The best game about depression stars a homicidal toy bear

Whether it's because you can't afford to give the gifts that society says mark you as a good person, or because you're missing someone who used to be at your celebrations, or even just because it's cold and dark, depression can hit particularly hard during the holidays. One of the biggest problems with depression is trying to explain it to people who've only ever experienced the transitory kind that everyone faces at some point in their lives - the kind that hits after a breakup or a loss. They tend to think that depression means you're sad and just need a good cheering up. If you're suffering this holiday season, rather than suffer through another round of suggestions that you "shake it off," consider handing your well-intentioned friends a Vita and copies of Danganronpa:Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair and let Monokuma explain how depression really feels.

I'm as surprised as you are that a game starring a homicidal mechanical bear would be a good instructor on the nuances of mental health, and I rather doubt it's what the developers had in mind, but Danganronpa does a surprisingly elegant job of conveying what it can be like to live with depression. In case you're not familiar with the games, they involve a group of exceptional students who are kidnapped, have their memories erased, and are forced to kill each other if they ever want to return home. Admittedly, it's a situation that just about anyone would find depressing - murder someone or never see your loved ones ever again - but the most important part is the villain of the games, known as the Ultimate Despair. Every one of the students is the Ultimate Something-or-other - baseball player, programmer, swimmer, traditional dancer - but the villain's speciality is making people feel despair on such a deep level that they lose all hope. In that state, they become part of the Ultimate Despair's terrorist network because, really, why not? When you don't see the point in anything, does it really matter if you destroy entire cities or kill yourself? Nothing's ever going to get better anyway. It's an extreme depiction that serves the over-the-top nature of the game, but it's a pretty apt description of what it's like to live with depression.

More than anything else, depression feels like being empty, as though you're a ghost in your own life. Hopelessness - which, as Danganronpa explains, is what despair is all about - is a hallmark of depression. "Hopelessness" and "despair" are dramatic ways of saying you just don't really believe anything's going to change. The pointlessness of today will be repeated tomorrow, and the day after and the day after that, stretching on in a long series of headache gray days that you can't do anything about, so why bother trying? Depression is amazing at convincing you that you'll never be able to change anything, so it's best not to try. It even makes it sound appealing.

That's exactly what the Ultimate Despair does throughout Danganronpa. Although it seems to beggar belief, the Ultimate Despair manages to convince people, time and again, that there's simply no point in anything. Ultimate Despair doesn't lie, exactly, but rather twists half-truths so that they become to seem reasonable - even comfortable. The Ultimate Despair, like depression, knows how to work on a person's insecurities and fears and offer them a path of little resistance. All they have to do is give up and everything will become so much easier. Not better, of course. Just easier. Under normal circumstances, it's easy to see the holes in Despair's offer, but in the game, as time wears on and the situation becomes more bleak, emotional defenses wear down and Despair's points become more appealing. They become harder to argue with. Despair starts to win.

Living with depression is a similar struggle, and this is why handing your Vita to someone who thinks you just need to watch a funny movie might be worth trying. Sure, you're not going to join a cult and try to destroy the world (probably), but the parallels between the ways the Ultimate Despair and depression work are pretty on point, just the same. Danganronpa, with its malicious bear, bright colors and outrageous cast does a near-perfect job of conveying how depression works. Hope gets mentioned a lot in Danganronpa, and for those endeavoring to understand depression, it's the most important takeaway from playing. The best counter to Despair isn't a good belly laugh, but hope. The hope that someday, you won't feel like this. That one day, maybe not too far from today, you'll feel happy, or at least ok. Hope is what defends you against despair. The characters in the game gain hope from the support system that they create for each other, and that is what carries them through to defeat Despair. A video game about high school kids murdering each other is not the typical way to spark a conversation about how your loved ones can offer you support while you're grappling with depression, perhaps, but what matters is that the conversation gets started.

It's worth pointing out that both Danganronpas are worth playing even if depression doesn't touch you or anyone you know, and despite being about the battle between Despair and hope, they're not morose or downbeat. They're lots of fun, memorable, and their story, which runs over the course of both games, is very well told. But as a way to communicate about a very delicate, difficult to discuss subject, they're an unexpected, much welcomed ally.