PAX West 2018 showcased hordes of new games and pixelated adventures. However, one that was quietly unique was a graphic novel game focused on queer teens and mental health: Burn Ban. While hardly a perfect game or story, the game highlighted aspects of youth culture and mental illness that are often glossed over until it’s too late. Talking to one of the devs, it was a passion project for the team, however they also wanted to combat the toxic versions of mental health from stories like 13 Reasons Why.
Overall, the graphic novel was gripping. I didn’t put it down until I was finished with it, which only took an hour or two. While there are multiple diverting choices and it could be played more, the gist of the story and its meaning is understood enough in a single play-through.
On a broad scale, the story is impressively inclusive without making too big a deal out of it. The main characters include: Twig, a queer, androgynous young woman with a little too much sadness and grief on her shoulders; Em, a troubled, stand-offish girl who sticks up for Twig on her first day; Clay, a fun-loving, yet angry, African American jock who has a serious sense of justice; and Kai, Clay’s attentive and concerned Asian-American boyfriend.
All these characters meet at a summer camp for troubled teens. Most all of them deal with a different trauma, disorder, or the like.
The story shines in treating the cast’s diversity for what it is: the normal, human variety that exists in the world. The queerness, race, or different backgrounds of all the cast aren’t shined on like “ooh look, how cool we are for covering minorities, right?”. Their individuality is not token-ized. They exist organically: as realistic teens acting like the teens they are.
Digging deeper into the story, there are more shining moments, yet also holes. The story is its best when showing how much frustration and pain can happen under the surface in teen lives. It shines in its characters, four very different people connecting over their shared pain. This makes the story truly enjoyable and interesting to follow, even when it has some holes in it.
Which leads to the less good. The story, however strong, does have some questionable plot holes and confusing language usage. For example, the narrative several times refers to their university, but they’re at camp. The story never clarifies that its a camp only for kids at their school, which makes it mildly confusing when the mystery aspects of the story start up and people keep mentioning connections to their specific college. It also raises the concerning question of how many troubled teens go to their school to constitute a yearly summer camp special to their campus. There are also logic holes, like the fact Clay’s boyfriend, Kai, came “just for moral support”. While camps like these are made to comfort attendees, it’s doubtful any would allow a boyfriend just to be there. The camp members are supposed to focus on their recovery, after all. Perhaps I missed some interaction that explained this better, but to the average person, its odd.
When it comes to game design, there is a similar issue. Overall, it’s got a great, inviting design. The characters are interesting and diverse to look at. They have clever horns distinguishing them and alluding to their troubles and even their personalities (Twig has demon horns, Em Ram’s, Clay Stag’s, and Kai tiny, young goat-like ones). I’d dive deeper, but some of the symbolism can be pretty spoiler-y. Its also one of the few games I’ve run into that integrates social media organically, letting the player open it up and check it at will while updating it every so often with conversations and posts. It doesn’t shove social media into the narrative, like some stories hell-bent on appealing to youth culture, but it does use it to flesh out the story and its characters.
On that same front, though, the social media design is one of the game’s weakest parts. Personally, every time the Scout messages were opened, they started at the beginning of the entire chat log. Instead of organically leaving me where I left off, I had to scroll all the way down, through many things I had already read before. In the friends’ messages, the app put me after the new information, so I had to scroll back up to scroll down to read it. Unfortunately, however interesting, it made the social media aspects of the game tiring to deal with, which is truly a disservice to its clever addition.
Despite its flaws, though, the game was enjoyable and had a great purpose. Also, with the amount of good art and solid writing, it’s a steal at $2.99 on the app store. My experiences are from Android usage, though, so I can’t give a perfect perspective on how the game works on Apple devices.
The game even has decent replay value, as I am interested to go back and try the routes a little bit differently a time or two more.
Imperfect as it is, Burn Ban has fantastic intentions behind it and executes them very well. Unlike the infamy of 13 Reasons Why, it handles suicide very delicately and doesn’t use it as a blaming tool or a plot device. It’s only the events that follow that suicide and their consequences that affect the story at hand. And the mentally troubled students at camp? Well, they’re treated like humans, not lepers. Its refreshing.
Burn Ban is the beginning of a conscious wave across the gamer community. Gamers are starting to explore and understand the vacuum that exists for proper mental health depiction and acceptance. PAX West highlighted this in their partnership with Take This, a mental health advocacy group. This change in acceptance and awareness is also shown in their AFK rooms for overwhelmed gamers and the appearance of several panels dealing with serious mental issues for creators and gamers alike (Impostor syndrome, Gaming Disorders, etc.).
Movies and TV shows have been trying to integrate mental health into their programs for years and still make terrible stumbles backwards. After all, if 13 Reasons Why is one of the best modern works available, its a sad day in Hollywood. Video games and the community surrounding them are stepping up and, hopefully, maybe doing better than those other mediums have ever managed to try.
And games like Burn Ban are fantastic early steps.