For me, it happened when I beat Breath of the Wild. After stalling for weeks—checking off side quests, collecting Korok seeds, and upgrading the majority of my armor—I finally defeated Calamity Ganon. It was over so quickly that I felt a bit empty after. Never mind that I could reload my game and Ganon would be back, that I could keep exploring, that I could start a new file in Master mode: I’d crossed some invisible threshold. Even if I returned to Hyrule, it would be, somehow, different.
Cue a bout of beat-the-game blues.
These feelings are common. Readers call it a “book hangover” when they, as Clare Barnett from Book Riot explained, “can’t stop thinking about the fictional world that has run out of pages.” Academic research in the field of arts and leisure calls it post-series depression, or PSD; a 2019 study defined it as “the feelings of melancholy and longing that can occur when an individual’s all-consuming film or screen product comes to an end.” In the gaming sphere, it’s called post-game depression (which even has its own Urban Dictionary entry, with this example sentence: “I have been avoiding my favorite game recently due to my post-game depression”—my BotW stalling, called out!).
Despite having different names, all three of these phenomena stem from the same source, something called parasocial attachment. These are one-sided attachments in which, in this case, a player feels like they personally know the characters and the world of Hyrule, even though the game is fictional and can’t know us back.
These attachments occur because our brains process both real and imagined interactions in the same way, according to Gayle S. Stever, a professor of psychology at SUNY Empire State College in New York. We know Link and Hyrule aren’t real, but we spend time with them, and we get attached anyway. Then, when the game ends and the story is over, we lose that connection. We grieve the parasocial attachment.
In wider pop culture, Betty White is a great example of this. White, who passed away a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday, has been celebrated since her death, with mourners lauding her acting career, her love of animals, and her defiance of racism in the 1950s. In newspapers and on social media, people talk about her like they knew her, though most of us didn’t.
For Stever, that’s key: “We feel like we knew her.” And because we became attached, “we grieve that loss.”
These attachments—to celebrities or fictional characters and worlds—form with anything that gives us comfort, safety, or solace. It's strange to think about deriving comfort from a place like Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule, which is full of ruins, monsters, and rusty broadswords, but, as Stever explains, “we derive comfort from the familiar.” We get to know Hyrule, and knowing it draws us in and provides comfort, whether or not the world or its inhabitants are actually comforting in any way. This is one explanation for the popularity of zombie games like The Last of Us, which, despite its popularity, is probably not a place its fans would choose to live.
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Our desire for comfort via familiarity starts in infancy, when we look for familiar faces, such as our mother’s, for food and safety. After that, the instinct stays with us, and we continue making attachments. Unfortunately, as time passes, that means we lose some of these attachments as well. “When we lose them,” Stever says, “we lose a sense of comfort.”
Stever suspects that parasocial attachments may be even more prevalent right now due to the pandemic, in which our opportunities to interact with others have been limited. This means that we watch more TV, read more books, and play more video games to fill these social gaps. These parasocial attachments, as Stever explained in a chapter of the 2020 book The Sage Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, “can afford a person a sense of safety and felt security almost as effectively as can a real and physically proximal attachment object or person.”
In short, our media doesn’t replace human connection, but it’s a close second, and it was the best we had during the shutdowns from the pandemic.
Some researchers pathologize parasocial attachments and consider them unhealthy, but Stever isn’t one of them. “I don’t agree with that at all,” she says. “It’s a normal, reasonable thing that everybody does.”
Maja Djikic is quoted similarly on book hangovers. An associate professor and director of the Self-Development Laboratory at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, she said in an article for Book Riot that lengthy book hangovers stem from the reader “still pondering and struggling with some personally relevant issues that were brought up in the book—it could lead to a personal transformation.”
How to Cope
Knowing that post-game depression exists is one thing, but knowing what to do when you feel those blues is another altogether. In processing these feelings, Stever looks to other examples of grief.
“Any time you experience a loss,” Stever says, “you seek comfort in other relationships.” This is true when we grieve friends or family, and it’s true when we grieve parasocial attachments. Stever recommends connecting with the other people in your life, whether they game or not, and whether you discuss this loss or not, to decrease feelings of loneliness and disconnection.
She also suggests seeking out another connection to fill the entertainment gap. Watch a favorite TV show (like The Office, The Golden Girls, or Friends) or start something new on your To Watch list. Read a book. Start a new game, or replay an old favorite. Pursue whatever brings you comfort, and remember that these feelings will pass.
If you aren’t ready to give up the game you love just yet, you may not have to. You can replay it on a different difficulty, in a different order, or for a different ending (if the game allows that). Replaying Breath of the Wild didn’t work for me, so I sought out adjacent games, like the prequel Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, which let me spend more time with the same world and characters, albeit with some differences. For me, it was both different and similar enough.
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There are also other ways to hold on to a game. In a 2021 article for The Gamer, Stephanie Minor suggested fandom as a way to cope with feelings of loss and also connect with others. Participating in a larger community, Minor wrote, “keeps the game [you love] alive for longer.”
Depending on your interests, fandom can take a variety of forms: participating in forums, Discord servers, or subreddits; reading or writing fan fiction on sites like Archive of Our Own or Fanfiction.net; drawing or viewing fan art on sites like DeviantArt; or attending conventions, which may include game-themed panels, meetups, or cosplay. If you can't find existing events, you might consider creating and running your own.
Sometimes, though, there’s just nothing to “do” when a game ends. It’s important to remember that it’s OK to be sad. Sometimes you just need to sit with those feelings for a while.
And yes, it can hurt. It can be gloomy. But that’s the beauty of a good game. That’s how we know it’s stolen our hearts: We never want to leave.
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