| Arts & Culture
Video Games My Mental Health Is Like Playing a Metroidvania Game—I Take It One Step at a Time
When the try-fail cycle gets to be too much, I know I can save my progress and walk away. I know I can always try again.
Something has awoken, a wrongness in the air. You’ve only just arrived in this new land; maybe this is how it always feels here? So why then do others go into the ruins under the world? Why don’t they come back? You don’t know why you think you’re the exception. You probably aren’t, if you’re being honest with yourself.
But there’s a mystery under the earth and it’s calling you. You don’t know the first place to go. You’ve nothing but your blade and a desperate curiosity. If you can learn enough, if you delve every corner of your tattered map, maybe you can unravel what it all means. Better still, once you have answers, the dark won’t be unknown—it will be comforting.
All that’s left is to embrace your uncertainty, your fear; your story can’t continue until you do, letting both burn within you like a coal. And the tools you need to handle the dark are down in the dark itself.
What choice is there but to go below?
It took me a long time to realize I had capital- A Anxiety. From a childhood filled with fear and bullying to a young adulthood of constant panic over whether I was liked enough, if I was doing enough, if I was enough. This made for an emotional cocktail of awkward nerves and acting out, of neon-bright sincerity and earnest attempts to please every living soul, my focus thin, my mind manic with worries and what-ifs.
I thought this was normal. I thought, This makes sense for a nervous kid. I ignored that second heartbeat becoming louder. It drowned out reason, logic, common sense, becoming a perpetual static in my head. It wasn’t until after an emotionally abusive relationship sent me into a tailspin year that I went to therapy and we pinpointed it: Anxiety.
Over time, I got a handle on it. Bit by bit, I excavated memories from the debris of trauma: what my lonely, fragile childhood did to my self-worth; how that lack of self-worth fit into my abuser’s behavior; why my brain shut down around conflict; and more. It took years—fragments of memory buried beneath layers of time, freed, cleaned and seen clearly for the first time in decades.
But then the pandemic happened and I began to tank. For months, my creativity suffered and my Anxiety deepened. I was barely reading, hardly writing; the days were filled with the crushing dread of the unknown. My Anxiety grew dramatically, spilling out years into the future, as everything came into question. I kept a brave face even as I was crumbling inside. I knew it couldn’t be contained, not like before.
As this was happening, I turned thirty and my fiancée got me a handheld Nintendo Switch as a gift. She said playing could be a good distraction from it all. What she gave me opened a door I hadn’t even known was there, let alone open.
From the moment Hollow Knight began, I knew there was something special about it. The melancholy atmosphere. The haunting and beautiful music. It has a bittersweet aesthetic, suffused with the soft white, gray, and lavender of decaying empire. And most intriguing of all? You, the player, are told essentially nothing. The Knight, a little bug with a broken blade, emerges into the light of a streetlamp and descends into the town of Dirtmouth. It’s empty, this town. The only soul there, the gentle Elderbug, warns you away. Do not go beneath the well in town, he says. Those who go beneath are lost forever.
What you find underneath Dirtmouth are warrens of greenery and dead empire, crystal mountains and carapace graveyards, dreaming scholars and cities of perpetual rain. Curiosity and exploration become determination and excavation, as battle by battle, tool by tool, the story of Hollow Knight makes it clear: You’ve entered in the middle of another’s story. After growing through combat and puzzle experience, backtracking and retracing your steps, and finding secrets both whimsical and dire, you know your place in this world. You know what needs to be done to finish your story. With its intricate world, layers of story and narrative, and emphasis on exploration and curiosity tempered by brutal puzzles and combat, Hollow Knight is the ideal Metroidvania.
Metroidvania is a genre of video games born from the DNA of the Metroid series and the Castlevania series (hence the portmanteau). Both are known for certain conventions: winding mazelike corridors, backtracking to old areas with new power-ups, dense stories revealed in bits and pieces. In Metroidvanias, stories often start in media res, with the player immediately shrouded in mystery. You begin with very little power to fix anything. These games ask players to do ostensibly simple things: put one foot in front of the other, gain tools to understand the situation, and find a way through the maze of the world.
My mental health journey often feels the same as these games. I started in a dangerous place with no map and no tools to overcome the challenges before me, and everything I thought I knew, I had to relearn. But as in Metroidvanias—and Hollow Knight , especially—each failure has been a chance to learn. Down every dark passage is a new part of the map brought to light.
My mental health journey often feels the same as these games. I started in a dangerous place with no map and no tools to overcome the challenges before me, and everything I thought I knew, I had to relearn.
A staple of the Metroidvania is that any boss you fight has patterns you must identify. In Hollow Knight , the lightning-fast Mantis Lords either appear from above or to the side, so when they do, get ready to dash. When the magic-bloated Soul Master divebombs, he’ll often fake you out, so don’t trust him. Hornet, the spider-protectress of long-dead Hallownest, shouts before leaping at you with her needle, so get the fuck out of the way.
