Games Discussed: Depression Quest; dys4ia
Notes: This post discusses depression, and those with related triggers should proceed with caution; a section of this video records a game on New Grounds which features generally discriminatory advertising.
Welcome to the first of many B-Side videos, a series that will look at free indie games and how they continue to evolve our artform. This episode, I’ll be discussing Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Issac Schankler.
Depression Quest is an interactive fiction, possibly non-fiction, game that takes the player through an experience of dealing with clinical depression. But even as I say it, that doesn’t really do the game justice; to say Depression Quest is simply about depression misses the interesting design philosophies at work here.
Someone smart at some point in my life either quoted someone else or said something akin to “Through the very specific, art becomes universal.” It speaks to the uptick of the hyperpersonal going on in games right now, and how it resonates with so many. Depression Quest is interesting because it blurs the line between fact and fiction; it is a rather distinct scenario with certain factors already present going in, but it isn’t hard to fit yourself into the role of the main character. It’s like games’ answer to creative non-fiction, and this choice made by the developers is important to point out.
Depression Quest is for a couple different audiences, and a player could fit into more than one. Mainly, there are two ways a person can approach it; looking for solidarity in a shared experience and gaining empathy through a shift in perspective. It is possible to do it both ways because this game both is and isn’t about depression, is and isn’t about a particular person.
The most powerful mechanic is actually the lack of choices open to the player. At least, all of the seemingly obvious ones most people assume are available are blocked off from those depressed. This instantly complicates common advice that ultimately sum up to “just make yourself feel better.” You see the options right there in front of you, but the system keeps them out of reach.
As far as I know, I don’t have depression. My best friend of many years, and others in my life, do, and very often I couldn’t understand the chronic flakiness and inability to express what they were feeling. Depression Quest did a couple things to bridge that gulf and create a channel for empathy; the formerly discussed blocked choices, and the archetypes found in the various people in the main character’s life. I personally found myself almost verbatim in Alex, the player’s girlfriend. Through a specific lens, the positive energy that a person can provide someone who is depressed can actually be immensely negative, and it was interesting essentially playing against myself. The character didn’t have the options available that would please me and Alex. Upon multiple play-throughs, I became more aware of the way choices start to open up and close off, and how this is only partly intuitive to the player.
On my first run through the game, I tried to be as honest and positive as the options would let me. The unavailable choices already created a ceiling I wouldn’t have assumed, and at times, made me choose something self-destructive. The unrelenting openness left my character vulnerable and caused them considerable pain at times. It made me reconsider my own tactics, about how that path is only serving the interests of others, and not my personal safety. In a future playthrough, I came to find a strategic mix of self-preservation and openness balanced your mood and other’s happiness, shown by the increased number of available options.
Then I was curious about what it looked like to be the lowest of your low. I was expecting something melodramatic and constant encounters with suicide, but my assumptions were met with something else. Suicide was more of a long dull pain, and what really characterized deep depression was the lack of control. More and more options were taken away from me, and I was forced to make decisions I knew would end badly.
Depression Quest uses its choice structure in a rather clever way to comment about therapy and taking medication. While everything leading up to therapy is dependent on your mood, the choice to start drugs and continue therapy are always available to you. It communicates having agency within that situation whereas in the rest of your life, you don’t. I liked that the developers were able to show contrast within their mechanics in a positive way, where usually designers like to give players a whole bunch and then take it all away.
Games like Depression Quest also help reaffirm a sort of community status for those who are illustrated in them. Depression Quest sits in an ambiguous area when it comes to how much of it is imbued with the personal experiences of the creators. Mainstream games typically make characters broad enough in attempt to have players easily identify with them. The logic is the player will fill in the holes and complete the character. Hyperpersonal works reject this notion by forcing the player to keep themselves out of the characters. Games like Dys4ia, by Anna Anthropy, assume many people playing it will not have shared the developer’s experience and instead has the player relate by reaching into their own personal history to establish empathy through the system. Depression Quest does a little of both; there are clearly autobiographical elements, used to create a very specific experience while, at the same time, it stepped back and allowed the player to fill themselves into this experience. I knew this was about depression, and felt those unique circumstances, but I could relate through my own experience of considering hormone replacement therapy. I didn’t need to have depression to find solidarity in this experience.
I’m not sure if I have words for what exactly Depression Quest does, but it is one of the fuzziest blends between author and player I can think of. Actually, this idea is encapsulated by the great sound design of the game. The main theme plays as the constant reminder of the character’s illness, though it could be abstracted to just about anything. Then noise eventually breaks through and takes you out of your head. Sometimes it’s clear and sharp, and on worse days garbled and painful. The ambient sounds pull players from the general narrative where they easily project themselves and into specific scenes undoubtedly from an author’s past. In a sense, Depression Quest applies how it handles fiction and non-fiction to depression itself- it alters reality while not striding too far away, leaving people in a constant state of confusion.
This is only one aspect of Depression Quest that’s interesting, and it’s obviously a hit. Not only is it a great game for playing, it’s great for sharing. Another topic altogether, but to me, it shows a bright future for games, how they can be used to help people communicate when their words aren’t enough. I think Depression Quest helped put more work like it on the map, and I can only see more games like it being made.
So, that’s it for this episode! Go play Depression Quest at depressionquest.com and consider donating to the development team for their work. Also, e-mail me your thoughts, suggestions, and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for joining me on the first take of B-Side, I hope you’ll join me next time for another talk on free indie games.