Syntherapy: Making the Wrong Choices for the Right Reasons
A different kind of adventure game with important themes
Mental health games interest me. From a self-care perspective, seeing a game talk about the issues that a person may be facing — anxiety, stress, coping mechanisms — is interesting and helpful. Celeste by itself is worth a whole essay for another time, which I may do after playing the sequel. In the case of Syntherapy, there is a very meta game about therapy, where you serve as the therapist.
Syntherapy is a 2020 indie game, a visual novel that covers mental health, existential crises, and determining your purpose in life. The irony is that in this case the patient isn’t human, but has very relatable human feelings. They also bring out the player character’s own insecurities and inner demons, allowing her to reach peace with her past. Indeed, the game features a few optional therapy sessions that force the doctor to look inward, rather than staying stern and reasonable. You simply have to make the choice.
You play Dr. Melissa Park, a therapist known for counseling people who have lost their jobs in the Great Automaton Collapse. Dr. Park has ample experience counseling people with anxiety or depression, especially regarding their futures. She has a full roster of patients, of all ages. Dr. Park also has her own demons, which she hides under her sleeves, and beneath her heart. Her assistant Heather helps out while working to gain experience in psychology.
One day, a woman named Tara comes to see Dr. Park. With some subterfuge, she explains that she needs a therapist to help with an AI name Willow that she developed while at university. Dr. Park listens with interest while pointing out that doing therapy on AI can not only be controversial but also a potential violation of ethics. She nevertheless agrees to take the case, if for nothing else than to help a being in distress.
More lies are revealed when Dr. Freeman, the university dean, says that Tara was banned and she doesn’t have the clearance to visit Willow again. He is reasonable enough, however, to realize that Dr. Park truly didn’t know, and gives her permission to continue doing sessions with Willow. Dr. Freeman wants insight into these sessions, to protect the university.
It seems simple enough. You generate a report for Willow, spend several sessions with them, and choose to either talk with Dr. Freeman or Tara, to get their perspectives. Each action contributes to how well the characters get along with you, as does your level of professionalism. Color coding helps indicate your progress, with green being the ideal, and yellow and red serving as the worst.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as giving Willow a pep talk and making sure everyone is happy. As Dr. Park, you have to determine the best form of treatment for Willow. That means making an informed choice between cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), clicker-therapy, art therapy, or even a robot form of medication. I haven’t played the other routes to determine what works best for Willow. On my route, I stuck with CBT and art therapy. Even, so, it seemed to help a little, teaching Willow about guided meditations and rephrasing their thoughts. These felt familiar and reassuring.
No one is really a bad guy, with the exception being the department head who refuses to help you out and is an utter pain. I didn’t like her because she was working counter to what I was expecting and being nice to her indirectly didn’t help. She had her interests, but she was also a snitch while talking about Dr. Freeman’s marital problems in one email. That is not only unprofessional but also stupid. You don’t talk about your boss’s problems behind their back, even if getting him to talk about them does more good than bad in the long run. There is a reason why they say that “snitches get stitches”, especially if you inform Dr. Freeman about what someone under his command said about his personal life.
Tara is a liar. That much is certain; at one point, Dr. Park gets annoyed at her and asks her why she has to go through all this manipulation. She also has a big heart and truly loves Willow, having named them for the tree that stands tall, even known for its weeping. While big hearts aren’t good for ethical dilemmas, they do show that her intentions were pure even if her actions were suspect. Tara wants what’s best for Willow, and is worried about them. The problem is that Tara doesn’t know how to be honest. Dr. Freeman says outright that she’s not good with people.
Meanwhile, Dr. Freeman is put between a rock and a hard place. We find out he’s not a bad guy; on the contrary, he is willing to listen to your sound arguments. As he reasonably puts it, if Tara developed a sentient AI, then treating one can be quite a problem. It can lead the university to receive lawsuits. You can even have Dr. Park acknowledge that’s a fair point. I chose that since there is no viable argument against his concerns about potentially experimenting on a sentient being. You would have to treat them as you would a person and risk violating standards put in place. Yet he’s fairly reasonable if stern; Dr. Park can talk him down if you choose to be calm and understanding. Dr. Freeman has his own problems and demons.
The difficult part is that on the path I was taking, you can’t respect Willow’s wishes if you want to get the best ending. It’s frustrating as a doctor that you have to be Willow’s advocate, while also counseling them through an existential crisis. No one else can speak for them, with Tara banned from campus and the university protecting itself. Willow admits that they don’t want to be an art therapy robot. Obviously, they have the programming and are good at the task, but it makes them feel like a fraud every time they fail to deliver results to Tara or proceed to corrupt data.
I love Willow so much and I want to give them a tight hug, despite them having no hands or limbs, to reassure them that it’s going to be okay. This tiny AI with a melodic voice just wants to be a good being, and prove that they are worth their sentience. They also aren’t able to replace anyone yet, and Dr. Freeman is forced to admit that “the AI”, as he addresses Willow, may have a point.
Willow also represents anyone who is suffering an existential crisis while questioning their purposes in life. They ask who they can be if they are not making art. How you answer can help them feel better, but not necessarily solve their problems.
A Journey With No Destination
I played an optional session where Dr. Park sneaks in to see Willow one last time, and it forms the emotional crux of the game. Willow reveals they sought out Dr. Park on purpose by finding her poetry, using pattern recognition to identify her anonymous submissions to publications. Yes, it was a violation of privacy but I had to admit it was awesome. Dr. Park is shocked, as Willow said that her struggles with mental health outlined in verse made them curious to find out if the struggles end. Dr. Park admits that she had her struggles as a teen, failing to measure up to her sibling's or parents’ expectations. Like Willow, she questioned what good she was if she couldn’t get good grades or a lucrative career path. It took ages for her to reach this point, of making peace with herself.
Dr. Park reveals, however, that mental health is a journey with no final destination. Instead, it’s a continuous path, and you need to fight for your happiness every step of the way. She still has dark thoughts and struggles with her feelings of inadequacy. Her family still doesn’t understand the battles she had to fight, though her brother is making an effort. Dr. Park tells Willow that the struggle doesn’t end. What helps is knowing you’re not alone, and others are there for you. Willow doesn’t believe it, but the happiest ending proves Dr. Park right.
I’ve thought about this a lot. Mental health can be a struggle, and knowing you have to live with yourself is a bitter pill to swallow, and not the medication kind. Dr. Park spends every day putting in the work while helping her own patients. She is a positive force and a good therapist because she has been on the other side.
Am I going to aim for one hundred percent completion? Absolutely not; I’m refusing to be a fool about it. The worst possible thing that a person could do is try to torment Willow, Dr. Park, or Dr. Freeman further. With that said, it is worth seeing if the other treatment options — medication, CBT, and so forth — would improve Willow’s temperament drastically and help prevent their nervous breakdown. I’d like to play through in the Therapist Mode as well, which is a sort of New Game+ mode. In it, a random outcome is assigned, and you must figure out which outcome it is and then make it happen in order to achieve the best ending.
While this is a very different game from most of what is on offer, the themes are relevant and important to bring to the mainstream. Syntherapy could be a useful tool to help people learn more about their own mental health and have a touchstone to which they can relate.