Reflections on Depression Quest

Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews.

IT'S YOUR QUEST TOO

I have to admit, sometimes I’m bad at social media. I heard of Gamergate only a little while ago (which has been a colossal failure of basic human decency), though I had heard a lot about Depression Quest before then. Anyway, on Friday I decided that now was the time to check out Depression Quest, in my own little stand of solidarity with Zoe Quinn, and so yesterday I did just that.

Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn is a text-based computer game about the experience of being depressed. The objective of the game is to spread some awareness about what it’s like to be depressed. Having empathy for depression is important for everybody, but it might be somewhat more urgent for those who are trying to understand the struggles of their loved ones.

In Depression Quest you play a person suffering from depression and you try to live your life. As play progresses you see the effects of your depression on various areas of your life, and you often don’t have the energy to take the healthiest courses of action as you try to cope with your situation.

In a nutshell, that’s the game. Pretty straightforward really. It does a great job of simulating the experience of depression, especially when you know what the best course of action would be, but you lack the energy to actually do it. But, Depression Quest isn’t just a good game that achieves its goals, it’s an important game. And none of this has anything to do with Gamergate.

I have only recently begun to gain ground on my battle with depression. The last few years have been exceptionally tough. I got divorced. I was trying to change “career” paths. I was on the verge of homelessness for over a year due to sudden unemployment, barely scraping enough together to make ends meet. It was a really scary time. Several important people in my life moved away. Many of my friends were in terrible situations themselves. My intimate relationships imploded as I couldn’t really be very present. In a short while I was in perpetual financial crisis, had deteriorating physical and mental health, I was isolated from a dispersing support network, and I was experiencing little validation in other ways. Many of these circumstances have now changed, but I wasn’t coping with them well at the time.

There was nary a screen in Depression Quest that wasn’t something I had lived at some time during this stretch. Its lists of courses of actions, with some crossed out because you just didn't have it in you for that option, really resonated with me. I recalled the difficult conversations I wanted to have in various crumbling relationships, but I just couldn’t pay the emotional cost of risking having a breakdown. I needed to keep job searching and such. I couldn’t take the risk of being emotionally put out of commission.

HEART TO HEART

The mere fact that this game was similar to my depression isn’t what makes this important. As the game progressed I eventually began to win small victories against the forces of hopelessness. I could see how this or that took bravery and honesty, I could see how difficult it is to take even small steps. I looked back at my own life and thought to myself “Man, that was hard”, and I found myself celebrating my strength through that time. This game showed me that even though I was depressed, I was strong, and brave, and vulnerable. Until that moment I had only thought of myself through this time as weak and broken. I cannot express how precious and uplifting of a gift this little, fragile moment was. I saw a value in myself that I literally had never seen before.

The last line of text in the games says something to the effect of “thanks for being willing to play a game that was something other than ‘fun.” These days we see more and more games coming out that aren’t about “fun,” instead focusing on sharing the life experience of one group of people or another. Play is becoming a medium for more than just entertainment. In the article Death of the Gamer, Ian Williams (https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/09/death-to-the-gamer/) Ian Williams discusses the fallout of corporate gaming. I won’t summarize that article here, but it is worth reading. However, extending William’s conclusions about the culture creating properties of the corporate dialog of gaming, it stands to reason that the indie dialog has an opportunity to stand against those trends, and create a culture with intentionality and awareness - one that doesn’t allow for things like Gamergate.

By making games that cannot be measured on the corporate gaming dialog’s rubric of “fun” and “entertainment value” indie designers can take advantage of that opportunity. It should not be controversial to suggest that our play may have value beyond mere entertainment; that it is demonstrates the importance of games that do.

Another piece to take away from this is that your personal experiences - even the sucky ones - are valuable, and are a welcome topic in the dialog of indie gaming, where they probably aren’t in the dialog of corporate gaming. In fact, I would assert that the corporate dialog has made it very clear that it doesn’t welcome those experiences at all.

But it goes even further than that. Depression Quest did not require millions of dollars and hundreds of staff people. It’s a clean looking game that suits its needs and objectives, creates an atmosphere conducive to those goals, and that’s about it. It does not have flashy graphics or physics engines. Technically speaking, though it’s an effective effort, it’s relatively modest effort. It’s not “fun,” but it is a powerful and thought provoking experience. The real brilliance to Depression Quest is its idea, not its execution, programming, or its features. This means that you too, without a lot of money, without years of training, can make a game. All you need is an idea. That’s it. And since you’ve had a life’s worth of personal experiences, you probably have several ideas.

IT'S A NEW DAY

Depression Quest is a game - and it’s not the only one - that challenges all of the assumptions of the gaming industry. Games like this blow the door wide open for lots of people. This is how Depression Quest, and the whole indie gaming dialog, is your quest too. In a very real sense it’s about you, your life, your creativity. It belongs to anybody and everybody who participates, as players, or game designer, or otherwise. The corporate side of this equation will never be like this by its very nature, and that leaves us with a great opportunity and an important responsibility.

When I sat down for my play-through I was wanting to do something for me with my time. I was looking for fun, but I was also feeling guilty for not doing something worthwhile with my time. I also had a pint of ice cream, and I was also feeling guilty about that, since it was totally unnecessary, and was just going to make me fatter. Feeling guilty for everything is a habit I developed over the last few years, a part of the accelerating downward spiral feedback loop that was everyday of my life. But Depression Quest taught me something: this pint of ice cream is what it takes for me to be strong.

Out of sheer spite for that irrational guilt, I ate the whole damn pint.

Undergo the Depression Quest at http://www.depressionquest.com/.