Interactive graphic novel with mental health twist

Title: Stilstand
Platform: Steam, iOS (previewed), Android
Developer: Niila Studio
Publisher: Niila Studio
Release date: August 27, 2020
tl;dr: Darkly comedic interactive graphic novel
Price: Yet to be announced
Family Focus: Click here for more information.

I’d not heard of Stilstand before last week, however, described as a ‘darkly comedic interactive graphic novel’ and based on the hand-drawn comics and personal writings from Danish graphic novel artist Ida Hartmann, and seeking to raise awareness of mental health problems in modern society, it’s the type of game that I felt immediately drawn to.

Firstly, a disclaimer: I’m unfamiliar with the work of Ida Hartmann. That being said, I immediately fell for the game’s graphical style. Shunning the use of fancier graphics, Hartmann has opted for a more traditional ‘pen and ink’ style, expertly rendering each scene utilising simple black and white line-drawing. The effect of using such a style is immediate: the game feels grittier, more realistic, less of a game and more of a window on life which, given its subject matter, plays to its strengths.

Don’t expect to be doing much in the way of physical fingerwork, though. As any good graphic novel strives to do the focus is on the story and here the interactive aspect falls by the wayside a little. A tap here opens a pack of cigarettes, a swipe there swings a bottle of beer up to the characters lips. Other than these interactions – of which there aren’t many – the most exercise your thumb’ll be getting is tapping the screen to move the story along.

Speaking of story, the game focuses on a single character, an unnamed woman, who’s struggling with feelings of anxiety and loneliness seemingly brought on – or enhanced – by a recent break-up. On top of that, Copenhagen is experiencing its hottest summer ever. As we’re frequently reminded throughout the game: things can only get better, right? Across 3 chapters we’re taken on a journey that includes a drunken house party, a Tinder-esque date with a stranger, and time alone in her apartment. Throughout we’re accompanied by a shadowy beast, a projected manifestation of our thoughts, that tries it’s hardest to get us to see light where we can only see dark. It’s not a particularly original idea but it does work as a kind of pendulum showing how the mind often see-saws between reason and self-doubt.

The 3 chapters, or situations, are well written and I found a lot of familiarity with regard to my own experiences with them in the past, such as being too drunk at a party or the roller-coaster ride and emotions of a blind date. It’s highly relatable and I’m sure anyone reading/re-living these experiences would struggle not to empathise with the situations; indeed, this is where a lot of the dark humour stems from. The game is very short though; it took me roughly 45 minutes to finish it and it’s hard to see where any replayability would come from. In a few scenes you’re able to choose between sending different text message options or swiping for a different ‘Tinder’ date perhaps, but it doesn’t feel like it would be enough to get someone to go back for more.

Stilstand has another problem, too. Whilst the game throws light on some of the issues associated with mental health it does little to properly engage with them. Perhaps this is because there is no ‘magic fix’ for problems such as these; people battle issues such as social anxiety and self-doubt their entire lives without ever managing to banish them completely, though they may be forced into the shadows for a while. Because of this there is no real ending, no real sense of completion which, for a game – because ultimately this is what it is – left me feeling a little like I’d missed something or rather that something was missing. But maybe this is the point, given the issues surrounding mental health. And as this is a preview it should be noted that at the moment there is no ‘Final end screen’, though I’m not sure this would change much.

Ultimately though, things are looking promising for Stilstand and Ida Hartmann. It’s graphical style lends a heaviness to the subject matter and the strength of the writing does well to bring the scenes to life. There’s a lot of promise here, though not necessarily answers. You’re not going to walk away from it with a happy fuzzy feeling in your gut but hopefully you’ll have a greater awareness with regards to mental health, and in this day and age that’s hugely important.

The Good

  • Great art style
  • Highlights mental health problems

The Bad

  • Very short
  • No real sense of ‘completion’
  • Not that much interaction

Family Focus

Stilstand has not yet been rated.

This review is based on a review copy of the game provided by the publisher