If you’ve played Omori, you know how its oft-abstracted ruminations on coping with trauma cut emotionally deep. If you haven’t played it, you’ve likely heard people rave about exactly that. Or, a cursory glance may lead you to pin it as an Undertale-ian jaunt packed with subversive genre flips. While you’d be right to some degree—it’s indeed an indie JRPG-styled adventure with quirky scenarios that mask darker undertones—Omori’s roots in genre tradition are where it draws a blueprint for new ways to express the realities of mental illness in games.
Mental health advocacy is difficult when social stigma has ingrained strong misunderstandings about the nature of living with any illness under this umbrella. We often turn to the arts to help teach through entertainment, yet passive mediums like film, best suited to external visualizations of character traits, have often faltered in showing the internal struggle inherent to mental illnesses. This is why games are an exciting and largely unexplored avenue to improve the potency of mental health advocacy; they allow us to play from the perspective of characters unlike ourselves and make choices from that perspective. While this isn’t a replacement for a lived experience, it’s perhaps the closest we can get to portraying a facsimile of one.
Of course, the hurdle games run up against is that compared to other entertainment mediums they’re not as accessible to broad audiences due to hardware and skill requirements. There are ways to craft experiences that mitigate these (for example, how Depression Quest only requires reading skills), but even then, the idea of games can be daunting for the uninitiated. Instead, it may be better to focus on crafting experiences that speak to those familiar with—and open to—gaming. This is where Omori excels.
The traditional nature of Omori’s RPG systems—something anyone who’s vaguely familiar with JRPGs will immediately grasp—is a core tool to teach about mental illness. Because it doesn’t need to teach new fundamental gameplay ideas to the player, space is left to expand upon the narrative implications of these previously understood ideas. In the case of Omori, it reframes some commonplace systems to reflect the emotional states of characters, deriving profound meaning regarding neurodivergence’s nature.
Let’s first take a look at the game’s rock-paper-scissors system derived from traditional weapon triangles:
As shown above, the concept of buffs and debuffs gets reframed as emotional states. The defense mechanisms that a character suffering from sadness puts in place causes damage they receive to drain their functional ability. These defenses are often effective at staving off the carefree nature of happiness, while the pointed aggression of anger can quickly deplete a character’s combat options. Practically speaking, all that’s happening are simple increases and decreases to the inflicted character or enemy’s stats, yet papering over this abstraction with narrative concepts guides the brain to visualize the system more meaningfully. Battles are no longer spreadsheet stat checks but rather a process of characters battling with their emotions so they can effectively engage foes (who themselves may be battling with their own emotions). Said otherwise, a simple sleight-of-hand puts us in the mindset of thinking about minds.
This mechanic becomes the base where additional layers of mechanical depth can develop new layers of understanding. For example, characters can inflict emotional states onto themselves, other party members, and enemies, showcasing the cause-and-effect and impact of our actions. (Narrative beats accentuate this.) Further inflictions cause these emotions to thicken, increasing the potency of their gameplay properties while showing the target character becoming more emotionally engulfed. Happy characters become ecstatic, sad characters depressed, and angry characters enraged. While this is clever in its own right, the mechanic’s meaning is fully realized when applied to protagonist Sunny.
Of the four main party members, Sunny is the only one with strong neurodivergent coding. Narrative beats outline his inability to properly express his feelings relative to his friends’ emotional capacities, but it comes through eloquently in the unique ways he interfaces with core game mechanics. We see this most prominently in Sunny’s headspace, where his titular alter-ego Omori can reach emotional states one level beyond his peers. His happiness can manifest in a manic episode, his anger can lead to fury, and the depths of his sadness can lead to a “miserable” state. (Admittedly, the point might’ve been more clearly made if developers swapped this state with “depressed.”) His strengths get stronger and his weaknesses weaker, meaning when appropriately utilized, Sunny’s mental health struggles become his superpower. Instead of being sidelined due to his unspecified illnesses, they instead make him the linchpin of battle strategies. Players build positive associations between these uniquely strong emotional states and winning, defying stigma they might have entered the game with.
But there’s another twist, one that shapes these destigmatizing mechanics into teachable moments. When in the real world, Sunny cannot express any emotions beyond base-level sadness or anger. This leads him to struggle in the small handful of battles in these segments, leaving his friends to pick up his slack. This juxtaposition between the superpowered Omori version of Sunny we usually control and Sunny’s reality drives home that mental illness is not simply “being sad” but rather a difficulty showing a broader spectrum of emotions. (To expand on an earlier point briefly, perhaps putting “depression” on a spectrum of sadness muddies the message.) Sunny is portrayed as a victim of his circumstances, not some pejorative incapable of feeling. Even if a neurotypical player can’t emotionally understand this reality, there’s a greater chance they sympathize with Sunny given the positive associations already made; he’s less likely to be otherized by them. It also helps the empathy-building process that the infrequent pacing and semi-scripted nature of these battles never allow them to feel like hindrances to game progression.
A handful of scenarios—typically playing out as psychological horror—in which the character becomes afraid further highlight’s Sunny’s reality. In this state, he’s unable to use typical attack commands, instead left to use a variety of coping mechanisms and calming techniques to persevere. These force players to think about battles in atypical terms, making choices from the character’s perspective that may be unlike those the player would instinctively think to make in traditional turn-based systems. Again, Omori cleverly reframes how players expect to interface with systems to make emotionally resonant points. Overcoming a panic attack through menu commands isn’t poignant because you’re using menu commands but because the menu commands are otherwise associated with combat against enemies, even in the usual context of Omori. It can’t be expected of neurotypical players to understand mental illness purely from narrative, but tweaking concepts they’re likely to have experience with can be a vessel for exploring the unknown. Forcing them to think in neurodivergent terms and act from that perspective is exactly what makes gaming such a powerful medium for mental health advocacy. In tandem with its fantastic storytelling, Omori is a model game for this cause.
Of course, Omori‘s approaches to teaching about mental illness aren’t the only avenues upon which games have successfully done this. Some have leaned on skills most people are likely to have such as reading (Depression Quest) or simple character navigation (What Remains of Edith Finch’s Lewis Finch sequence), while others have used demanding motor skills to make their point of perseverance (Celeste and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice being popular examples). Developers are still only scratching the surface of how games can reach untapped demographics to help them explore mental illness. It will take more than Omori, the other examples provided, and a handful of other efforts to realize this full potential. But as Omori shows us, this potential not only exists but is particularly poignant when paired with play. Hopefully, other RPG developers can take notes from this ethos if they plan to have neurodivergent representation in their games.