We’ve all been there. You are fully engaged in your work both emotionally and spiritually. You’re giving it your all to the point of obsession. You can’t think of anything else because you are doing the work you’re meant to do, the kind of work that is meaningful to you. You’re not doing busy work at a factory (which is how I felt at my previous job), but instead doing important work with artistic intent. This is what allows us to work harder than possible and longer than possible. Sometimes, though, we work our asses off to the detriment to our mental health.
I recently experienced something of an emotional breakdown. Moments before it happened I was feeling fine when suddenly I was overcome by an uncontrollable burst of weeping without any warning. I made sounds that I didn’t know a grown man could make, pouring my eyes out while lying prone. What the hell came over me? I can’t be sure but I’m willing to make some guesses.
The following is a list of ways I’d describe my life for the past several weeks:
- Working 18 hours a day in front of my computer, everyday including weekends.
- After getting little sleep I’d frequently wake myself up in morning with a cold shower to get out of my groggy state and get started with the day.
- Little activity outside my bedroom. In other words, an abysmal social life.
- Not having daily reminders that I’m alive and that I exist. Simple things like greeting someone with a “good morning” and hearing “good morning” back.
A lone wolf.
Working completely alone on my video game, I was feeling similar effects to what prisoners in solitary confinement must go through. Or cabin fever, just going stir crazy. I’d turn on music or an audiobook while I work, but the sound of working alone is deafening. I just didn’t realize it at the time because I was thoroughly enjoying the work, delighted by seeing my thoughts and ideas slowly realized on screen.
I’ve immersed myself deeper and deeper into game development while losing interest in everything else. Not an uncommon story. Independent game developers have the general appearance of not giving a shit about grooming, fashion, or fitness because they lose themselves in their work. They have beards. I have a beard. Game development has a way of encouraging you to experiment with your grooming habits more boldly than ever before.
Fortunately, I haven’t completely let go and gone fat or anything. In fact, I’m in better shape than ever. I’m cognizant of what I eat, maintaining a balanced diet of carbs, proteins, and fats with plenty of water to boot. I don’t mean to brag but I’ve gained nearly 20 lbs. of muscle thanks to my workout routine and diet. The only problem is I also work out in my bedroom.
Better way to endure.
Making a video game that reaches a high level of quality is something you sign up to do for the long term. I’m only six months in (most of those months spent on various prototypes I’ve since discarded) and I’ll need to maintain my mental health for much longer so I’m taking steps to address my ability to endure a long development process:
- Introduce meditation into my routine. This, I think, will yield the greatest benefit of all. Meditation is nothing but flushing your mind of the gunk that tends to accumulate over time. Useless thoughts that create a nagging low level buzz of anxiety stuff our ever busy minds. Meditation allows you to look at your life from the third person perspective of someone outside looking in. It is then that you realize what you perceived to be so dire and serious is actually silly and innocuous. Meditation lets you take a step back and gives you a fresh and more accurate picture of life.
- Give myself mental breaks by engaging in other activities. I’ve started to become more active in the local film community by volunteering my time and expertise for various video projects, namely VFX work both on set and and in post-production.
- Add running to my exercise routine. There’s something called a “runner’s high” which I know to be a very real effect of a nice run. I’m not talking about the pansy run where you do a lap or so with a lot of walking in between. I like to run at a decent speed without stopping or walking for 4 or 5 miles. That always puts me in a fantastic mood.
- Hang out with others/get outside. Kinda falls into the points mentioned above. Also, experiences outside and away from the computer can feed back into the creative process, filling you with new ideas and inspirations. Your time away from work can actually become productive in that way.
- Limit periods of complete immersion. I think working really hard for 2 weeks at a time is okay, but I gotta slow down and enjoy periods of rest every so often. Recharge and get back at it with full force. Recharge and expend, recharge and expend.
My personal meltdown that led to a brief, but startling experience of torrential crying was a weird one. I see it as my body’s way of telling me to take it easy once in a while and pace myself because the work I’m doing is a marathon, not a goddamn sprint! It’s interesting to note that independent game development is not simply a test of skill, creativity, technical expertise, and craftsmanship. It is a trial of your mind. A battle against yourself. A measure of how well you manage your emotions and mental health. Those dudes in Indie Game: The Movie are on edge for a reason. And they are champions of not only game design, but of themselves. Don’t blame them for a few loose screws – it comes with the job :)