Depression Quest: Gaming With a Purpose
Video gaming is a more adaptable art form than once thought.
There have always been attempts to bring depth and weighty themes to a medium otherwise known for allowing a player to jump on turtles, knock giants off mountains and weep for humanity when they dare to listen to the player chat in Call of Duty.
Most attempts are lacking in technological capability, sensitivity to the subject matter or both. But in the past three years, we have seen games which tie together complex storytelling, interactivity and a sensitivity to their subject matter.
Depression Quest is an “interactive (non)fiction” on the subject of depression, self published by the Quinnspiracy, a small team of developers led by Zoe Quinn.
Though a few games have included characters suffering varying forms of depression, very few have made depression the focal point of the game the same way Depression Quest does.
Depression Quest takes a risk, as depression manifests in different forms. To get more than a superficial understanding of a condition that affects so many people demands a level of insight that games have rarely engaged with.
While other games have used depression as a muse, a thematic point or a character device, they tend to lack subtlety. Perhaps this is due to the external focuses on the condition. Or it may be because the games focus on depression in a particularly fantastical setting which precludes any meaningful exploration of what depression is.
The complex issues that video games do choose to explore are often chosen for narrative convenience. Depression, when it appears at all, tends to manifest as either another inner demon for the protagonist to defeat or linked to a particularly potent trauma – or perhaps both.
This creates the implication that depression is simply a hurdle to “get over”. For many people suffering, that is simply not the case. This is the primary message of Depression Quest.
How well does Depression Quest succeed?
Depression Quest eschews a lot of traditional gameplay elements in favour of telling a story. In fact it feels very like a novella that relies on occasional interaction from the reader, much like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.
The story casts the player as a man trying to get through a six month period of his life while his inner psyche eats away at him. Each slip up and missed chance takes its toll.
Graphically, the game is fairly basic, even by interactive fiction standards. The screen interface is an off white, with plain black text describing the scene.
A scenario is placed in front of you, based on the persona of your character in the game. You are given a set of options for how you could handle a particular situation.
The only deviation from this monochromatic interface is the parade of tiny stock images at the header of each page. That, and the bright red text striking through a number of options you simply cannot choose, despite being aware of them.
And it is this which makes Depression Quest so thought provoking. It powerfully symbolises the way in which the answers offered to a neurotypical protagonist have been removed, because of the character’s level of depression.
There are few mechanics to the game, but the ones the developers have used are effective. They create an atmosphere of confinement, negative feedback and mental claustrophobia. This sense of almost nihilistic minimalism is also shown in the audio: quiet, mournful piano pieces, white noise and other pieces of deliberately disconcerting ambience.
There are three reflections of your characters status below every page of text, which describe your mental state, whether you are taking medication and whether you are seeing a therapist.
The cumulative effect, whether an intentional design choice or serendipitous use of very limited resources, is a game where the player feels on edge, unnerved, sorrowful and with direct control of their surroundings and mental state removed.
With an absence of graphical, audio and mechanical aspects, the centrepiece is the narrative, in all its inauspicious mundanity.
The game starts in medias res (in the middle of things) and doesn’t neatly conclude either. It ends with a reflection of the time spent in the game, your choices and their positive and negative consequences.
The deliberately mundane life depicted is interspersed with occasional and effective dialogue which emphasises the alien nature of depression and the way it can make someone feel isolated from friends, family members and even their own sense of self.
Quinn and her team have said that many of the scenarios are based on their own experiences with depression. This shows in the vivid nature of the prose for what are fairly unremarkable daily scenes and psychodramas. While the prose can be clumsy, marred by over-description, it does provide an unsettling or even upsetting experience.
One criticism is that therapy and medication are given almost “wonder drug” status. For a work that was based on a semi-autobiographical depiction of clinical depression, the universal view of the effects of antidepressants seems unrealistic.
Therapy and medication can help, and the intention of the writers is to raise awareness and encourage people suffering from depression to seek help. But, the depiction of the recovery is significantly less rocky than that of the depths of depression.
So, does Depression Quest succeed in its lofty goal?
Yes, in parts.
The game’s mechanics, intentionally distant and not fun, manage to get across the message that clinical depression is an illness and not a mark of failure on any sufferer’s part. It also conveys that seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
If you are wanting to know more about depression in a semi-interactive way, then Depression Quest, as a free game is definitely worth a look.
Just know that you’ll probably want a hug when it’s over.
David Rose is an upstart young literary critic, reviewer, novelist, lyricist, metal vocalist and master of hugs, with a particular tone mixing academic critique with bouncy childish glee.