At some point or another, we’ve all dealt with our inner voice turning against us with a barrage of intrusive thoughts. It whispers self-doubt, screams about the way our body looks in the mirror or stays silent when we need to confide in it most. When this happens to me I feel powerless, as if the person I trusted most has abandoned me. I feel out of control.
In times like this, I usually turn to video games as a way to distract myself. Not only am I able to get lost in a different world, but I am given control of something, or more precisely, someone. Playing as a character is cathartic, allowing me to make decisions for another entity and guide them through adventures that have no ramifications on my own life. Playing games almost gives me another mind to escape into, which is why I was blindsided when I played something that instead brought me inside of my own.
The game “Milk Inside A Bag Of Milk Inside A Bag Of Milk” allows the player to inhabit more than just a character. You control the thoughts of a protagonist suffering from an unnamed mental illness, becoming the voice inside her head and egging her on as she attempts a (seemingly) simple task: buying milk from the store. Her anxieties build as she gets closer and closer to her goal, culminating in a teetering pile of irrational fears and worries. Experiencing this process felt eerily familiar to me, mirroring the feelings of small intrusive thoughts creeping in until I am left with a rotting heap of self-doubt and anxiety. Seeing this play out in front of me wasn’t just an interesting gameplay mechanic, it was a sort of therapy.
The gameplay of “Milk” is incredibly simple; it acts more like a visual novel than anything else. It opens on a title screen that looks reminiscent of PC games from the ’80s, with the phrase “HELP ME BUY MILK!” spread across in deep purple letters. Pressing “Okay” allows you to type in your name, and then the game begins. Your only actions are to choose between dialogue options, although sometimes you aren’t even given a choice of what to say. When you are presented with an option, it usually follows one of two paths: saying something supportive and urging the protagonist on or saying something negative that causes her to falter. Choosing the latter too often will result in a fail state where the girl decides that you don’t help her at all and she will just have to try something else tomorrow. You are then booted to the title screen to try again. The first time this happened to me I felt absolutely gutted. I had just brought the same deluge of toxic thoughts upon this person that my mind often brings upon me. I was in control of a mind — not my own, but one I could relate to. And I failed her.
It felt like I had failed myself.
The agony that comes with failing someone who needs you is crushing, but there was more than that in this moment. It felt like I needed the girl to help me more than she needed me to help her. This moment made me realize that I had slowly begun to spill more and more of myself into “Milk” until it felt as though the decisions I was making affected me more than the game’s protagonist. Reaching this level of connection with a character’s feelings in any form of media was new to me, but I think it was because the lines between player and character had disappeared.
Many of the interactions between the player and the protagonist reveal her tendency towards compulsive thoughts, leaving you to decide how to help her cope with them. Early in the game, you watch her rehearse what she is going to say at the store again and again, never quite getting it right. Soon after this you tell her she has stepped an uneven amount of times on the grass and pavement, and you have the choice of walking her through how to fix her mistakes or making fun of her for having such a silly habit. When social anxieties like this one crop up in my mind, I often find myself jumping to self-criticism. My first reaction is to chastise the way I think, not respect and question it. Being given the choice to help the girl come to accept the way her brain works showed me that there were healthier ways to address my thought processes. I didn’t need to fall into the same habit of beating myself up over the way that my mind works; I could instead choose to cut myself some slack and work towards a healthier way of coping with those toxic intrusive thoughts.
When I was finished with “Milk” after roughly 30 minutes of playtime, I felt cloudy. It was as though I had stepped out of a movie theater in the middle of a sunny day after watching a movie that had an impact on me, but I wasn’t yet sure what that impact was. There were Doppler-esque waves of emotion that built up over the following hours and days that culminated in the realization that this game had given me the control that I so often wanted. Rather than being a simple distraction, “Milk Inside A Bag Of Milk Inside A Bag Of Milk” is a meditation on intrusive thoughts that caused me to reflect on the hows and whys of the way my mind works. I am thankful for the people who continue to push the video game medium in this way and provide players with moments like this. Escaping your anxieties is good, and becomes necessary at times. But when a game is able to make you confront those thoughts and help guide you through dealing with them, it’s like an act of love.
Daily Arts Contributor Hunter Bishop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.