[IFComp 2015] Seeking Ataraxia

Seeking Ataraxia is a browser-based work by Glass Rat Media. (Despite the name sounding like a company, from the website I think the piece was created by just one person.)

Cover art for Seeking Ataraxia by Glass Rat Media

A simulation of what it’s like to live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, balancing life, relationships and neurosis on your quest toward peace.

It is a Twine-like format where the reader clicks on hyperlinks in the text to progress to the next page, sometimes choosing between several options. It is a short piece; I finished exploring it in about half an hour.

A review, with spoilers, behind the cut.

From the name alone, I had predicted that Seeking Ataraxia would be a science-fiction game, perhaps involving an interstellar voyage and settlers terraforming a far-off planet to be their new home. I was basically 100% wrong. Ataraxia is apparently a term from Greek philosophy, meaning “a lucid state of robust tranquility, characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry.” (Wikipedia) I still think this would be an awesome name for a planet. But I’m losing focus here.

What Seeking Ataraxia is, as the blurb above describes, is an interactive story designed to put the reader/player into the inner world of someone with OCD. The protagonist goes through a relatively normal weekend, with a to-do list of studying, cleaning, and other mundane experiences. Throughout, however, the character’s internal monologue shows someone struggling with these everyday things.

I really like the idea of games or other interactive works to help people experience what it’s like to live with anxiety or other mental issues. I think this is a medium that has the potential to get us into the heads of people who think differently than we do, and I think that understanding people who think differently than we do is incredibly important for being good humans in society.

There were some things about Seeking Ataraxia that did this very well. One of the best moments was using pop-ups to simulate the anxious, irrational thoughts that popped unwanted into the protagonist’s head, such as images of her roommate’s cat being found dead and decaying. It felt very much like times when I’ve been unable to stop worrying about something even when I know the worry is pointless. I wish the author had kept employing this. Perhaps they didn’t want to overdo it – but I think it would have continued to be effective.

The artwork on each page also fit the feeling well. High-contrast, saturated, and rather blurry images, seldom with any human figures, highlighted the feeling of isolation. Likewise, the layout of the page, with its white-on-black, made for a unified aesthetic that made the overall tone cohesive.

In some ways, though, Seeking Ataraxia doesn’t quite achieve all I think it could. This is partly due to the technical issues I encountered. The code doesn’t take prior actions into account properly. For example, if I cleaned the apartment before studying, until “the apartment has never looked so good”, I still was told that I couldn’t focus on studying because the mess was weighing on my mind. I could even clean the apartment again and again, in a never-ending loop, unless I chose to go study at the library instead. (This could have been done in an intentional way, which could have been really interesting, but from the text I’m 99.9% sure it’s just a bug. The character seems to be cleaning up from the same Friday night party day after day.) Along with that, the weekend contains a varying number of days. Not only could I produce a never-ending weekend by cleaning, sleeping, and repeating, I also wound up with a three-day weekend just by doing everything on my to-do list. It wouldn’t let me get to Monday until I spent a day “blowing everything off” although everything was actually done. Given that I encountered this bug by taking what seemed like the most straightforward path, I wonder if the author didn’t playtest sufficiently, or just ran out of time to correct these bugs.

The ending also felt a little abrupt to me. After deciding whether to go to my therapy appointment or not, I was given sort of a “And from then on…” essay. The contents of this summary varied depending on choices I had made earlier, but these multiple endings seem to hinge on such little things. If I didn’t call my friend Alice the one time I had the option to call someone, my friendship with her basically crumbled forever – and if I didn’t call Mark that same time, I never developed a relationship with him. After a game that mostly felt very realistic, it seemed not to fit that the decisions of one weekend determined the course of the rest of my life. I don’t feel like I really needed such a long view, a “happy-or-unhappy ever after” ending. I think I would have preferred an ending that just focused on how I felt then – maybe through a conversation with the therapist, mirroring the beginning of the game.

To sum up, then: This is a powerful idea with a few things getting in the way of it doing all it could. I hope the author continues to explore this type of project. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Seeking Ataraxia, and it left me with food for thought.

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