It's no secret that video games have been displaying much deeper meanings for quite some time, but it's important to remark when they appear. Like Shrek holding an onion, anyone can explain to another the many layers of identity within Mass Effect or the laws and order of Ace Attorney. Some can even explain the political imagery of arcade classics such as Missile Command or Battlezone. There are many games that we play, and they have a single or many meanings. Then, there's a game that you can't stop thinking about, primarily because you had a moment in the shower, thinking about the universe, and then suddenly, a click occurs, and you walk out with an interpretation that makes sense. Creature in the Well is one such game. An action-adventure, Creature in the Well, arrived in 2019 for Nintendo Switch and 2020 for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 from the amazing people at Flight School Games Studio. The game puts players into the role of a nameless robot tasked with entering a critical environmental facility to save the land and restore balance. However, an evil, shadowy creature lurks within the facility, and having hijacked the facility's defense system, has eliminated all inhabitants, leaving the townspeople to die in a barren, arid wasteland. Creature in the Well appears as a sharp-looking indie game, but it isn't until you've played and finished the game that you discover something truly special.
Creature in the Well is a game about not just combatting mental illness but outsmarting it, quelling it, recognizing it'll always be there, but like the creature in Creature in the Well, you can't let it take control. Creature in the Well begins with an arid desert, with a whipping, unending wind. As the weather facility is disabled and in control of the malevolent creature, the desert is an unforgiving place, where the endless stinging of windswept grain pierces and erodes. In the words of the great Jedi master Anakin Skywalker, "Sand is rough, coarse, and gets everywhere." Sand strips the toughest surfaces and rusts away at the finest of metals. This can be what depression and anxiety can feel like, such as an endless, biting wind stripping at your whole self.
The creature never shows its face, as depression can be amorphous, fluid, and mean something very different for every person. There isn't a definition of what the feeling looks like, only how it feels. In the context of Creature in the Well, the creature is an arresting presence, causing despair and harm to all within its domain. Still, the feeling and appearance are incredibly relatable. This once again brings up the existence and energy of light. The light repairs, fixes, and unlocks other parts of the mountain. Every new system unlocked brings another important function online. Before long, the innards of the facility are glowing and bright light, and the townspeople on the outside of the mountain cheer and encourage your effort. All of this culminates into one final encounter to reactivate the weather and bring the land back to normal, but also one final battle with the creature. This is probably a good moment to sound the spoiler alert.
Throughout the game, the creature never directly fights the player but instead uses his hands to manipulate the environment and defense systems, using the various ray guns and energy beams to harm the player. The journey to get to the creature wasn't easy, and often, the creature casually picks up the player and throws them out of the mountain. After a challenging journey, it all boils down to one final confrontation. Through a dizzying array of death-defying puzzles and laser defenses, the player has the opportunity to beat the creature back. In one final chamber, the creature is sending every doubt your way "The machine will not work. All of this is for nothing. You cannot fix this." But each swipe of your tool sends energy volleys towards the creature. The balls of energy activate switches that build a bridge to the end of the chamber, and each step taken forward is a step the creature takes backward. The creature is angry but powerless, unable to stop you and only using its discouraging rhetoric to dissuade and discourage the player. One final volley of energy activates a switch that finally imprisons the creature.
It's important to note; the creature is never slain, never killed. The creature is imprisoned, never to be used to hurt anyone ever again. Following the creature being imprisoned and roaring angrily in defeat, the player navigates to the main control room. With one final action, the machine roars to life. Greenery and pristine environments appear, and the drab yellow of the sand is replaced with the vibrant blue of the sky. The land has been saved, and so have been the inhabitants.
But this final act is a profound message to the player, in more ways than one. Most video games would have such a monster slain, especially brutally. We do live in the era of Doom and Doom Eternal, after all. But for Creature in the Well, this choice is extremely meaningful. It conveys to the player that the creature doesn't need to be killed. Perhaps in the context of the game, slaying the beast would be immoral. Maybe it was part of the land and the mountain in ancient times. It is never explained. Still, the deliberate choice to imprison rather than destroy is meaningful. In a way, this conveys that depression, anxiety, and all the ills that we come to know aren't things that are ever going away. They manifest and become a part of your character, which isn't something that can go away. It may be accepted that these kinds of mental health afflictions are meant to be lived with. But, like the creature, it can be defeated. It can be outthought, outfought, and corralled into a place where it cannot do any more damage. In the case of the BOT-C in Creature in the Well, the will to live, to drive, to function was what got the bot out of the desert. The bot could have stayed there, buried and rusting under the sand, but something called the bot to awaken. Perhaps it was an inner module or rerouting of power, similar to the T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day after getting speared by rebar. But, that cause remains a mystery as that drive, that energy, is something only you can understand and bring out. Wherever it comes from, whether yourself or from others, is something only you can determine and use.
The volleys of light thrown at the creature are more than a mechanic, but a metaphor that spreading your light, your energy, has the power (pun intended) to fix things around you and leave something bright and powerful. Spreading that light, that energy, leads to a path. What that path is, and what it means to you, is entirely your prerogative and is up to you to interpret, but it might just make a huge difference to someone, especially yourself. I'm sure other video games can have similar beats to Creature in the Well. Many thousands of titles have players fight the big battles and save the day, but games often have a means of presenting subtle messages to the player beneath the escapist fun. Creature in the Well is one such game, showing a battle we may be all too familiar with, but another way to achieve victory and that is by harnessing the energy of our minds to outthink the creature that dwells within us,