After a lot of consideration I reluctantly played through Depression Quest. As a life long sufferer of depression, the idea struck a nerve that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be struck. Depression is a serious problem, with 40 million Americans reporting having suffered from depression and likely many more who never report it. I wasn’t worried a game about depression would trivialize it as much as I didn’t want to face my own issues dealing with depression. I eventually set my trepidation aside and decided to plunge in.
Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game made in Twine, a tool for generating interactive stories. You play an unnamed character dealing with day-to-day depression and lead him through the mundane aspects of his life. You have a day job that you hate, a girlfriend named Alex, a few friends, and a mother who doesn’t understand you. The mechanics of the game have you try to balance the depression with the scenarios the game presents you with. As in life, you have little to no control with what hand life deals you, but you do have control over how you react to it – at least to some extent. Depression Quest presents a scenario such as being invited out to socialize with friends. You will have 3-4 options in which to react. Usually, the first and most positive reaction such as, be honest, is
stricken out. This forces the player to choose from the least negative of the scenarios. That is if you are trying your best to be a healthy individual. This is an interesting mechanic. Those that suffer from depression never choose to be depressed; it’s something that happens inside the chemistry of your brain. However, I was worried the game would only offer negative reactions. Part of dealing with depression is your state of mind. If you are always in a negative state of mind you will always perceive the world that way. Of course, depression is much more complex than that. My concern was that Depression Quest would present depressed people through that lens of negative perception. Because the truth of the matter is, many people whole-heartedly try to keep an open mind and use positively reinforced thinking and still suffer from depression.
Fortunately, as you attempt to make the best choices that you are given, the game begins to open more positive reactions to choose from. There is no leveling-up mechanic but you can see that your positive action will begin to make more options available. Keeping with a sense of realism, there are ups and downs. You may eventually reach out to a therapist whom will also suggest medication. As your life begins to turn around friends and family start to react to you differently. Still, there will be good days and bad. Making the healthiest choice available will continue to keep you on the right track.
I was concerned with how I would identify with this character. No description is given of the character but it can be inferred that he is a straight white male. He has a girlfriend, whom is very understandable. He is in a position of some privilege. He has a good enough job that he has insurance that will cover therapy. I wanted to scream at the character, “At least you have a girlfriend, asshole!” Because in reality most chronically depressed people do not have a girlfriend or boyfriend, I know it’s shocking but most people don’t want to date depressed people. Also, while I can relate to having a job that is unfulfilling, at least he has a job. Think of the many people who are caught in a self-defeating cycle of being depressed, losing their job because of their depression, and not being able to get another job because of their depression, further exacerbating their depression. Still, criticizing the depressed person only worsens their depression and would be counterproductive. Examples are varied enough that anyone who has suffered from depression will empathize with the character despite their racial, sexual, socioeconomic background. The designers did create a seemingly realistic character. Still, the game might have been more identifiable to people of different backgrounds if the character came from different socioeconomic backgrounds, came with sex and gender options, and the option of having a girlfriend or boyfriend, or simply leaving them as a blank slate.
The presentation of Depression Quest adds substantially to the text-heavy game. Melancholy piano music plays throughout the game underscoring the emotional tone. Also, as you ride further and further into depression the polaroid pictures that accompany each scene lose color; an apt representation of those suffering from depression. Some of the pictures were a little too “hipstery” for me. The fact that they were polaroids in the first place matched with ironic shots of PBR cans really distracted me. See problems with identification above. However, the ambient noise of static rising and falling throughout the experience added an aural layer of emergence. Background noise of a joyous group of people while you decide how best to act when left alone at a party was a particularly effective. It brought me back to many socially awkward situations.
Overall, I was very satisfied with my time with Depression Quest. There was no saccharine ending. In fact the game even tells you, there really is no ending. Many dealing with depression will continue to deal with it for the rest of their lives, whether occasionally or chronically. It was also refreshing – although an atypical way to think about it – to see depression handled seriously in a game. For those suffering from depression will empathize with the game’s scenarios and see they aren’t alone. Those who have never suffered from depression will sympathize with the character, and get just a glimpse into what it is like living a life with debilitating depression. The game is available to play for free and they also accept donations. A portion of the proceeds go to iFred, the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression. I recommend that everyone to give Depression Quest a try. It may not be the most enjoyable experience, but games offer more benefits than being escapist fun. Also, I urge anyone suffering from chronic depression to seek professional help. It will only be beneficial to your ongoing health in the long run.