The Deep Dark Cave of Game Development Depression (and How to Dig Yourself Out!)

The Deep Dark Cave of Game Development Depression (and How to Dig Yourself Out!)

Depression is one of those things that doesn’t really get talked about. But I’m going to talk about it. Because depression can destroy lives. It can mentally and physically destroy people. And worst of all, it can destroy dreams. I almost let it destroy mine.

Since I was little I always wanted to make games. It started with Halo, but after that I would get inspired by lots of other games. I always wanted to make myself, but no matter what I did it seemed like I couldn’t quite get there. This feeling of discouragement made me quit on my dream to actually make games, and it led to a life of me joining the business and marketing world.

I remember waking up one day, and I realized that years had gone by, and this thing I had always wanted to do, I wasn’t even trying to do anymore. The games that I always wanted to make were buried away years ago in old notebooks I hadn’t even touched. And my life became a constant blur of things I hated.

 

I slept until 4pm. Didn’t want to wake up and face the world.

Why should I? The world sucked. I didn’t want to be a part of that scary stupid place. My room was cold and dark, just the way I wanted it. Sunshine was the enemy. Even though I would wake up earlier I remember so many times intentionally trying to shut off my conscious brain and re-enter the dream I just came out of. I did not want my mind to start running again because it was a mean, pathetic piece of shit, and I wanted to keep it off for as long as possible.

 

When I would get up, I wouldn’t get dressed or take care of myself.

There was no point. I wasn’t going anywhere, I wasn’t doing anything. My personal health and hygiene didn’t matter because I didn’t matter. The dog was such a god damn inconvenience too because she forced me to walk her outside everyday and that was the last place I wanted to be. Yes, I grew to resent a helpless and innocent animal because she had to relieve herself. I’d have to be out in the open, and I wasn’t comfortable out in the open. It’s too wide of a space, I don’t have control, I can’t choose who I interact with.

 

I didn’t want to go near my computer. I would walk or stand around my house literally avoiding my computer.

I would sit in the living room or the kitchen, just avoiding my workspace like the plague. I would constantly go on my phone and browse Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, anything for that drop of dopamine or glint of happiness. My brain wanted the randomized slot machine rewards of a social media feed so bad that it would consume this content for hours. Hours wasted…but in my mind, it was hours escaped. Hours without the weight of my dark conscious mind buckling the rest of my system.

 

When I finally sat at my computer, I didn’t want to get to work.

I wanted my game to be finished but I didn’t want to finish my game. I would just click around and watch youtube videos or netflix. Same loop, different machine. Constantly looking for anything to brighten my day, just a tiny bit. Alone and isolated. I had a ton of work to do but I wasn’t going to do it. My game was not even that far from being finished, but fuck it. I was just going to make myself feel worse and pack on the guilt for avoiding it. I was such a piece of shit, why would actually get something productive done? Losers don’t get things done, and I was no exception.

 

I would bury myself in things that made me feel good.

My favorite movies, my favorite foods, my favorite places. Food especially happened to be my crutch. My family has a long history of mental illness as well as drug abuse, but for some reason drugs were never on the plate for me. They just weren’t part of my identity. I’d have to reformat my self image from a loser to a druggy, and that didn’t quite have a ring to it. But it wasn’t just meals…I would go to movies by myself 2 or 3 times a week. I didn’t want to go out at all, but if I was just going to sit in the kitchen for 3 hours and stare at my phone, every once in awhile I would figure that id get more enjoyment from the latest summer blockbuster. And I’d escape into the movie. That is 2 hours less that I’d have to deal with myself.

 

I always avoided people. I didn’t feel like a worthy person, I felt like a fraction of one.

Sometimes I literally couldn’t communicate. I couldn’t even look at someone’s face when they were talking to me. I’d have to drive, because taking uber rides or something required human interaction. I didn’t like going somewhere to get food because it required eye contact. Some days I literally felt inhuman. I felt so low on the totem pole that I wasn’t worthy to talk to another human being. I wouldn’t take showers for days at a time, wear the same old clothes for days. And that would only amplify the problem.

 

I didn’t call or contact friends because I felt like I was a burden to them.

They didn’t want to talk to me. If they did they would’ve called me. Friends called friends. Fuck them. Oh it’s my birthday? Fuck every single one of you for posting on my timeline once a year. You don’t care about me. If you did, you’d call. You’d ask me to go somewhere. You’d stop by. And there was no way you could be oblivious to my struggle, or be put off by my demeanor or my very clear and immediate shut down of any invitation. If you were my friend you’d know that I wanted to go, I just wanted you to really want me to go more.

 

I had a deep and overwhelming sadness.

