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Medieval Melancholia and Depression (Pt. 1)

Continuing my journey through the game Pentiment, I came across an especially resonant part of the game. In order to convey its full effectiveness, a bit of backstory is required.

Throughout the game, you are able to choose different dialogue options to respond to other characters. These options are influenced by the background you have chosen for your character (Andreas) and his education, previous experiences, etc. Occasionally, especially when engaging in more complex conversation, a thought bubble appears. If you select this, the game allows you to consider your options from a variety of viewpoints.

Four characters reflect the variety of responses you can give. Prester John will always favour options that take God and Christianity into account. Saint Grobian will encourage you to choose dialogue options that are on the more crude side. Socrates will lean towards dialogue options that are more rational or thoughtful, and Beatrice (from The Divine Comedy) will lean towards more empathetic and understanding responses.

In the first act of the game, you become dependent on these internal conversations to mull over dialogue options. This allows you to consider how you might affect the person you are talking to, or further consequences that your words might have (for example, suggesting to the abbot that he should look into Martin Luther's work might upset him, but talking to a more open-minded lord might fare better). The point is that: the game establishes this system and makes you dependent on it in order to better 'play' the people in the game.

In the second act, about 15 years has passed. In that span of time, Andreas has "solved" a murder that happened in the first act (condemned someone to death), returned to his home city, married a woman, had a child, and now has an apprentice. He returns to the city that the first act of the game took place in. Except, the dialogue has suddenly changed.

When I went for my usual route of weighing my options, clicking on the thought bubble only showed one option rather than the previous four that were present. No longer were the heads of Socrates, Beatrice, Prester John, and Saint Grobian there to guide my decision. Instead, I was met with an unfamiliar visage.

This unfamiliar face did not walk me through the consequences of saying certain things, or asked me to consider how my words might affect people. Instead, it turned into an argument with myself. The dialogue was self-loathing and hateful - Andreas's thoughts were sarcastic and unforgiving. He calls himself stupid, unaware, selfish, and privileged. His thoughts were no longer multi-faceted expressions of the many sides of himself. It was one single image that took over everything, and did nothing but act in a self-deprecating and cruel manner.

I did not know who this was. As the game continued, I only got more confused. Then a sequence began that involved Andreas having a dream. In this dream, we see a young boy that we have never seen before. Andreas begs for him to leave. And we realize that this is his son - who actually passed away from the plague recently. His son's death created a rift in his marriage, and he dreams of his wife begging him not to return home, as it would only amplify her grief. He has a one sided conversation with the dream version of his son, ruminating over his death and the memory of him. He states: "I retrace my steps every night. And I find my way back to her. Back to you."

The "her" in this statement is unclear, but having previously seen his wife in the same dream, it can be assumed that she is the "her" he is referring to. However, the centre of his dream is reached, and we see that this "her" might be someone else.

"Melencolia" sits at the seat where Prester John used to. The other figures are no place to be found. She is physically larger than everyone else there. In a physical sense of the space of the room, she has taken over. She is now the sole ruler of his mind.

While once I assumed that the "court" of figures ruled Andreas's mind, that is not the case. His mind rules the court. Due to the death of his son and his decaying marriage, his court is only filled with melencolia. As Melencolia explains, "[o]nce reason, curiosity, and the foolishness of youth dwelt under the aegis of your intellect. I am all that remains, the melancholy of life's autumn."

It is clear that Andreas is suffering from what we might call Depression. In part 2 of this blog, next week, I will examine Depression and Melancholia as represented in medieval texts, such as The Book of the Duchess.

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