Depression is a slog of futility. It often challenges us to come back to something again and again. Depression is often not kind. You may at one point, find yourself two steps forward only to soon feel three steps back. However, depression is almost always overcome through personal growth. Iris and the Giant is the gamification of depression and anxiety where personal demons take on the form of Greek creatures of mythology, and the coping mechanism is a card game where the deck you choose to build and the hands you draw are your own personal escape.
Iris and the Giant is developed by French developer Louis Rigaud, who wants his experience in creating interactive papercraft books for kids to entertain in a gamified format. Depression and anxiety are ideas that indie game developers have found creative means of exploring in recent years, be it through platformers like “Celeste,” or interactive graphic novels like “Night in the Woods.” I’ve certainly never seen a card came that tackles these feelings at all.
I’ve played a number of card games as a gamer and a reviewer, and I’ve found that they are one of the most likely gaming genres to suffer from oversimplicity or total convolution. The rules to Iris and the Giant are not hard to grasp; In order to escape the labyrinthine maze of your mythology-induced dreamworld, you’ll need to employ a bag of magical attack cards and physical weapon cards. If your cards or will points (health) run out, you’ll have to start over from the beginning. You’ll quickly become a master of the game thanks to the fact that you’ll likely have to start over and over again. However, the game doesn’t feel like a slog at all because it’s constantly adding more challenges and buffing you up to take them on.
Just as depression itself is unique to an individual, the strategy for completion is as well. Enemies advance at you in three organized rows. Each has specific attack damage and a skill that they hope will stop you from progressing. You use your cards in different ways to reach the next floor. Along the way, you’ll find gems that will power you up and chests that can be opened to grant you more cards or destroyed to act as an atomic bomb-like tool of destruction. You’ll have to ask yourself if collecting either of these bonuses are worth the moves you must make to obtain them. Because it’s likely that going after these powerups will cost you cards used and health lost.
When it comes to Iris and the Giant, beating the game is about as personal as beating anxiety and depression. It’s likely to keep coming back at you, and you’re going to have to find your own way to beat it.
Iris and the Giant‘s story truly excels at telling more with a whole lot less. Every time you boot up the game, you’re shown a brief cutscene where Iris explains that her dad is driving her to her swimming lesson. We see Iris launch herself off a high-dive as some kids bully her, and then she wakes up in crossing the River Styx. The power of the game’s minimalist story rests in Iris’s anguish-strained voice. From the get-go, you learn everything you need to know about her from the dull cadence of how she speaks. Iris is an individual who hopes to escape a world of monotony by fleeing to a world of mythology. The rest of the game’s epic is told through even shorter cutscenes that offer a glimpse into our hero’s journey. As well as through fragments called memories, which flashback to moments of pain in Iris’s real life.
Memories also serve as a neat gameplay mechanic as finding them grants bonus cards and stat modifiers. There’s a memory skill tree of sorts that will long keep you entertained with trying to find the best combinations to aid you on your crawl. There’s also a very interesting NPC system called imaginary friends, which will also provide you with a stat bonus that differs depending upon who you bring along with you. The catch is that to gain assistance from that invisible friend, you’ll first have to clear a challenge that they offer you.
Imaginary friend challenges offer an excitingly tough aspect to an already pretty challenging game. You’ll find yourself needing to follow a strict regulation such as “end a turn with 60 cards in your bag.” Or, “defeat 50 enemies that carry a star on their head.” These are tough challenges, but the stat buffs these NPCs add can take you several floors deeper into Iris’s imagination.
The value of Iris and the Giant comes from its replayability. The game intends for you to feel overpowered, but not helpless. The fact that you get a little stronger and well-equipped with each playthrough makes you feel as this could be the last time you cross the Styx. Those who have dealt with depression and anxiety are sure to feel connected to the grand sense of failure that comes along with playing Iris and the Giant. Each time you watch Iris fall — it’ll be many times — you feel sadness in not being able to escape. Moments of helplessness are frustrating. But these feelings give way to determination. Rigaud has so masterfully turned replayability into a core mechanic of the game. He does not intend for you to finish the story right away, so he makes sure that you’ll want to keep coming back by giving you the tools and tricks needed to pull yourself out of a rut. Seeing your skills grow, earning new imaginary friends and watching the progress percentage tic higher keep you coming back for more. Failure is likely coming for you with each new start, but the way Rigaud prepares you for it is enough to make you want to try.
Iris and the Giant is an example of indie gaming at its best. By that, I mean that it’s sparse in a lot of aspects that take teams of people to program. But what it has is genuine replayability and sense of self. The game intends for you to keep coming back for more, and so it gives you just enough to ensure you’ll do so. There’s seemingly no end to its replayability. Louis Rigaud’s story of a young girl overcoming depression pairs perfectly with collectable card game mechanics to create an experience that I highly suggest you subject yourself to.
Iris and the Giant is available now on Steam and Nintendo Switch.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]