Depression Quest

by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler


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Number of Reviews: 4
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Accurate, but weirdly generic at times, May 2, 2014
by EJ

Don't let the flippant-sounding title fool you; Depression Quest is in fact quite serious. The game goes through a series of vignettes in the life of a twenty-something depression sufferer, allowing the player to make various choices in an attempt to drag themselves out of the pit of horrible gloom and become (hopefully) a functional human being. However, often the "best" choice is struck out and, though the player can see it, they cannot actually select it; depending on the character's level of depression, other decent-to-good choices may be struck out as well, and the player may be left with only bad or unhelpful options.

According to the authors, the two goals of the game are as follows:

"[F]irstly, we want to illustrate as clearly as possible what depression is like, so that it may be better understood by people without depression. Hopefully this can be something to spread awareness and fight against the social stigma and misunderstandings that depression sufferers face. Secondly, our hope is that in presenting as real a simulation of depression as possible, other sufferers will come to know that they aren't alone, and hopefully derive some measure of comfort from that."

Well, they're set up in such a way that no one person can actually speak to the effectiveness of both of them, and in my case goal #1 is the one I don't know about. I would actually be really interested to see some reactions to the game from people who don't suffer from depression; thus far I think all of the reactions I've seen have been from people who do, who are obviously going to respond very differently.

As for goal #2, though? At least for me, it was a success. In a public venue like this one, I'm not going to go into too much detail about my experiences, but there were definitely many things in the game that felt familiar. There are all the large and obvious things, of course, like feeling unable to go to work or go out and socialize, insomnia, general feelings of worthlessness, negative thought spirals, and all that jazz, but the game also included a number of smaller details which are not typical to fictional depictions of depression. Some of them were things that I had not previously related to depression—one that I remember particularly is the scene which depicts the feeling of being restless and wanting to do something but being unable to enjoy or maintain an interest in any of the things you usually do, describing it as "like an itch in your brain." Which may not actually be an experience unique to people with depression, but it's not something I've seen much mention of in general, and coming across it in the game was definitely one of those moments of recognition, of "hey, I'm not the only one who feels this way sometimes!", that the writers have said they were aiming for. It would be easy for this sort of thing to come off as a run down a clinical checklist of symptoms, but in general I think there's enough human detail, enough insight as to how all of this looks and feels from the inside, that it feels real and affecting, at least for the most part.

The crossing-out of "better" choices, and the way the blocked-off options increase as the character's feelings of depression do, seemed like an appropriate mechanic to demonstrate how these things can feel sometimes: it's not that you don't know what the best thing to do would be, it's that you cannot actually make yourself do it, as hard as you might try. (That being said, I still found myself making better choices than I probably would in the same situations in real life, because when all it takes is clicking one link instead of another, it's easy to make the choice you logically know is best. So, okay, it's not perfect mimesis, but, hell, for a choose-your-own-adventure game it's pretty damn good.)

I appreciated, also, the variety of paths to the best ending. Therapy might help and medication might help, together or individually, but neither one is absolutely required; you can also reach Functional Human Being End simply (well, "simply") by building up a strong support system of friends and family (and maybe getting a cat for those days when talking to humans is just too much to handle). It's nice to see a work of fiction that does not demonize psychiatric drugs (or tout them as The Best Thing Ever, although that's much less common in my experience), and it's also nice to see a realistic portrayal of therapy which also acknowledges that it is not for everyone. In general, different strategies work best for different people, and the game does a good job of portraying these different strategies even-handedly.

However, despite my appreciation of the game as a portrayal of depression, I have some qualms with it as a piece of interactive fiction. Or rather, just one qualm.

IF has the eternal issue of how to handle "you"-the-character-in-the-narrative vs. "you"-the-player, and in general there are two ways to approach this: make "you"-the-character as blank and transparent as possible so that the player can effortlessly self-insert, or make "you"-the-character a distinct character who is very clearly not supposed to be the player.

