Year-end reflection: game dev’ing with mental illness
I looked on my Twitter recently and found that everything I’ve posted has been highlights.
It’s not bad to celebrate, of course—in fact, it’s wonderful—but it also creates a warped perception of my life. I don’t want people to think my life is perfect and full of job opportunities, startups, sales, and being wanted by everyone in the world. It’s easy to feel insignificant, like everyone else has found their calling and they’re exactly where they want to be. That’s because we (usually) only post highlights on social media.
So in this post, I’m going to talk a little bit about my personal struggles in being a game dev, in the hopes that you can feel encouraged.
If there’s one thing I want you to take from this post, it’s encouragement. If you’re in a tough spot on a tough journey, there’s people out there who are just like you. There’s people who know how you’re feeling. There’s people who have gone down your path, and they sympathize with you. You are not alone.
I have the MTHFR A1298C gene mutation. That’s basically fancy talk for: my body has a hard time making certain chemicals. Low seratonin, low dopamine, low melatonin (sleepy chemicals), low epinephrine (adrenaline).
So basically: I have a very hard time being happy. On occasion, feeling things in general.
Because of this, I’ve struggled long-term with depression and anxiety, sometimes chemical, sometimes amplified by situation. This is my story of the past year, which has been a year of explosive growths and blessings for Studio Theophilus, and yet, the hardest year in my life.
I will preface this by saying that there’s many things to be grateful for.
Being a game dev is my dream, and for at least these few years, I get to live it. I get to pursue what I really love. I get to grow and expand, both in skill set and in maturity. I get to actually live my dream.
Solopreneurship is extremely rewarding, because you get to call all of your shots—but it’s also extremely exhausting, because you have to call all of your shots. I came into this year expecting the fun times and long work hours. I did not expect hitting the absolute limits of my emotional bandwidth.
Working with Depression
Some days, I’ll wake up numb. I won’t feel like doing much. The world just seems kind of grey and empty, like a mirror, where you know there’s supposed to be dimension, but when you reach out, it’s just a flat surface. It’s cold and a bit slippery and nothing feels warm. In fact, you’re not sure if you can feel anything at all.
On those days, I work out of habit. I’ll work usually 12 hours or more, 6 days a week. Saturdays are the one exception, my Sabbath.
Funnily enough, although many comments on Zodiac•Axis have been about the art, I really don’t like to draw, nor do I feel great at it. It’s just something that has to be done in order to complete the product. I don’t have confidence in my drawing. But I don’t really need any to continue. Like doing the dishes or taking out the trash, it’s a duty that needs to be finished whether I like it or not.
I launched Zodiac•Axis under a company name, Studio Theophilus. However, in the end, Studio Theophilus is just one person. (Antioch is listed on the team page, but he’s a recently graduated full-time student who’s now going into full-time work, so his involvement is forced to be rather minimal.)
I found myself absolutely overwhelmed with having to manage, simultaneously, without a business partner for support:
Business management and paperwork.
Accounting and financial information.
Web design and maintenance.
PR and marketing.
Not to mention the tasks required for Zodiac•Axis: Writing and story, sprite art, CG art, background art, graphic design, UI design, music composition, voice mixing, project management, legal contracts, and voice directing.
The sheer amount of completely different tasks started to fall through the cracks. I’d forget to record my business transactions. I’d lose track of my FBN progress. I’d incorrectly log which contractors had signed contracts. I’d forget to respond to an email or an inquiry or a social media comment. I’d forget which sprites were outdated and which BGs still needed to be made.
On top of this, while the Kickstarter was wonderfully successful (thank God), Zodiac•Axis does not acquire any ongoing income. I will have to work on it fulltime, overtime, for two years before I earn a cent from actual sales, living with no income in the process.
If I had to estimate, I probably spend 40% of my days on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The only way I’ve been able to go on is with two foundational supports:
The support and grace of my God.
The family he’s blessed me with.
It’s only thanks to this that I’m able to go on, even on days where living doesn’t seem worth it.
Despite having many talented and amazing contractors, the dynamic feels very different than having a true support network. In the end, I was the employer and they were the employees. I might have had a good relationship with them, but I was still the visioncaster, the leader, and ultimately the shotcaller. I also had to be the one to take responsibility if anything went wrong.
In that way, it still feels lonely.
No One’s Life is Sunshine and Rainbows
It’s so easy for me to second-guess myself. I see the success of my friends who are artists and voice actors and engineers, and while I’m really happy for them, I think: What am I doing? What is my future? Will I make it?
My eyes were opened when a friend told me: “You must be so proud that you’re actually making a game! You must feel so accomplished! Wow! I wish I could do something like this!”
I didn’t get it. My product wasn’t even finished. How could I be successful?
I saw my friends and my colleagues moving on to amazing jobs and positions, and that dark, dim voice in the back of my head whispered, They’ll forget about you, they’ll abandon you, they won’t care about you.
And this was the funny thing: they probably looked at my timeline and feed, and they felt the same way.
You Are Not Alone
Maybe you also feel alone. Maybe you feel overwhelmed and stressed. Maybe there’s too many tasks for you to handle.
I can’t give you a solution, because I’m still looking for it myself. But know that you’re not alone. It’s a crazy life, but there’s others who are like you, and they understand. Give yourself margin and grace.
Maybe you feel like you’re underachieving, like you’re a failure compared to your peers.
So do they.
Maybe you worry about being abandoned by friends and colleagues who find a bigger job, a bigger pond.
You’re not alone.
Or maybe you struggle with mental illness, and it’s hard for you to get up in the morning.
It’s okay. It’s okay to be that way. I won’t say it’s okay to stay that way; sometimes you can’t help it, but we shouldn’t be content with being stuck in the same rut. Life is better than that. We’re better than that.
Or maybe you’re having a hard time. Maybe you’re questioning staying alive.
Hang in there. You are loved.
My mental health steadily plummeted from the Kickstarter until now. I told myself to take a vacation after Kickstarter launch, and I didn’t. I told myself to take a vacation after successful funding, and I didn’t. I told myself to take a vacation after demo release, and I didn’t.
It’s hard. It’s hard to draw that line when you love what you do. It’s hard not to get sucked up in your work, and make it your identity. It’s easy to forget who you are; that you’re more than your successes, more than your difficulties, more than your choices.
For all of you out there, both with and without mental illnesses, whether you’re a game dev or a consumer—
—you are loved just as you are.
Whether this is the happiest season for you, or whether the holidays are hard—I wish you a Christmas full of tidings of comfort and joy.
Virtual hugs ♥
~ Luna Chai