The kind of sadness that doesn’t even feel natural. There’s no cause for it, there’s nothing I could pinpoint on why I felt that way, I just did. People would ask me what was wrong, and I would say “nothing” because I didn’t think anything was. I just thought that that’s how I was, and that this sadness and dark cloud that hung over my head was a part of me. I just assumed that I was broken. I assumed that I was different from other people. They could never understand, they didn’t get it.

 

But after feeling useless for so long, you reach a new low point. And it is no longer tolerable.

My ultimate low point was for me, being depressed, hating my life, disgusted at who I was, and having my business fall apart. Now not only did I not want to talk to people, but people that were supposed to pay me didn’t want to talk to me. I remember one time specifically, I had $4.17 in my bank account and I was so upset at life, so done with the bullshit that I literally wanted to step on my gas peddle and crash into oncoming traffic. But at that moment I remembered how expensive gas was and that I could not afford to jam on the pedal.

 

The point of no return is either the end, or a new beginning.

I let my credit cards go. I let my car get repossessed. I let my bank close my accounts for over draft. Fuck it. I couldn’t handle dealing with life. So I just let it deal with itself. And with no money I couldn’t even afford the things that made me happy any more. I couldn’t afford the food I loved, the movies that let me escaped. I couldn’t even afford to enter the week’s Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh tournament anymore. Oh yeah, and rent. I forgot about that.

But being uncomfortable has a funny effect on us humans.

It switches things up. It makes us adapt. It makes us want to go back to how things used to be when we got our dopamine fix. And I was there.

I had failed at everything I had ever tried to do. Even when I sold my company, that was not a high point for me, I was happy to get rid of it. I didn’t give a fuck about the money, I just wanted out, and to be left alone. But I was finally at the point where I truly believed that as bad as it was, it was about to get significantly worse.

 

So I chose a new beginning.

One day I broke down in the parking lot of Starbucks. I sat there, and I went over my life decisions. My life was shit, but I slowly started to realize that I was the reason for that. It was me who made the decision to make no decisions. It was me who ignored all of the clear signs of help from friends and family. It was me who clearly participated in every single negative event of my crumbling life.

I realized that life doesn’t happen *TO* you, it happens *BECAUSE OF* you.

I made the decision right there to get my shit together. And I did.

 

But the self-improvement montage is the hardest part.

As a movie fan I always loved watching the hero go through the self-improvement montage, or the success montage. The short and condensed version of history where you watch someone going to the gym, or talking to the girl, or watching the sales numbers rise all while listening to funny or empowering music. For a long time I wanted my life to be full of “montage moments”. But it took my deep depression to see why Hollywood makes montages in the first place. Montages exist because they include all the shitty, boring, grueling hard work, and they compress it down into a short period of time. If it was realistic, the entire movie would be boring as shit.

In real life, the montage takes FOR FUCKING EVER. And it’s that hardest thing you’ll ever do. You’ll fight it constantly. Your body will fight it. Your mind will fight it. But you have to fight back harder. You have to make the decision that you are on an important journey that no one can take away from you. You have to have that deep intrinsic purpose that only comes from combining the high and the low times together into an unstoppable determination.

And even that unstoppable determination gets questioned. You’ll have doubts. You’ll get scared you’re making the wrong decision. But you have to power through it.

 

Finally, I finished my first game.

It took 10 fucking years. But I did it. And it took me sitting down with 2 people with absolute determination to actually carry through. And man was that a hell of a lesson. Not only the fact at how helpful being social and friendly can be, but also what it feels like to achieve a milestone in your life. It makes you want to tackle the next one.

As seemingly small and insignificant as that seems, it was an insurmountable win for me. It was a marker that I could conquer things that I set out to do. I could actually finish things. I wasn’t a loser. I could do this. It sounds stupid, but for me, that was everything.

 

And I made friends with myself.

Turns out I’m not all that bad to be around. I’m a cool guy to hang out with. And a weird thing happened when my brain made that mental shift. I started to actually WANT to go out and create fun and exciting opportunities. I started to seek out things that would help me or make me better. I started to take care of myself, because I grew to truly love who I was.

My loneliness turned into solitude.

My fears turned into actionable tests.

My goals became action items.

And I stuck to it. I picked a set of goals, and I worked toward them. And because I grew to love myself, I would watch for the signs of my depression cropping up. Any time I felt it coming on, I would self-analyze and correct my course.

 

What I learned, and what you should do if you relate to this post.

