“Serial Experiments Lain” is an avant-garde anime that aired in 1998, which follows 14-year-old Lain Iwakura, who lives a pretty typical life until people at her school begin receiving emails from a dead classmate. The show reflects a lot of the computer age existentialism from the late 1990s. Both in Japan and the West, “Serial Experiments Lain” has a relatively small niche fan base, possibly due to it being made by a relatively small studio, Triangle Staff, which has no other major titles to its name. This obscurity hides the fact that the anime was actually released alongside a game for the original Playstation. The game, also titled “Serial Experiments Lain,” didn’t feature extra fun scenes from the anime, but rather a completely canon addition to the story. A fan of the show for years, I only found out about the game recently through YouTuber hazel’s video, “Playstation Lain and the Weird World of Interactive CD-Roms.”
The video links to a completely free English fan translation available to be played directly using the browser of your choice. Intrigued, I ran to play the game. For those interested in playing, the website has two options: the regular play format as well as a simplified version. For a more linear gameplay experience, I would recommend doing the simplified version.
The game follows both Lain Iwakura, the protagonist of the anime, and her therapist, Touko. The game itself is quite different from the show, and much more grounded. The anime feels more fantastical and trippy, and, while the game holds similar elements to the anime, the mood overall feels more somber and realistic. Much of the game consists of listening to audio recordings backed by a still image of a street corner or Lain sitting in a chair during a counseling session.
A lot of the imagery in the game reflects Lain’s splitting sense of self, artistically evoking a science-fiction feel to make players feel almost alien. The story progresses as you listen to audio recordings of Lain and Touko’s therapy sessions, as well as their separate diary entries; over time, players learn more about the individual characters and how their minds work. This focus on mental health and therapy is what makes “Serial Experiments Lain” special, as most of the representation of mental health onscreen at the time was either romanticized or trivialized. While the conversation around mental health is much less taboo today, it’s still misunderstood; people often throw around the words “psychopath” and “sociopath” as if they mean nothing.
If I were to describe this game’s depiction of mental health, it would be raw and dense. The therapy sessions and diaries of both Lain and Touko are extremely candid. The writing hits hard on both the need for conformity and individualism, as well as the existentialism of the new computer age. This is fitting considering that the late ’90s were filled with anxiety over changes in technology. The advent of the internet stoked fear about many things: the lack of privacy, new dangers and loss of jobs, to name a few. Lain goes into these, but more on the front of how the internet affects the mind. This game does not hold back and covers even more topics than I have listed here — such as discussing escapism and gender roles — so believe me when I say this game is dense. Still, the game manages to always center its focus on mental health; I mean, we are literally listening to therapy sessions.
Unlike most material of the time that would code discussions of mental health, “Serial Experiments Lain” references mental illnesses by name and approaches these topics with great care and empathy. Lain does a lot of research on mental illness in an effort to understand herself and identify “what she is” or “what is wrong with her.” As someone who has suffered from mental health issues from a very young age like Lain, I heavily resonate with that. The gameplay often strives to recreate these feelings, as the diary entries and therapy sessions can feel neurotic, or as if you are spiraling alongside the characters. Lain experiences hallucinations and oftentimes the game mimics this by displaying random clips and audio records.
Even when the game delves into science fiction or the supernatural, the core of the game and the topics discussed are grounded in the reality of the human mind. Seeing the way Touko talks with Lain during their sessions as well as the mistakes he makes while treating her all feel very human. The discussion of mental health itself is always grounded in the realm of reality even as other aspects of the game become more and more fantastical.
Though I find the raw and dense nature of the game to be one of the strongest points, I would not recommend playing it for long periods of time. The game itself is immersive, and that’s why I love it, but after playing for five hours straight, it begins to feel like you’re the one in the therapy sessions. Sometimes I would become emotionally exhausted from simply playing the game. I had to force myself to take breaks. Overall, it took me about two months to complete the game for the first time.
“Serial Experiments Lain” isn’t sunshine and rainbows, and there is no happy resolution. But that reflects what life is like for a lot of people living with mental illness. If you are interested in this game, take it slow, give yourself breaks and be aware of your own mental wellness. I advise against playing if you’re not in a good headspace. This game is raw and realistic in how it showcases mental health, but also overflowing with empathy for the matter, something a lot of representation misses. Lain is all of us, and we are Lain.
Daily Arts Contributor K. Rodriguez-Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.