much regret it later on. I also know that the individuals are important to me, and that the ends don’t justify the means. Care and caution are paramount, and I can’t ignore that about myself.

This didn’t fall under the category of your typical review. I didn’t assign it an arbitrary number, I didn’t discuss extensively the graphics or even the team that made it. I needed to review my own process and thoughts with this experience and how it has shaped me today. Because that’s what games and experiences do: they shape us.

Even if, to do so, they expose us to horrors our rational minds could never fathom.