Dr. David’s Indie Spotlight: What Now? and the real-life glitchiness of human anxiety

Anxiety is one of those horrible, hideous, bastard offenders that can strike at any moment without notice. I won't sit here and tell you that I've had worse cases of anxiety than everyone else on the planet, but I've been unfortunate enough to fall victim to its unpleasantness. Hell, “unpleasant” is an understatement. What Now? from developer Arielle Grimes provides an inside look at the terrible nature of anxiety by portraying it as a video game glitch. When you think about it, anxiety is indeed one of the worst glitches in the human existence.

The gameplay of What Now? is simple. You take control of a character using the arrow keys on your computer keyboard and guide her around her house. It's a small space, and one that can take you anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes to navigate. What Now? isn't about telling a long-drawn-out tale or providing you with riveting narrative hooks and twists — it's about conveying a message about a serious issue, and it does so quite spectacularly.

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This game, or rather this “interactive digital expressionist game/art piece” as Grimes refers to it, isn't pretty. In fact, it's quite ugly — it's horrifying, actually, but purposefully so. What Now? is loud, terrifying, maddening, and upsetting. But then so is anxiety.

As you walk around the house, which boasts a checkered pink pattern and pixelated furnishings, you hear a noise in the background. It's not a nice noise, but it's just there, pretending to be harmless. As you move around the house, you encounter different artifacts from your character's daily life. These include a mirror, a bed, a couch, and a pile of dirty laundry. Connected to each of these objects is a negative thought, which the character utters/thinks the moment you come into contact with them.

That negativity is a perfect example of how anxiety can destroy your perception. You don't care if your favorite shirt is in that pile of laundry or if you've had some great romantic moments on that couch. When anxiety strikes, you think about the negatives. It's not like you're trying to be a downer — anxiety has a way of injecting these thoughts into your brain. What Now? is an excellent portrayal of how your mind and being get completely shattered when that inner turmoil breaks into you.

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Things get worse the more you walk around in What Now? That faint sound gets louder, the screen begins to undulate faster, and words get jumbled. Walk around faster and you'll experience the madness much quicker. At that point, screeching sounds pervade your ears, your character's appearance becomes distorted, and every thought and word becomes a crumpled, confusing mess of pixelated nonsense. When anxiety strikes, nothing makes sense — you think of everything bad, and it's all there, but you can't single one thing out a lot of the time.

I previously called What Now? a “massively important endeavor.” For folks who've never experience anxiety, that may just sound like elitist hyperbolic nonsense. For those of us who've had brushes with those ugly, disgusting, overwhelming feelings, however, What Now? not only hits close to home, but it lets you see that you're not the only one who's had those feelings. Uncomfortable shivers, awkwardly sweaty palms, and distressful shortness of breath are common reactions. But it's that explosion of words and feelings and images and memories deep inside of you that's the biggest, vilest culprit.

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What Now? should help to raise awareness and tell the tale of anxiety in a different light. It's not your typical game, but it doesn't have to be to share its message. If you've ever suffered from feelings of anxiety, play this game to relate to it. If you haven't, be thankful for that, and check out What Now? with an open mind and the understanding that its depiction of odd glitches, blatant ugliness, and awful loudness is on par with what many people have had to deal with in their lives.

You can download What Now? on Grimes' website or through Patreon. The game is free, but you can donate a few bucks to help support the developer's game creation endeavors. And as always, word of mouth definitely goes a long way.

Want to talk about indie games, Kirby, or cheap pizza? Follow me on Twitter @dr_davidsanchez.