Triad

This is part of an on-going companion series to the game curation effort Forest Ambassador run by merritt kopas. Please explore and support it if you can!

What can games teach about design? To anyone, not necessarily industry people. It’s important to discuss because there are a lot of people talking about games who might not fully have a grasp on design. There’s a lot of criticism about this, that players and critics focus on non-interactive elements when they talk about video games. We often see critics talk about how games fit into certain contexts of our lives, be it as a product or an autobiographical metaphor or an example of systemic oppression. Rarely do these analyses come from the directly design itself, rather by-products or echoes of the design. Which isn’t necessarily bad, that’s what design is supposed to do, make a person feel things.

I just finished reading through anna anthropy’s section of A Game Design Vocabulary, a book co-written with Naomi Clark, just in time to talk about her work on Triad (it only takes a little bit to play) with Leon Arnott and Liz Ryerson. What I like about anna’s writing and talks is how she aims not only for good games and good design, but for a lot of the excess to be cut and manageable for people who aren’t already in video games design to understand and do themselves. I’ve become a fan of saying the idea of minimalist games is misleading, and that most games are overwrought. I want to detail a little about anna’s proposed language around game design through Triad and how it teaches on its own.

anna uses syntax as a way to talk about design. Of most importance are verbs, which she defines as doing rules. In Triad, the player’s main verb is to move around the three members of a relationship into proper sleeping positions on a bed. anna is really good about boiling things down to essentials and makes everything else revolve around this verb. You only use your mouse for the entire game, and a click becomes a decision making action, punctuated by the lamp being the finish button. This seems trivial information at first, but for anna, giving the player the smallest amount of information and input needed to play is an important part of design, because it ties the player stronger to them. I could imagine, and have seen, different keyboard buttons for rotating the people, turning off the light, or advancing the dialogue. We can push this a little further and say that the verb is actually arranging rather than moving, or another word that carries a nuance that would be good for interpreting. I can see a possible avenue for criticism to take and interpret verbs this way, because it allows you to change the light design decisions are seen under. This arranging feeling echoes back out to the objects and context of the game.

I should take a moment aside to talk a little bit about rules. I myself do not really see games to be, essentially, rules or instructions one plays with, but we are in a paradigm that sees rules as the smallest building blocks of creating games. Rules as a concept are also stretched beyond the typical meaning of rules here. The broadest way I can put it is rules are things that are designed to happen. In Triad, this can be that the light can’t turn off until all body parts are on the bed or that to win is for everyone to not be bothered during the night, and down to clicking being what forwards the dialogue and the bed being pink. I see rules more to be a lens than things that really exist on their own, we read rules and systems into design to explain them. Rules as lens is another good place for a critic to start when talking about a piece, such as, how does the rule of the cat jumping on the bed relate to or affect player decisions and behavior?

She uses objects pretty much how you think one would in a sentence structure, the rules verbs act on. anna advises for having interesting objects that help advance verbs. In the game, the main objects are the people being arranged. All of them have different qualities that make them interact with each other in unique ways. One of the bedmates rolls around in their sleep, another flips on their side. These create relationships between the characters, particularly with the one that rolls; they somehow have to be contained in the bed without being kicked. Most interesting and resonant with me however is how these objects are coded to hit each other out of the way unless you are precise and methodical on how you place them. The rules of objects are almost like personality traits; you can read in a sort of frustration yet care in arranging these people on the bed. These objects are fussy to work with but there *is* a solution (well, sort of).

Context is the layer where critics and player tend to sit in the most. It’s important; without context, this would be a simple puzzle game not too unlike other things you’ve seen. This is probably another good practice in criticism, imagining a game stripped of its context compared to its actual one. Because this is depicting a triadic relationship, there’s more going on than pieces fitting together. It’s trying to have different needs met, and requiring a lot of trial and error. My favorite part of the game is actually the interludes between each night, because it mounts the pressure of getting it right the next time. I could only imagine that this triad was also having lots of other things in their relationship going on, and they had to end every night with one of them constantly rolling off the bed.

