The Average Everyday Adventures Of Samantha Browne [official site] is a free game, a short story about the experience of social anxiety, and indeed the experience of making a mug of oatmeal. And it’s really rather special. Here’s wot I think:
Samantha Browne is, I discern, an American student studying in the UK, living in shared halls of residence, with a shared kitchen. And I know that as I write that last part some people will have read and said, “Uh huh,” while others will have felt a cold shiver down their spine. The first group is rarely aware the second group exists. This is a game about someone in the second group.
It is, I suppose, what is now known as a visual novel, a game in which your involvement is to make occasional binary choices that impact the direction things take. It’s all presented with some really splendid doodly drawings, occasionally animated, and with excellent music from Adrianna Krikl. But more than anything, it’s an attempt to convey the sensation of terror at having to leave the safety of a locked room and enter a shared space with unknown people. And it works.
I’m grateful that my particular brand of anxiety disorder, while crippling and brutal in its own ways, doesn’t include social anxiety. While I may be tearing myself to pieces about other matters inside, being the centre of attention or showing off in a room of people I’ve never met has never bothered me at all. While an introvert, I can revel in extroverted moments so long as I know there’s a way out, a known route back to the safety of solace. (Take away my exit strategy and I’m a gibbering mess. I wait until I’ve gotten home from such things to then lose my mind worrying about imaginary concerns of things said and done.) So it’s fascinating to have such a different form of the tiresome condition explained in such a specific vignette.
Browne hasn’t eaten all day, presumably because she hasn’t left her room all day. An online friend, most likely from back home in the States, nags her to eat something, and so she commits to creating a mug of oatmeal. Which involves opening that door, walking down a corridor, and desperately hoping that the communal kitchen will be empty. It won’t be.
So much is so quickly captured by the game in tiny details. You’re told by Browne in her catchy, gentle chatter that she’s living in “dorms”, but for some reason everyone around her calls it a “flat”, so she’s calling it that too. A tiny thing, but it immediately highlights her otherness, her desire to adapt to fit in (at least in her head). Once you get to the kitchen there’s a lovely moment where she’s daunted by the prospect of using a kettle – again, a sweet observation of a peculiar Atlantic division: almost all Americans don’t use electric kettles. (As a Brit, this is inconceivable when first learned – the idea of putting analogue kettles on stoves feels like something you should only ever have to do when camping, and then only if your extension cable ran out somewhere on the A38.)
If you’re not a social anxiety sufferer, then the rest is up to your empathy. For most, popping into a room to heat some porridge is a forgettable moment, but for Samantha it’s the lowlight of her day, the thing she’s been building up to for hours. This is best captured by the microwave scene, the agonisingly long time it’s taking, the grinding clinking sound of the spoon stirring in the ceramic mug, the chatter of others in the background, and cruelly, the introduction of Samantha’s heartbeat to ensure the sense of tension. I felt it, that need to get out of there! To be done, to get back to safety.
My first time through things finished with Samantha Browne sat on the floor in the corridor, sobbing, with a mug of oatmeal going cold beside her. My second time I made it back, I did it, I ate oatmeal. Then I went back to deliberately make bad choices, to see the consequences. A play through lasts maybe ten minutes, and let’s remember this is free. No complaints here.
That doesn’t change my wishing for a more elaborate version of the same game. Samantha’s bedroom is full of things the point-and-click adventurer in me wants to ‘look at’, and it would be lovely to see such sharp writing given more space to explore the character before making the terrifying journey out the room. But this works, and works well. It definitely makes me very interested to see what developers Lemonsucker do next.
Anxiety disorder sucks in all its various forms, and is very difficult to understand without experience. It’s tempting to dismiss it with, “Oh everyone gets worried, but most people have the sense to put it in proportion.” It’s not that. I think I can best capture an element of it thus: You know that moment when you’re about to jump off the top diving board? Or begin an absail? Or tell the guy or girl that you fancy them? That moment when you realise you’re actually going to do it, and your stomach turns, your chest tightens? Imagine someone pressed ‘pause’ on that moment, and you were stuck there for hours, for days. A moment of awful intensity that’s meant to last a couple of seconds somehow not going away, a primitive invasion of fight-or-flight mechanisms at a time when there’s nothing to fight, nor anything rational from which to fly.
It’s exhausting, miserable, terrifying. Even when you know what it is, that it’s irrational and you don’t need to respond, even then it’s still there, still happening to you. That’s part of anxiety disorder. If you recognise the symptoms and want to get some support, please do check out the links at the bottom of this article.