Video game review: “Depression Quest”

It’s obviously tough to approach a game like Depression Quest without any expectations, if you follow the gaming scene at all. I had read about it pre launch, and made a vague mental note to check it out, but by the time the game launched and the #gamergate shitshow blew up I was busy with Borderlands 2. (Yes, I’m probably the last person to start playing Borderlands; I hate paid DLC so I waited until I could buy pretty much the whole thing on disc in a ‘Game of the Year’ edition.)

I figured that given my background knowledge of Interactive Fiction and hypertext, and my extensive experience of both video games and depression, I was a good candidate for appreciating Depression Quest, or at least being able to review it with some insight. I made a couple of attempts to start playing it, but wasn’t really in a suitable mood and ended up doing something else. Finally, I found myself awake at an unreasonably early hour wanting to do something that wouldn’t wake the parakeets. So, here’s a review.

For reference, I played the (free) version on the web.

It’s not immediately obvious that Depression Quest is actually a game. It initially resembles a piece of hypertext writing, the opening page of actual game offering a character introduction with hyperlinked additional background texts. There’s one more hypertext on the second page, but after that as far as I can tell the rest of the game is devoid of hypertextual links, and presented as linear text. Were those initial hypertexts added because of a developer argument over whether the material belonged in the opening text, or made it too wordy? Was the entire game supposed to be more hypertextual, until the authors discovered how hard it is to write non-linearly? This trivial inconsistency in presentation bothered me more than it probably should have.

As well as the text, the opening page featured some status messages at the bottom which brought to mind classic Interactive Fiction games from Infocom. Unfortunately since they were images rather than text, I wasn’t sure whether they were purely decorative. I blame this on the fact that they were animated and shaped like banner ads. I’ve spent enough time online that my brain has instinctively learned to tune out anything that even slightly resembles an ad, particularly when it’s in the context of a web browser. If you’re building web-based games, take note.

It was only after a second playthrough that the full game mechanics became apparent to me. It is, regrettably, a mostly linear experience, at least as far as location and characters are concerned. I suspect that many have dismissed it for this reason. (“It’s not even a walking simulator!”) Yet within the sequence of vignettes, you do have actual agency. You can affect the state of the game and the final outcome, and have some influence over the events which unfold. But enough of technical and mechanical concerns — what is it like as an actual experience?

The game challenges you to take actions which will (slowly) make things better for the protagonist. Or, you can take easy paths which send your character spiraling down into depression. In an FPS, chugging a bunch of pills will instantly improve your health; it’s not that easy in Depression Quest, giving the work a fundamental realism. Assuming you even manage to maneuver your way into the psychiatrist’s office and persuade yourself to take antidepressants, any actual improvement takes a while to evidence itself in the game, just like it does in real life.

hours like days
Kelsey via Compfight

Similarly realistic is the internal monologue presented for the protagonist. At one point the story told me that I woke up the next day and realized that everything which had seemed critically important the previous evening was actually not an issue; it was all utterly trivial. This was a frequent occurrence during my own depression — you latch on to something which isn’t even about you, and it seems like it’s deeply personal and the end of the world, and then in the morning it evaporates like a bad dream and you wonder what the hell you were thinking.

The core gameplay of Depression Quest mostly resembles a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, with each page of plot being followed by one or more links you can follow to indicate how you want your character to react. The worse your decisions are, from a mental health point of view, the more the game begins to constrain your choices. On my second playthrough I decided to try and do the worst possible thing in every situation; before long normal everyday interaction was impossible and I succeeded in trapping the character on a straight downward path.

I wondered if that path would lead to self-harm or suicide, but no — Depression Quest has no conclusion, it simply stops after a while. That might seem like a cop-out, but there are a couple of good reasons for not including suicide in the game.

The big one is that there’s some evidence that depictions of suicide, even when it’s shown negatively, can encourage people who are feeling suicidal to act on those feelings. Remember that Depression Quest views the world from inside the depressed person’s mind; if it had ended with the protagonist thinking about how much they were a burden on others and a worthless and miserable human being and then slashing their wrists, the game would have been grossly irresponsible.