In a game like this, the former approach obviously is not going to work; besides the fact that not everyone who plays the game is going to be a depression sufferer and that even those who do have depression experience it in different ways, the various vignettes of the character's life wouldn't work without some specificity. However, despite giving the main character a number of distinctive traits, Depression Quest still seems to be trying to make the character an everyman to some extent, and it ends up in an awkward middle zone where the character is neither one thing nor the other.

The authors mention, on the first page of the game, that the game is based on their own experiences, and that they are aware that different sufferers experience different symptoms and that not everyone with depression has access to or is willing to seek out therapy and medication. Those aspects were not what I had a problem with. Rather, it was the other parts of the character's life that seemed to vary oddly between detailed and sketchy.

We learn, in the course of the game, a fair amount about who the character is. They're a 20-something middle-class vaguely WASPy American with a boring white-collar job and creative ambitions. They have a mother and a father, both alive and still married, and an older brother who is more successful than they are. They have a girlfriend. They watch a lot of movies. They have some close internet friendships. These aren't the most fleshed-out of details, but it's enough to make this character clearly not "you"-the-player for some people, to make seamless immersion impossible unless these things also apply to you. (Many of them apply to me, which may be why I found the game so eerily accurate in places.)

Some of these things get fleshed out further. We learn a lot, particularly, about the protagonist's relationship with their girlfriend and their family. Other things get left oddly blank. We never get any kind of idea of what the PC's job actually is, nor what the big creative project that they've been working on in their spare time is (a novel, a D&D campaign, a cooking blog, an elaborate knitting project, a text adventure game?). The vague circumlocutions about "your job" and "your project" are fine when the focus is on something else, but in events which focus on these aspects of the character's life, it gets a little cumbersome and awkward.

The PC's girlfriend, Alex, also suffers from the vagueness/specificity divide a bit. Not so much in her characterization, but in that the character is referred to 60% of the time as female and 40% of the time in gender-neutral terms. It reads as though Alex was originally "your gender-unspecified SO (project onto them whatever you prefer)" and was sloppily changed, somewhere late in the process, into "your girlfriend".

I found these things irritating distractions in what was otherwise an interesting and well-done game, and would have been happier if the writers had just given the character a job and a hobby, even if the game didn't go into too much detail about it. Would my identification with the character have suffered if they had done that and the job and hobby proved not to be similar to my own? Perhaps a little bit, but I also don't have a successful older brother or an evil boss, and yet I still managed to sympathize with the PC's problems with them. I feel like in this case, the emotional honesty and the general sense of "yes, I've been there" were more important than the details of the PC's life in terms of how well I related to them. Of course, that's going to be different for players who aren't/have not been depressed, which is one of the reasons I'd be curious to hear from them.

In general, I thought it was a solid game and one of the better fictional portrayals of depression I've seen, although it could probably stand a bit more polishing, at least to fix Alex's "they" vs. "she" issue and the handful of SPaG errors that crop up in some sections of the game, if not to fill in the vagueness surrounding some aspects of the PC's life.

Comments on this review

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ryantan5577, September 18, 2018 - Reply
Great review! Your point about the conundrum of whether an author should go with an AFGNCAAP or with a protagonist with a detailed profile is a very insightful one. I think I subconsciously filled in the blanks, though, as I don't recall feeling especially bothered by what you pointed out about the vaguely defined aspects of the protagonist's life. It's a valid point nonetheless, and I'm glad you gave voice to it.
Andrew Schultz, January 22, 2015 - Reply
Thanks, this helped me put my finger on some things I wasn't so sure about. It's tricky to evaluate this game since it's not supposed to be fun. But on the other hand I left feeling like the game push-polled you to the right choice if you just think about it a bit more.

And one problem/cause depression is, from what I understand, thinking about it a bit too much. This is a paradox which isn't really resolved, or helped, by the subject--and while it's useful as a questionnaire, I don't know how much I can feel connection with the main character, even though depression may be about not being able to feel connection as well.
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