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Lydia developer's quest to make a 'feel bad' game about substance abuse

"If we can make a difference for even one child's life, what could be better?"

On the surface, Lydia is a hand-drawn dark fantasy game about a little girl exploring a fantasy world she can access through her closet. But beneath this premise lies something all too real.

Developer Platonic Partnership has openly described how the game is an allegory to substance abuse; it's the tale of a child growing up with alcoholic parents, the impact it has on her, and the way that manifests through her eyes as a battle for survival against a monster.

More harrowing is that it's based on the real-life childhood experiences of the developers themselves.

The four-person team initially came together to make large-scale adventure games, but as they concentrated on a smaller project to avoid overstretching themselves, the goal became quite different.

Jussi_Loukiainen_web

Jussi Loukiainen, Platonic Partnership

"We wanted to make a 'feel bad' game, and to use those emotions and feelings [our team members] had as source material," explains CEO Jussi Loukiainen. "It's based on real emotions, and I think that's one of the reasons it feels so raw. We didn't want to make an educational game, we just wanted to show how it felt."

He added: "Games are typically about fun and colourful stuff. We wanted to do something completely [different]."

Lydia was originally developed as a part-time project around the team's full-time jobs. Two of the team drew on their own childhoods to inform the tone, story and direction of the game -- a process Loukiainen assures was less traumatic than it might seem.

"It went surprisingly well because they had both dealt with the issue and they had gone through it properly -- they weren't scarred by it too badly," he says.

"Of course, when we put the game together, we went through every chapter, every scene, every event and discussed whether it felt real. We wanted to keep our distance, in a way, but still wanted to use their experience as a basis for everything that happened. They were responsible for the story part mostly, but we all have our own input because we all have backgrounds from different forms of storytelling -- movies, music, comics and so on."

The Platonic team were also careful to strike the balance between imposing important warnings and still providing a compelling game to play through. This, Loukiainen says, was the "tricky part" as the studio did not want to lecture its players in order to get the message across.

"Lydia has the ability to speak to audiences all over the world and I feel we've only reached a small percentage of that"

"We wanted to explore games as a medium, see what kind of feelings and emotions we can deliver through them," he says. "That's when we came up with the idea of using these real-life experiences."

The project was elevated in Platonic's home market when the studio collaborated with Alko, the finnish alcohol monopoly -- the only retailer in the country that can sell wine, spirits and beer over 5.5% alcohol by volume. Alko made Lydia part of its efforts to raise awareness of the disease of alcoholism. Also involved in the collaboration was local charity Fragile Childhood, which supports children who suffer from the effects of their parents' alcohol abuse.

By the time the charity was on board, the game was finished and -- with the help of Alko -- released for free on mobile; but Fragile Childhood was still able to offer valuable feedback on how the game handled the sensitive subject at its heart. Loukiainen adds that it "felt good to have our approach verified by professionals."

Lydia was released in 2017 on PC, but received another boost this year with the launch of the Switch. Platonic Partnership and its publisher Nakana have once again teamed up with Fragile Childhood to provide additional DLC, with the proceeds from sales going to the charity.

The extra content gives Lydia a colouring book depicting the monsters she faces that players can colour in bright and positive colours, demonstrating the importance of making such monsters less scary. Players are even encouraged to share captures of their drawings with the hashtag #LydiaDonation. As of February 13, 2020, 865 donations had been made within less than a month of launch. And is Loukiainen is optimistic that Lydia can have a greater impact.

"There's huge potential for this game," he says. "It has the ability to speak to audiences all over the world and I feel we've only reached a small percentage of those people. Now the Switch is quite popular, I think we have a chance of reaching more and more people. The game has flown under the radar, and we want to change that because we poured our hearts into this and into making something real."

While he admits the PC sales were "not that great," the reception to the story it tells has been better than the studio could have hoped for. The user reviews in particular have demonstrated the effect of Lydia on those who play.

"People really opened up their hearts. If you go through the reviews, there are some really heartbreaking comments in there, with people saying it really hit home to their own experiences. Some couldn't even play all the way through because they've had the same kind of background growing up. They really loved the game and the bits they played, but at the same time, it was a bit too much for them.

"Right after release, we had several emails from people saying they've had the same experiences and really open up. It was difficult because we're not capable of taking that kind of responsibility -- we're not therapists or anything like that. We just built this game, and wasn't sure how to respond to these players. It was really overwhelming, but it felt really good."

Some of the reviews and comments the studio has received even suggest the game may be helping to make real change in people's lives -- and that, Loukiainen says, demonstrates the true power of video games when they focus on raw emotions and real-life topics.

"One of the players who left a Steam user review said he hopes that every parent plays this game because it helped him to reflect on his own alcohol consumption," he concludes. "That's a huge victory for us. If we have made a difference for even one child's life, what could be better?"

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