She got that summertime, summertime sadness.
“Is it the end of the world? Or is it just me coming to an end?” These are some of the first words we read in Stilstand, an interactive graphic novel centred around mental health. For anyone who has had experience with anxiety, depression, nihilism, and the like, you will find this tale to be highly relatable from the start and be drawn into the main character’s deeply personal tale. Although the focus is on mental health and the difficulties those that suffer from this must try to overcome, there is hope, and I found this to be a huge takeaway from my time spent with Stilstand.
Stilstand was written and created by Ida Hartmann in collaboration with Danish independent games studio, Niila Games. It follows the story of an unnamed woman in the middle of summer in Copenhagen. This woman is full of insecurities, anxiety, and nihilism, which has been severely affecting her as of late. We are given an intimate view of her struggles as we watch her force herself to go to parties, open herself up to dating, as well as try to confront and overcome her issues.
From the get-go we are also introduced to a shadowy monster who sticks with the main character throughout. At first, I assumed this new character would have been a physical metaphor for the woman’s negative emotions, but it seemed to be the one trying to lift her spirits—an interesting juxtaposition. The shadowy monster feels like an extension of her, the emotions, and actions she wants to feel or do, but just can’t. It appears when she feels her lowest and will tag along on nights out to try and convince her to stay out or advise her that something may not be a good idea. Her own Jiminy Cricket.
The woman is incredibly self-destructive, and you can’t really prevent this. All you can do is try to guide her as best you can through the various multiple-choice text messages you can send to her friends and guys that she matches with on dating apps, or prolong this behaviour through procrastination. Smoking endless cigarettes or scrolling through the channels on her television: all these actions highlight the solitude and loneliness she has.
This all sounds very dreary, but the story is written with a lot of humour and is full of wit, especially in the conversations with the shadowy monster, and through the absurd ways in which the game shows us the woman’s emotions or current state. An example of this is in the first chapter, where you physically must drag her across the comic panels like a rag doll, knocking down and avoiding various obstacles to symbolize how drunk she has become. Littered throughout are mini-games that highlight the interactive part of this graphic novel—some of these include playing dress up, prior to your date, navigating a shout through your insides to the tip of your lips, and playing Stilstand’s version of Flappy Bird called “Crazy Cat Lady.” Some of these actions are repeated throughout, but this is used effectively to showcase the habits that we can fall into when in a state of depression and isolated.
The game is incredibly short, clocking in at around 45 minutes to complete the three chapters it has to offer. I was disappointed by the length, as I really did want it to last longer and delve a little deeper into this woman’s summer. However, I do appreciate the short length and pace of the story. What it does focus on is impactful, really drawing you into the troubles that she is experiencing.
The art style used appears to be signature to Ida Hartmann’s own style and looks “rough around the edges,” adopting a sketch book appearance. I felt that this approach matched the tone of the story. It all felt ugly, but also somehow remained beautiful. The audio, too, was perfectly matched to the narrative. When the game wanted to show the loneliness and isolation she felt, the musical tones became stressed and quiet, with gaps of silence. When there were glimpses of hope or fun, the music became livelier and even adopted techno beats when appropriate—the party music had some Euro house music vibes, and I am definitely here for that.
The feeling of being stuck emotionally and maybe favoring isolation is a common theme that many can relate to given the last 18 months we have all experienced. Tie that in with this slice of life being shared with us, and you have yourself an incredibly well written and truly unique experience. Stilstand is a brief, yet powerful story that is well worth taking the time to check out.