When first meeting these bosses, they feel dangerous and overwhelming, masters of their domain. Mistakes are small but impactful: dashed too soon, didn’t dash enough, healed too late, wrong charm equipped, forgot to hit, blinked at the wrong moment. Again and again, your choices raise their body count.
But repetition bears education. There comes that magic moment where you see the attack pattern and go, Oh. The battles become more intuitive, your thumbs and mind get faster, the patterns scrimshaw onto muscle memory. The try-fail-try-again cycle of video games is often how I internalize therapy: It takes time and many attempts before a breakthrough, and even then, breakthroughs might be piecemeal. I figure out where a puzzle piece goes, but not yet the whole puzzle.
It didn’t take long for my therapist to unearth my Anxiety with me as we collaborated on my core mental health issues in those first few months. What did take a while was figuring out where it came from, what triggered it, and what I had conditioned myself to do when it happened. What were my patterns? And could I learn to handle them with the right training?
I’ve realized that managing Anxiety, or any mental illness, is fighting a boss battle for your entire life. Some days, you get smacked into the ground, powerless. Others, you only learn another half step of the pattern, taking that small win with you into the next day. What keeps me going is this: After nearly six years of actively managing my Anxiety, I know more than I ever have before. I know that it’s not always about winning, that some days, winning isn’t the point—that it’s being forgiving on the days I fall. It’s showing up the next day, ready to tangle.
The video game YouTuber Videogamedunkey talks about how he’s always had a hard time enjoying the game Metroid Fusion . Stuck in a room, with no way out and zero clue for what to do next, he says, “So what was I actually supposed to do? The answer was some cryptic ass bullshit.”
He explains how, to escape this room, a player must bomb a specific tile in a specific location to release a platform. The problem, he bemoans, is that there are no cues or hints that the tile is the answer, let alone that you must bomb it. He says, “Why in the name of a dog’s dick would anyone think to blow that up?”
It’s not uncommon in Metroidvanias for narrative beats to be hidden, out of reach until you’ve earned a certain tool. It’s a tried-and-true trope of the genre that backtracking, consulting your map, and exploring various nooks and crannies with more tools in your toolbelt results in the wider tapestry of the story being revealed.
My therapist and I agreed on that language early on: tools in your toolbelt . Every time I came to her with a new moment of spiked Anxiety, we tried to work backward: What’s the story being told, and why did your mind or body react that way? And if it happens again, let’s find a tool, a coping mechanism, to help you solve it.
Anxiety often makes me feel I’m no longer in charge of my own story. My mind says my fears are true, my body involuntarily flinching from certain sounds or volumes, backing against walls for safety, like a non-player character programmed to run away. But every time I work with my therapist on gaining a new tool, it helps me feel like a protagonist in my own life again. And when the narrative is firmly mine once more, I can use those tools to get back to safer spaces or even new ones.
It doesn’t always work, just like in Hollow Knight : The Mantis Claw can’t help you reach this space for a reason; the Crystal Dash here means you crash into a laser and fall. But experimentation is okay. It’s good to know which tool works for which situation. And to try and fail and try again? It’s healing and genre both.
The YouTuber Videogamedunkey is right. In life, there isn’t always going to be an obvious way out. I’ve been in those rooms, with walls too high to climb, no way to restart. It’s then I remember the tools I’ve gained because I took the time to backtrack through my life and understand how I got here. It takes a while. But having gained those tools, I can move forward in new ways, no longer trapped, but free.
It’s good to know which tool works for which situation. And to try and fail and try again? It’s healing and genre both.
Anxiety loves to lie. It loves to say that the worst will happen, that if something good occurs, it wasn’t for you, it wasn’t on purpose, it was a mistake. Anxiety will immobilize you while you’re walking in the middle of the street and act innocent when you get hit by a car. Anxiety makes you doubt what comes next.
Playing games like Hollow Knight and Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Metroid Dread and more have taught me this: There’s no wrong choice. You can go where you want, and you won’t be punished for it. You’re allowed to explore without pressure. In a Metroidvania, if you reach an area you can’t access yet, it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. You’re just not ready. You’ll be able to come back.
To me, there’s freedom in these games. Playing them quiets the anxious voice in my head. It’s why I’ve fallen in love with Metroidvanias: They not only resonate with my mental health journey; they mirror it. As I explore ruined insect empires and calamitous forests and ancient mining systems, I leave myself open to explore my own mind and my heart. In both spaces, I’m curious and gentle in how I excavate. In both spaces, I ask: What is the story being told, and how am I a part of it? And in both spaces, when the try-fail cycle gets to be too much, when I have handled all the darkness I can, I know I can save my progress and walk away. I know I can always try again.
I’ve replayed Hollow Knight four times now, and I love it more than ever. Because I’m still learning new things. I’m finding hidden passages or narrative connections scattered throughout. It makes my love of the game deeper. As I continue the work of understanding my own mental health and backtracking through the map of my life even as I move forward, I know that the love I have for myself will only grow deeper as well.