Content Warning: Discussions of anxiety and depression
Author’s Note: Many details of the plot of “OMORI” were withheld for the sake of preserving the impact of its story. Likewise, many details of my disorders were withheld for the sake of my privacy. Everything I have discussed is material I’m comfortable publishing because I have extensively unpacked it while getting the professional help I needed in therapy. If you empathize with any of what has been discussed in this piece, I would urge you to please use whatever resources are available to you to get the help you need. Thank you for reading.
Video games have always been an escape for me. It’s a medium I find more engaging than any other — the audiovisual stimulation of videos and music mix with an interactive story, allowing you to insert yourself into a narrative shaped by your actions. As a kid, I fell into a variety of deeply engrossing media, but video games would remain the most immersive. In my somewhat lonely childhood — a combination of overprotective immigrant parents, a somewhat childless neighborhood on the edge of town and my cultural disconnection being a Desi student in a school of white kids — I sought these immersions as escapes from a duller and disconnected reality. Real life was where my numerous childhood fears sprouted: fear of the dark, heights, bugs, open water, the supernatural. The end result left me as a primary schooler refusing a solitary bedroom until middle school. It was at this point I found friends with similar backgrounds & interests — video games being a focal point.
The RPG “OMORI” opens with the following message upon booting up: “This game contains depictions of depression, anxiety, suicide, and may not be suitable for all audiences.” Despite this warning, at first glance the game seems like a cheery, fun-filled romp. Wholesome hand-drawn art, pretty pixelated visuals and facetious Photoshops all mix together to create the wondrous, dreamlike world you play through. You play as Omori, a comically stoic child as he adventures with his much-more expressive friends: hard-headed Aubrey, enthusiastic Kel and his gentle older brother, Hero. They quest to save their bashful best friend Basil, helped along from the sidelines by Omori’s older sister, Mari.
The characters’ expressiveness is an extension of the game itself, the main fights operating on a rock-paper-scissors system of the emotions of characters and enemies: happy beats angry, angry beats sad, sad beats happy. Omori can be manipulated by the player to emotional depths that his friends cannot reach, giving him the potential to be more powerful or more vulnerable than any of his other friends. Together, they fight and befriend the most colorful of characters. Omori’s friends are the most engaging, the game’s length giving you a wealth of adorable interactions that flesh out how much they care for each other. There is never a still moment in the game, with cutscenes, sprites, backgrounds, battles and characters in constant animation. The frame-by-frame differences breathe life into the game, as change is a vital part of life. It’s that truth — and the truth of Omori’s story — that shatters your heart and shatters the leftover shards, leaving your friends to pick up the pieces but ultimately leaving you to put yourself back together.
I spent much of my secondary education entangled in my emotions. Throughout middle school I’d find myself kept up at night due to paranoia leftover from my childhood. Thankfully, they’d transition from irrational phobias to elevated anxieties about going into high school and my future. This stress built in high school as I took on workloads so heavy I had to constantly isolate myself from friends — both new and old — to manage it all. The consequences of those couple years would manifest in the spring of my sophomore year, when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that flares up with stress. I had to conquer my anxiety to put my disease into submission, and I couldn’t rely on the aid of anti-anxiety medication that could potentially disturb the bodily homeostasis treating Crohn’s needs — though I will emphasize that this was a personal choice on the behalf of my family and myself and that everyone is impacted by and treats Crohn’s differently. In meditation, in safe spaces, in detachment, in deep-breathing techniques, in every coping mechanism I could muster, I fought my fears and won time after time. But in that work was a wish I had since my childhood panics — a wish to stop feeling altogether. My wish was granted when I started experiencing depressive episodes after my Crohn’s diagnosis.
Little things seem off at the start of “OMORI”: an ominous shadow lurking in the distance, a distressing opening cutscene with the repeating assurance that everything is going to be okay, sketches colored by void-white, ink-black and blood-red. The player learns that Omori’s fantastical world is actually a fantasy — a dreamworld concocted by the true protagonist Sunny, Omori’s teenage counterpart. Sunny has been living as a hikikomori, a Japanese term for social recluse and Omori’s etymological origin, from childhood into adolescence following a traumatic experience, escaping into his dreamworld whenever possible.