And, for me, that’s really where design-focused criticism stops. Not much interesting comes out of analyzing in a design-centric manner to connect the game to the outside world. These critiques are pretty much from a user experience standpoint; a lot of anna’s writing is about how to be clear to the player and how to have a less is more approach to design. It is meaningful that there is a game that depicts a triadic relationship, and I think that ends there. This doesn’t mean that this game nor others can’t be significant because of this, rather, I don’t think design analyses can hold up without cultural criticism. I can see a larger piece about themes of restriction in games with queer content and how that manifests, but design-by-design points typically boil down to ‘it’s fun’ or ‘it’s elegant.’ To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the games themselves are void of value, rather, I think design analyses are stuck on what’s good design and how to make a good game on a product level. There is more to be said about the game being about a triad than the puzzle itself; that’s not a critique, more like a sign we need another way to look at games, and why autobiographical connections to games are in vogue.

I find anna’s work both as a designer and theorist to be the terminus of contemporary design ideology, boiled down to its essentials and ready for more people to pick it up and use it. I find that this design paradigm is rather, well, videogamey, and is too down the entertainment rabbit hole to really be mined for something other than that. This isn’t downing her games, knowing her personally I am privy to her non-digital work and ideas that are interesting. Just that I don’t think we’re ever going to find much to talk about in this era of games with a rules-based design paradigm. I definitely suggest buying and reading her and Naomi’s book however, because it will make a lot of contemporary video games clearer, and allows you to understand design-speak better when you hear it. As for my criticisms or difference to this work, I hope to detail that sometime in the future. For now, consider that a game doesn’t need to say something profound through its rules to mean something to someone else, and that players don’t necessarily have to have a designer’s logic to be affected by design. Smaller games like this are like drops in an ocean that can make a wave. We don’t need one or a few games to be especially profound, rather, getting game making tools and methodology into more people’s grasps.

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Countdown: Thinking of Time in Text Games

I’ve been thinking about critique lately, especially in the realm of assigning something value. Is a game good or bad? My current philosophical leanings usually allow me to skirt that question, except for the past year I’ve been judging games for festivals. No matter what, I have to bring down a gavel, and I’ll always feel weird about it. However, I know that I’m brought onto these review panels for a reason; I’m often looking at strange, small games other people can’t make heads or tales of. In particular, I review many games made with twine and other minimalist and text-based games.

Now, I don’t give credence to questioning game credentials of any of these works. What hasn’t really been discussed often is how to critique these sorts of games, or, what is their particular contribution to play. A lot of people look at games made with twine as almost journaling, and the kinds of things expressed happen to be different topics than what is usually developed in games. There are very few design critiques of text play, and having encountered some in my judging, I really had to think about what my angle would be for critique. Often, text games put a lot of weight on the actual writing, which is an intuitive thing to do, but often, play is being evoked in a way that disrupts the writing instead of contributing to it. There has to be a reason a game is the proper way to use this text, and again, I’m not going to delineate what is a play and what is reading, just that I’m a judge for games festivals.

I don’t have everything figured out, but I wanted to share an aspect of text design that I’ve found interesting and use when I critique text games in this manner. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about time and temporality in play, and how games can make us aware of our relationship to time. So when I was looking at some text games these past couple of weeks, I was reminded of a game I looked at last year, Justice by Adrian Hall (I suggest two+ ~12 minute playthroughs). Like many text games (granted, this isn’t fully text), it’s easy to give a large amount of the importance to the choices, since the ruling paradigm of design makes agency its center. If you think of the game largely in what kinds of options are given to you, then the play is kind of pedantic, moralizing. However, consider instead the presence of the timer juxtaposed with the option to present the evidence. The play space is more, why and how do you choose the things you do? What are all the other characters’ timers?

Instead of trying to extract meaning from the choices themselves, I found myself analyzing the rationale behind why I chose what I did. Ultimately, if you didn’t present the gun right away, you were manipulating for your own sense of justice, or cruelty, or curiosity. All coming from a place of privilege; this game is about a battle of egos and how people in places of privilege ascertain morality over minoritized people. The real drama of the piece is the pacing between Fadiyah’s speech, especially after McCoy asks a question. The arrogance of him walking up the stairs, of being intentionally mysterious about the decision that determines another’s life. The choices and their contents are dressing for unearthing this arrogance, this selfishness that people at the top of social systems.

There is another kind of selfishness in another game with a countdown: anna anthropy’s queers in love at the end of the world (you will get a good amount in around five minutes). The tension and anxiety is ramped up a little faster here, but the similarity between the games is this contrast of speed and somber. The world is about to end, boom, and you want, need to, enjoy it. anna uses the time it takes to read against the player, to the point where they start to memorize exactly what they want to do, yet the want to explore all the different choices and paths they have before they get to the point where they just rest in a moment, a thought. And, again, if we look at this for just the choices, you aren’t going to find much other than multiple vignettes.

