Commentary

Simulating psychoanalysis: A review of Freud’s Bones


 

While psychiatry has been the subject of many films, video games are not a medium commonly known for examining mental illness.1 There have been PC games over the years with psychiatric themes, such as Sanitarium (1998), Depression Quest (2013), Fran Bow (2015), and Night in the Woods (2017). Now for perhaps the first time a game has been developed with the practice of psychiatry as its primary focus.

Freud’s Bones is a 2022 game developed by independent Italian game studio Fortuna Imperatore. The result of a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Freud’s Bones is advertised as “the first point & click narrative-drive game to pay homage to the birth of psychoanalysis and its founder, addressing the themes of sexuality and neuroses filled with existential doubts.”

Dr. Samuel R. Weber, psychiatry department chair at Logan (Utah) Regional Hospital with Intermountain Healthcare

Dr. Samuel R. Weber

In Freud’s Bones, you take control of Sigmund Freud and guide him through his daily tasks. Gameplay is of the simple point-and-click variety, modeled after classic LucasArts-style adventure games of the 1990s such as The Secret of Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle. Prior to seeing your first patient, the game provides several documents the player can peruse to become familiar with basic concepts of psychoanalysis. Although the game was originally written in Italian (and translation gaffes occasionally arise), generally the English wording is easy to read. However, some players may feel intimidated or bored by the sheer quantity of text the game provides. All in-game text, including books and spoken words, are written and there is no recorded voice acting. Audio consists largely of unintrusive background music and occasional sound effects. The graphical style is simple and cartoonish but pleasant.

Freud’s personal life is a major focus of the game. His real life dog Jofi is a constant presence in Freud’s office. At various times the player will witness Freud’s dreams, act as a voice inside his head, and attempt to interpret mystical Egyptian messages he receives. Players are also tasked with managing Freud’s reputation in the scientific community. This is apparently intended as a reflection of in-game clinical acumen, but it was sometimes difficult to tell what direct influence my actions had on Freud’s reputation.

Freud’s energy may flag at various points during the game, and the player may choose to give him a cigar or a dose of cocaine to stimulate him. These options sound interesting on the surface, but I found the effect of these substances on the game’s actual outcome to be minimal. Some tasks are presented in a less than user-friendly manner. For example, on my initial playthrough I could not figure out how to complete several optional errands such as shopping for more tobacco or selecting a cover for Freud’s books. The player is also given the opportunity to make choices that affect Freud’s personal life, such as whether to pursue an extramarital affair. The game does have a few narrative surprises, including appearances from some of Freud’s well-known contemporaries. One particularly vivid sequence late in the game involves navigating Freud through a hallucination with some bizarre, but very Freudian, imagery.

By far the most interesting and enjoyable part of the game is the psychoanalysis sessions. The player guides Freud through multiple sessions with four different patients. Each of them has a unique story and associated symptoms, and the player can choose a variety of responses. For example, will you take a comforting, paternalistic approach to the patient uncomfortable with her first appointment? Or will you take the more stoic, quiet approach of the analyst and allow the patient to speak without prompting? Part of the player’s quest in guiding Freud through these sessions is to help patients bring their unconscious thoughts to conscious awareness. This is depicted graphically as the thought moves vertically through images representing the id, superego, and ego. Skillful questioning can bring these thoughts to the surface, but poor choices can leave valuable insights buried in the unconscious.

These therapy sessions were unique and engaging, and I wish they constituted a larger portion of the gameplay in Freud’s Bones. More patients, more sessions with each patient, and longer sessions would all have been welcome additions. These analytic sessions eventually culminate in an opportunity to offer a diagnosis, and the player’s accuracy in treatment can result in divergent outcomes for each patient. The game is not lengthy, as it can be played in its entirety in roughly 5-6 hours. Selecting different options for Freud’s personal life and the analysis sessions provides some replay value for subsequent playthroughs.

Overall, Freud’s Bones is a worthy effort for being uniquely designed as interactive entertainment simulating psychoanalysis. It provides an experience of interest to psychiatrists but is also accessible to the general public. While the game has flaws in that it can be overly text-heavy and goals are not always clear, it shines in the moments where it allows the player to participate directly in the process of psychoanalysis. Freud’s Bones is available for purchase on Steam (currently priced at $13.99) and can be played on Windows PCs.

Dr. Weber is a psychiatrist at Intermountain Logan Regional Hospital in Logan, Utah. He disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

References

1. See, for example, Gabbard GO, Gabbard K. Psychiatry and the Cinema, 2nd ed. American Psychiatric Press, Inc.; 1999.

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