A secondary issue is that making Depression Quest end in suicide would be a melodramatic and inaccurate portrayal. Statistically, only around 15% of people who suffer depression end up committing suicide, and the rate for young sufferers like the game’s protagonist is a small fraction of that. For most young people with depression, it’s a chronic illness which they suffer years of misery from. The key difficulties are recognizing it, given its frequently slow and subtle onset; and seeking initial treatment. 80% of the time treatment is at least partially successful.

Unfortunately, this does mean that Depression Quest lacks any real payoff. There’s no conventional narrative structure at all — like life, it just unfolds as a sequence of unrelated events. How you react to it will therefore likely depend entirely on how much you care about, or are interested in, what depression is like.

The fundamental problem is that anyone setting out to make a video game that accurately depicts the experience of depression will only have succeeded when they manage to make a game that completely lacks any kind of fun. So the people who have said that Depression Quest is terrible and boring and no fun and not even a game are probably correct, from the viewpoint of the “games are a fun entertainment” world — yet at the same time, they’re completely missing the point.

Artforms which start as entertainment tend to progress into abstraction and serious subject matter. Painting and literature both progressed to that same point a long time ago, but let’s talk about movies, as they’re perhaps closest in form to video games.

I saw Se7en at the movie theater, in 70mm. It’s a fantastic movie, but I wouldn’t call it fun, or even entertaining. I can’t imagine ever wanting to watch it a second time, though apparently there are people who buy it on DVD to watch over and over again. (We should probably keep an eye on those people.) I could say the same about Requiem for a Dream, The Elephant Man and The Killing Fields. I haven’t even watched Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, because I know what happened and I really don’t feel I need to be exposed to it, particularly not by a moviemaker skilled at the art of Hollywood emotional manipulation.

So movies have progressed to the point where it’s accepted that they may not always be the fun lightweight entertainments they started out as in the 1890s. The people who watched short films of custard pie fights in 1910 would probably have walked out of Schindler’s List in disgust — not least because they would have found it utterly unbelievable — but these days we accept that it’s a movie. The fact that video games seem not to have completed this evolution yet is, I think, the real reason why Roger Ebert dismissed them as not really an artform.

What about games in the broader sense? Well, consider the board game Pandemic. It’s a game where the players must work together to fight one or more deadly diseases that are spreading across the world. It’s a tough game — I suspect that most sessions end with the players all failing and everyone dying. It’s played straight — there’s no irony or satire at play, which would be the easy way out. It’s entertaining, for a certain sort of player, but I’m not sure the word “fun” applies.

So are we ready for video games that aren’t fun? That may seem like a stupid question, but I’m serious. I use the term “video games” because I can’t think of a better one, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Infocom favored “interactive fiction”, but that has come to denote a specific kind of video game. “Interactive entertainment”? That suggests CD-ROM games of the 1990s. We need a better phrase, but for now “video games” is the one we have.

If the reaction to Depression Quest and other games like Dear Esther, Gone Home and Heavy Rain is any guide, the gaming community isn’t ready to take the next step into the maturing of the medium. So now we have games like Mountain, which is the Duchamp’s urinal of video games. And no, I’m not hinting that Depression Quest is a historic artistic masterpiece; it’s a flawed attempt to grapple with serious subject matter in a completely serious way, within the medium of interactive electronic entertainment.

I personally feel that major clinical depression is a very interesting experience. However, it’s not an experience I would recommend to anyone ever, and certainly not as entertainment. So if I had been asked, I think I’d have said that Depression Quest‘s combination of approach and subject matter pretty much doomed it from the start — it was inevitably going to end up being a mundane, tedious and joyless experience, because that’s exactly what it was setting out to depict.

If you’re going to make a game about depression, you’ll probably do better if you use metaphor (Elude) or ironic presentation (Actual Sunlight), or if you avoid making the protagonist one of the depressed (Inner Vision).

Should you play Depression Quest? I’d say yes, if you want to know more about what depression is like. Just don’t expect to be entertained by it.