I don’t know if anyone on this planet felt the way I did, but I’d bet there are a few of us. So if you’re feeling like anything I described here, I’m sorry. It sucks, I know it sucks. I’m sorry you’re going through that and I wish I could take your burden because I never want ANYONE to go through that again. But since I can’t just wave a magic wand and make you better, here are a few things I’d suggest:

  • Stop blaming. I know, it’s everyone else’s fault…but stop for a second and think. What if it wasn’t? What if you might have brought all this on? What if your friends don’t call you because you don’t call them? What if you have no energy because you make no energy? What if you’re broke because you didn’t work enough? I know when I was super depressed, the LAST THING I wanted to think about was more shit that was my fault, but trust me here. Just think about how much of your current situation you caused, and therefore, are in control of.
  • Take some time to sit in silence. My biggest problem in the midst of thy depression was avoiding myself. I spent so much time buried in social media or hiding from my conscious mind in dreams that I didn’t really get to spend some time with myself. I’m not suggesting that you have to go as far as meditation (But you should totally learn meditate), however the same principles of just sitting alone with your thoughts are very powerful. Try it.
  • Get up, take a shower, get dressed, and get out of the house, no matter what. I know this is starting to sound a bit like you’re in pre-school now, but I would not write this if I had not done this. Getting out of bed, taking a shower, brushing your teeth, and getting out of the house is extremely important for your mental well being, not just your health. If you can just get that far, you don’t have to do anything else the entire day. So just TRY, and do what you can to make it happen.
  • Hang around people. Preferably happy people. When you isolate yourself and you remove yourself from the world, you only make it worse. Even if you don’t have any friends, or even know anyone, go and be around people. Hang out at Starbucks, Panera Bread, or the park. Hell, maybe even volunteer at your local homeless shelter or something. Just be around people. And if you want extra credit, try to find happy people to be around. I mean you can’t be sad at the beach right??? Don’t compare yourself to these people (you should only compare yourself to yourself yesterday), just hang out and enjoy.
  • Think about the top 3 things that you could do RIGHT NOW to improve your situation. Whatever you think may be the cause, try and think of solutions. This is not easy, especially if your depression was caused by something like a breakup or a loss. Sometimes there isn’t a cause either, you are just depressed. But try and think of the things that will help. Also, take a look at who you are jealous of in life. They likely are doing the thing you want to do. And think of the people you hate, and why you hate them. What ever you hate about them is likely something you hate about yourself. If for some reason you can’t think of anything, try to think of a skill that you can always improve…like your fitness, or playing guitar, or programming, and use that.
  • Do thing #1 right now. I know, I know, you don’t feel like doing anything, you’d rather watch YouTube. It’s SUCH A BETTER IDEA to do it tomorrow, but STFU and do it today. Do it right now. DOn’t think about it, just do it. If you don’t care about yourself first, no one else will. Take the first step.

 

Conclusion

Depression never fully goes away. It’s like a dragon that you drove deep into the mountain, but one day a bunch of dwarves might just get a little greedy and wake him up again. When you struggle with depression, there is no one-time fix. You have to change your lifestyle. You have to hold yourself accountable and watch for the signs. You have to surround yourself with people that will love you without judging you, they will help you through the low times and cheer for you during the high times.

But despite how hard it is to get under control, it’s possible. Please don’t think you’re alone. You’re not. Even though it seems like NO OTHER HUMAN BEING ON THE PLANET could feel the way you do, trust me when I say that they do. It’s common to feel alone, but you’re not alone. If you’re feeling that way, tweet me and let me know. I’ll do what I can to help.

Until next week, keep your head up my friends!

Tim Ruswick

Tim Ruswick is the founder of Game Dev Underground and the author of the Game-Maker's Manifesto.

  • Have you ever struggled with depression? How did you overcome it?

  • Tim, I survived through all the journey you described too. Except maybe not washing my body for a few days. But other stuff – it all happened to me too. Sometimes it still happens. And it all started once I left office to work alone at home.

    I would say the core of depression is our laziness, maybe lonliness too Once you stop actually handling your problems, once you give up, depression will come. It will also make you think of everything you don’t do and those thought will make it even worse. Seems like we can’t just be like rocks, not moving not doing anything. We always have to progress and affect this world.

    Advises you described – all of them are helpful. Thanks for the honest article.

    • Thank you for sharing man.

      It’s weird having been a part of these epic highs, and then super deep lows…I think its all about capacity. And the less you do, the less you have capacity to do. So with depression for example, the second you give up and stop doing those things, they become harder to do, which makes you do less things and so on.

      I think loneliness is a BIG part of it. And I think the guilt of the fact that I though I was supposed to be an awesome achieving person, and I wasn’t really got to me. SO I suppose laziness was a part of it in that sense.

      I appreciate your comment dude 🙂

  • Nick Linney

    Yeah. Every single item in the list I lived. Not because of game design, but depression comes for many reasons. Your advice is applicable to my experience as well. I’m glad to be in the self-improvement montage right now. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • I don’t think any developer that’s been depressed was a direct result of game design. I think for me it was just one of the final things…or maybe it was just the thing I blamed. There was a ton more, there always is. That’s why depression is so hard to overcome.

      I’m glad you’re in the montage man! Stay there. Don’t quit.