The pacing of the game through its time segments turn this from a gimmick into the mental state of the author, and possibly the player. It unearths desires and worry in a world where things are fleeting, a world where people are so frequently hurt. The timer and loops makes your concentration on your queer lover total; all you have is each other. The twist on all this the end of the world seems to be a metaphor for love, how we rush towards its pleasurable destruction. The repetition trains you to become obsessive, wanting to consume as much of this experience as you can.

I find that both of these examples are explicit in the flow and pacing that many text and minimalist games use to communicate something to players. People get caught up in the choices aspect, and it’s completely misleading; games that you find using twine often aim to train your perception, get you to understand the architecture of your thoughts, the reason why you chose the things you do. I’ve found a common pattern in these games rejecting player agency, showing false choices or boiling down the results between options to be quantitatively the same and emotionally resonant in different but even ways. Think of reading text as hijacking your thoughts and manipulating your perception, and what that does to how you navigate the game. This is just one of many things, of course, and not the in sole domain of these minimal text games, but I’ve found it useful for when I need to find a foothold in analyzing these games. And, really, they reflect back on games of other types as well, mostly showing how cheaply choice as a concept is deployed in mainstream games.

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Inspiring Games I Played in 2013

Deadbolt

I have a hard time crying. Out of all the people I know, I cry the least. Even when I want to, I can’t seem to reach that catharsis.

Catharsis. I’m really interested in play being used for communication. Especially between people who are intimate with one another. There is something about play that can internalize frustration, despair, relief.

I played Deadbolt twice, and both times I cried afterwards. It wasn’t a game about crying, rather, extreme tension and exhaling. The play was more in what you didn’t do than the simple actions of telling a secret or giving praise.

It was the mood. I couldn’t say a word most of time. I sat, anticipating what raw memory I’d have to bare, listening to people talk to each other in hushed voices. Both for my ears and none of my business. When I finally got to speak, to detail what neurosis haunts me, my voice is hoarse.

I still carry the game around with me. But it’s a part of Deadbolt that doesn’t have any rules. There are three cards with keys on them in my wallet, and when I remember that they are there, I begin to cry.

Dog Eat Dog

We were a nation in love with horses and festivals. Every year we held our biggest celebration on the day of the horses, feeding them fruit and brushing their manes.

Then they came. The first thing they demanded was putting the horses to work. We didn’t understand. White men with lip hair tried to mount our horses, but they bucked and kicked and ran off to the forests. We would have too, if it weren’t for their guns.

We did all we could to resist. We held festivals every day to avoid working for invaders. We began to worship the sea, pretty rocks, strong gusts of wind. We snuck our children in the forests at night so they didn’t forget about horses.

They put us in rooms to teach us their ways. Our young listened to them more than the horses. And even when they left, we could still feel the roads they paved over our homes.

The Entertainment

There is a man sitting at a bar. He rocks back and forth on the back legs of the stool. A cracked leather wallet stuffed with receipts of art supplies and lattes to write off his taxes peeks out his right, back pocket. There were small icebergs floating on a half-inch of amber liquor in the highball by his knuckles. His cell phone won’t ring. He picks up the glass.

I like the way men sit. The angle of their legs just shy of a right angle, one foot dangling, laces just about to touch the ground. Okay, the way he sits. Lip. Gloss. Smack. I can see him in my compact mirror. The jukebox music is just cheesy enough for small talk. Just say how stiff the Long Islands are here. He’s checking his phone. I rise from my seat.

This is about perspective. Every object is observed from different angles, with different senses, from different heights and distances. You feel like you are moving forward through life but an infinite amount of things are hitting you sideways and upside down. We usually hear of life second-hand, but here we get closer to the chaos of experience, even the parts we don’t know we feel.

Killer Queen Arcade

I am the Queen. My kingdom is the battlefield.

I can hear our enemies. They are tapping and whispering. They jump around and I must kill them.

I admit, I can’t keep track of my children. They yell for my attention, powerless without my intervention. They chirp when they jump, pleading as I dodge dive attacks and horizontal swipes.

One is collecting, other ride a snail, the rest chase the enemy queen. I don’t quite understand the snail. What do we do, mother?

