Following his rituals day after day, dealing with a constant barrage of unwanted thoughts, Algonquin game development graduate Stef Pinto decided that enough was enough.
“I took all the steps to get help, but even after getting through a lot of these issues, there were intrusive thoughts flooding my head,” said Pinto. “But it suddenly just clicked. I’m going to make this into a game.”
The result? A piece of art in the form of a game called Exit Mask. It was released on Jan. 3, 2020.
Pinto graduated from the game design program at Algonquin College in spring of 2019.
In September, he was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. “Yep, sounds about right,” recalled Pinto, reacting to his diagnosis. “It’s a bit of an anticlimactic reaction, but this wasn’t some big revelation.”
Exit Mask is a free-to-play horror game, pushing you through its twisted, maze-like design. Horrific creatures stalk you through the levels while loud, distorted sounds play in the background.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a game about OCD,” Pinto said. “I’d say it’s inspired by it. It has gruesome, disturbing imagery that has no escape. You just sort of brute force your way through hoping to get it to stop, but it always comes back eventually.”
Exit Mask was developed late June 2019. Pinto worked on the game by himself, while occasionally asking colleagues for advice.
“Stef regularly spit-balled ideas off of me, explaining his creative process and what he aimed to replicate with the game,” said Nico Zobnin, a game development graduate and classmate to Pinto. “Though not something I could personally relate to, I found myself intrigued as the game slowly embraced its ugly and brash inspirations to form a gripping portrait out of something so abstract.”
Pinto posted updates to his website throughout the development cycle.
“When you start working on a game solo, it’s a very gradual and slow process,” he said. “You learn and improve as you go. I learned to expect and identify why someone might not like it during the development, long before actually putting it out there. I had to accept that no matter what the game was going to end up as, some people aren’t going to like it, it’s unavoidable.”
The game features references to self-harm through its mechanics, and suicide through its enemy design. “I can say with certainty it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a brutally transparent and wholly unique art piece nonetheless,” said Zobnin. This resulted in reviewers describing the game as disgusting for the sake of being disgusting.
“A lot of that stuff is extremely gross, discomforting, but most importantly, obscene,” he said. “Obscene imagery toes a fine line between being genuinely disturbing and eye-roll-inducing because it tries too hard. I related to both sides of that.”
Pinto suggests caution before playing, as the game does contain sensitive material that may be too much for certain players.
“The reason why people viewed the content as insensitive is the same reason I thought it was justifiable in the first place, as it’s what I felt towards my OCD when it was at its peak, which was excessive, edgy, bothersome, nonsensical and cheaply crude,” said Pinto.
Despite some negative feedback through comments video reviews, the game was well-received upon release, as it received over 1400 downloads and has amassed over 250,000 YouTube views across multiple reviews.
“I’m obviously surprised by the reception,” he said. “This game has a part of me in it, and there’s so much reassuring feedback, it’s so cool to see. To see this positivity when there’s still so much more room to improve motivates me a lot.”