In the wee hours of the morning, I played Robin, a lovely and lonely and evocative look at what it’s like to live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
As you play, it becomes clear that the consequences of your character’s CFS are wide-reaching. It’s not just that you only have enough energy to do 3 or 4 things per day, and it’s not just that each day you feel a little more tired than the last. The game shows us that CFS plagues you with guilt and saps the enjoyment from things that should bring you happiness.
As you have to choose between self-care and self-fulfillment, each choice is shadowed with dread. If you choose to eat, will you have enough energy to work on your novel? Should you clean your room or take care of your pet? Robin forces you to make each choice deliberately and fully conscious of the sacrifice it entails. When each task takes a big chunk out of your character’s energy meter, you can’t help but feel frustrated and helpless. It’s not that you didn’t want to take a shower — it’s that you simply couldn’t.
At the end of each day, you get a screen that tells you what you didn’t accomplish. Always, the list of failures is longer than accomplishments. So what if you read that book you’ve been meaning to get to? Because you did that, you couldn’t muster up the energy to clean your room and now you feel grimy and stifled by the clutter.
Robin is a bite-sized game and it’s best experienced in repetition. The game makers say that there are 3 endings, but I could only successfully achieve two of them. I kept trying different combinations of tasks, striving for balance but always somehow falling short. Even though the artwork is chipper and bright, the sound effects soothingly familiar, I started feeling a kind of despair. It all felt like an exercise in futility.
I can see Robin as a great tool to help people develop some empathy if they’re unfamiliar with CFS or depression. Personally, I also felt like the game forced me to take a moment to be fully present in my choices and their effects — an important reminder, I think, when you live in a culture that fetishizes the “side hustle” and the eternally busy.