In every battle, there is a sacrifice. My children on the ground floor distract the enemy as I evolve my newly born into warriors. They throw their bodies forward without a concern for their lives, only mine.

Only mine.

Mascarade

I am the Queen. Or am I the Bishop? I’m probably the Bishop.

Life Lesson #1: Fake it ‘til you make it. Most of the time, you’re not 100% sure of who you are. More importantly, it’s who others perceive you to be. That’s how they decide to use you, fear you. Always look more dangerous, more well off than you actually are.

I take their gold.

Life Lesson #2: Embrace change. They always say it’s about the journey, and they’re fuckin’ right. Everyone is clawing to win. People you know, people you don’t. We play a game that doesn’t let everyone win. You must deceive and manipulate your way through. You play by the rules.

I am challenged.

Life Lesson #3: We’re all fighting the same battle. We spend so much time sizing each other up, seeing how she is so much more eloquent, how they have so many friends. People will gang up out of desperation. Others, self-sabotage, because that’s the only thing they see.

I am the Queen.

Microscope

Whether we do it intentionally or not, we are all historians.

Misery Bubblegum

It was the first day back from break in the journalism club at the elite Flight Academy. There were mostly old faces, ready to get their small print paper up and running again. They all had secrets; the newest addition who messed with the computers had a crush on the editor in chief, the managing editor was an android, and the star beat reporter has a history, and propensity, for unethical practices. What they didn’t know is their search for the truth would uncover the biggest secret of their lives.

Flight Academy wasn’t just a prep school that sent a large portion of its graduates to the country’s air force. No. Many of these students were selectively, subtly trained to have superhuman powers, all to go on espionage missions against new, threatening alien forces. The journalism club, eager to break news, stumbled upon what at first looked like a paintball match between upper classmates, but turned out to be a battle of psychic forces.

They didn’t have to get involved. But because the reporter wanted to show up the android, who was doting on their new hacker, who felt terrible guilt for breaking and entering the offices of their administration, they found themselves dead in the middle of war. Can these plucky heroes pull together and use the power of friendship to survive?

Pixel Fireplace

During GDC this year, there was a game exhibit over at SFMOMA. Which means the walls and furniture were perfect geometries. It was a room full of relaxing video games. People were lying down making low humming noises, sitting in tents, meditating.

But there was a TV with chairs surrounding it, and it had the most comforting noise playing. It was that of a campfire. When my eyes saw it, they glazed like they do when you stare at an actual fire. The other people who were there had similar looks. We didn’t really talk, just sat, and watching. Every once in a while, someone would type in a word, and the game would throw that into the fire.

p-o-p-c-o-r-n

m-a-r-s-h-m-a-l-l-o-w

f-i-r-e-c-r-a-c-k-e-r

p-a-p-e-r

Every once in a while, you had to place a log so the fire wouldn’t go out.

l-o-g

I didn’t want to say anything else. And when people saw me, saw the fire, they joined and just sat with me. Sometimes they would throw in something flashy, but mostly would sit, sometimes cuddle. No one asked for more, because this was enough. Us, all facing the same thing, in quiet agreement, was enough.

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

Proteus

the old woman of the sea

queers in love at the end of the world

kiss
please
breathe in
twine
gift
fuck me now
calm you
take
desperate
tell
breathe out
just hold her hand
when she kisses you back
alive
breathe in
hungrily
her breathing
hold

Everything is wiped away.

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Death of the Player

Players are overrated.

Within conventional wisdom of designing and critiquing games lies the assumption that the player is paramount. Much of criticism writes to inform players, games are designed with the player in forefront of the developer’s mind. There is even the idea games are completed by players, that without players, there is no game.

I want to propose that not only do games and play exist without players, but sometimes, it is preferable to purposefully make them auxiliary or absent from craft and interpretation. Just to be clear, I don’t think there should be a blanket destruction of player-centric experiences. Rather, we are quick to use ‘death of the author’ arguments because of the cultural history behind it, and so why not at least consider the death of the player?

My journey with this concept started when I played anna anthropy’s Encyclopedia Fuck Me and the Case of the Vanishing Entree. I remember it took me an entire day to play it, mostly because it felt so hostile to me at first. The game was set in its ways, knew what it wanted, and I felt incidental. I could play along, or leave. So I left. Its content disturbed me, to be completely honest. Within the hours that I spent away from it, I reflected on my inability to play, and decided it was a rigidity in myself, feeling a lack of control and agency within someone else’s world. Going back to it, it became clear that the designer was clearly present and wanted me to experience feelings I’m not used to. Eventually, I noticed I was being trained, trained to exist in this play space.