His childhood friends have been damaged by both this same trauma and Sunny’s abandonment of them. Mari is gone, Kel smiles through the pain, Aubrey lashes out at her former friends and Hero struggles with overwhelming sadness. Basil is a nervous wreck always on the verge of panic attacks, and all five friends suffer in Mari’s absence. Sunny feels it the most, no longer having his older sister to protect him from his fears and the truth of his trauma, a truth that only Basil knows. Sunny and Omori are forced through terrifying sequences characterized by horrifying hand-drawn art, unnerving pixelated visuals and eerie Photoshops. More than that, however, Sunny has to confront the new people his friends have become and the truth of what split them apart.
Depression is a condition that everyone experiences uniquely, but mine has always been a numbness. Depression for me isn’t the overwhelming negative emotion, it’s the overwhelming absence of anything. It feels as though my brain is an ocean my emotions are trapped under, trying to break through the surface and be released, but always being pushed back down. It was hard for me to realize that I was having these depressive episodes and even harder for me to accept them. Hindsight is a funny thing; I’d make myself so busy for weeks I wouldn’t even realize how numb I’d been feeling until I had a moment where I could feel again. When the summer vacation after my diagnosis left me without things to busy myself, as did quarantine, I sank into my worst episodes. I was so adamant in my denial of depression even while being aware of my anxieties because it felt like an antithesis to my identity. I was such a joyful yet jittery child, an energetic yet anxious adolescent — how could I become such a sullen teenager?
While Omori and Sunny’s blankness allows the player to project themselves onto the protagonists, it doubles as a telling characterization. Their pessimistic personalities, their lack of emotion and the self-destructive heights the characters reach as the game progresses all serve to illustrate their depressive shutdown following their trauma. The game organizes itself into two routes — popularly known as the Sunny Route and the Omori Route. The Sunny route sees Sunny go outside during the day for the first time in years to conquer his childhood fears by himself, reconnect with the friends he left behind and gradually unpack his trauma as his safe dreamworld begins to be corrupted by it. The Omori route has Sunny stay indoors, fighting his fears by himself as he represses his trauma and ultimately loses himself to his demons. What gives hope in this game is that the only way to reach the Good Ending is contained in the Sunny Route, which is referred to in the game’s code as the True Route. Sunny’s ultimate ending will be good, and the horrifying deviations are due to an error.
What separates this experience from any other media’s portrayal of mental illness is the player’s role in it. Any other medium has a degree of separation as the viewer watches and/or listens to the irrational ends that these mental disorders can push someone to. However, “OMORI” forces the player into the roles of Omori and Sunny, to grow and change alongside their worlds and understand their perceptions of relationships and hardships. For players who have no idea what those experiences are like, they can form the beginnings of empathy for those who do. For the players who have spent time with these feelings and suffered in feelings’ absence, they can feel empathized with. This empathy makes the game all the more horrifying when it’s used against the player in the terror it puts the characters through. In addition, the game has one major structuring in its narratives to connect your empathy with the characters’ experiences. The majority of it is told to you in second person. “You have been living (like this) for as long as you can remember.” “Do you want to save (your friend)?” “Do you want to continue?”
May I make you read the same? Is everything going to be okay? It’s my experience, and it could be yours.
You played the game at the recommendation of a good friend. He joked to you to ignore the game’s tag of psychological horror and experience the game blind. He knew that you’d be able to take it. He was right — over a decade of fighting your own fears made you impervious to most horror media. However, you weren’t ready for the true wealth of emotions that the game’s true route would make you experience beyond just the horror sequences that made you remember the solitude of your childhood bedroom. After your first experience, you find out there’s an alternative, darker route. So you play through it again and horrify yourself further. You rush back to the safety of the true ending’s save file, re-experiencing its emotional devastation again. Lovely, hand-drawn images of family, friends and happiness flash by as the music swells and you feel a release as you reflect on what fueled your fight to feel: your family that supported your treatment, your therapist when you finally opened up, your friends — you didn’t get to have them since childhood but you have them now — who have empathized with that emptiness inside you and made you feel less alone, your happiness that is so ecstatically sweet when you know how hard you fought for it.
The final sequences of the game feature the protagonist breaking free of their depression the way you knew would happen — a fit of tears, the ocean of emotions breaking free into feelings too strong for just facial expression. You knew it would happen even if you hadn’t seen the sequence before because that was exactly how you cried watching that sequence unfold. The last frame of the Good Ending is a black screen, and you see yourself smiling in the darkness of your monitor. You know that Sunny can heal like you have. Even when it’s okay to not be okay, everything can be okay.
Daily Arts Contributor Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.