As a little window to a fictional world, Encyclopedia Fuck Me doesn’t have the player’s needs in mind. You either submitted to its logic or left. This is different from games that have a brutal, ‘masocore’ difficulty, because they make themselves known and welcome to players wanting that experience. They allow players room to be themselves and eventually dominate the game. There is no room for domination in Encyclopedia Fuck Me, because that’s the game’s role. Recently at the Queerness and Games conference, Jack Halberstam talked about escaping the tyranny of agency in games. He made a point that agency is always coded and designed into games, given to players by the developers. There is no such thing as agency in games. Agency is a lotus and we’ve all been asleep. I think The Stanley Parable strives for us to look at this issue, asking why we continue down this narrative of player agency. Can’t we still be taken through experiences without our every whim thought of and satisfied?

Play- and player-centric design are usually interchangeable terms, but I’d like to make a stronger distinction between them. My main quibble with player-centric design is the fetishized iterative process, where you take a prototype and get players to playtest it. Sometimes, this is useful; if it’s very important to you that someone feels a certain way or does a certain thing, playtesting is a method to achieve that. When I made Mainichi, I released it without any playtesting and iteration. Because players have a tendency to want agency and a positive trajectory, their input would have been useless to me. As well, the game was made for a friend to understand something. I couldn’t playtest the game with them and then ‘release’ it after. It would be like asking your crush to read and edit the love note you want to pass to them one day. With games that use personal experience as a main part of their design, player input through playtesting washes out their voice. If your game leaves out traditional qualities and emphasizes voice, then player-centric design is a useless paradigm for you.

This becomes even more important when we consider social politics, especially the kind that comes along with gamers. Gamers are trained to expect certain things from games, like explicit rules, goals, visual quality, and of course, agency. To put it frankly, gamers are set up to be colonial forces. It’s about individuality, conquering, and solving. Feeling empowered and free at the expense of the world. Many games try to evoke the qualities of play most commonly associated with boys and men. Many games envision their average player to be white, a man, heterosexual, American, and a whole list of other privileged qualities. Meaning, they act much like our reality set up to have a particular group of people feel good about their lives as long as they are complicit with the system. A bestowed agency. Many games that emphasize personal experience as design tools come from creators who are marginalized identities. Instead of the qualities listed above, their lives are more often community-reliant, without power, and restricted. It’s about survival. If these games were playtested, they would, most surely, get feedback about not having clear enough avenues to control and victory. It would be whitewashing a particular experience that doesn’t really get light or validation in our current landscape.

I experienced this recently with my game EAT. I made it for my partner who wanted to know more about my financial struggles and how there wasn’t a simple fix for it. EAT is very hostile towards players, because impoverished life is hostile. Much of my feedback wanted me to edit the game so people could actually play it. This was a misnomer; people could very easily play it, their life would just become a lot more strenuous. Because you can’t experience being poorer without being inconvenienced. You can look at EAT and see how it generates play, and not actually play it. It’s an experience that might just need a mental understanding to succeed. This reminds me of an anecdote I remember Brenda Romero describing about Train. She said a person went to go play it, but with just looking at it, understood what it was all about and refused to play. Instead, Brenda thanked her for playing, because the actual act of physically interacting wasn’t necessary. The player isn’t needed for play, the player is more someone who can perceive play. I know that EAT is painful to play, and most won’t do it, but that act alone should communicate something to those who encounter it. It’s demanding because that’s what’s needed to have that experience; how do you have a ‘fun’ experience of being poor while a non-white, queer woman who’s a student? How is agency and the player’s wants important when the system that impoverishes doesn’t care of the person’s feelings? Giving someone the agency to ‘solve’ the game is like positing one person can game the system and vanquish poverty in reality.

What I hope for now is to see more projects that are purposefully iterative and noniterative. To not take the iterative process as a given, to consider alternatives to player-centric design. Sometimes, it’s about us, not them. Sometimes, it’s about the experience, and not their sedation. I don’t want to drug people with their own chemicals, rather, encourage them to step outside of themselves and connect with what I have to say, as separate people.

This article was community supported! Consider donating or being my patron so I can continue writing: Support

B-Side #1 – Depression Quest

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.

Video Text:

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 matti.brice@gmail.com.

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.

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