B-Side #1 – Depression Quest

Mattie Brice is starting up a video series on free indie games over up at her site Alternate Ending and will be also be featured here at The Border House.

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 mattie.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.

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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7 Responses to B-Side #1 – Depression Quest

  1. Kimiko says:

    Thanks for your review, and for providing a transcription (I prefer reading to listening).

    I found the blocked options an effective way to show disability. You want to do certain things, and the game acknowledges that, yet doesn’t let you do them.

    It’s interesting to read your perspective as someone who hasn’t experienced depression personally. I didn’t expect the game to give so much insight/empathy.

    I only gave it a quick playthrough myself before dismissing it as too.. hmm, well ‘depressing’ isn’t exactly the right word, but I didn’t want to really put myself into the character and think about their situation too deeply. Maybe I’ll try it again sometime.

    .. flaky, huh? ..

  2. catrick says:

    Enjoying this new feature, and glad for the transcription. One suggestion – the background music on the video was very loud so I found it hard to hear what Mattie was saying (and I don’t have any hearing difficulties). (I also found that Mattie talked very fast, but YMMV, and I just switched to reading the transcription.)

    Re: Depression Quest itself, I found it quite emotionally difficult to play, as someone with depression. Despite the crossed-out options, which is a really clever idea, I found that mostly it was easy to know which was the ‘right’/’best’ thing to do and pick that. By the end my character was basically fine, with a thriving relationship, good family relations etc. I found that quite sad. If only it were that easy. Not a fault with the game, just my experience of it.

    [Some spoilers ahead]
    Despite picking all the options I thought were ‘correct’ in order to get better, I opted to go to therapy but not go on medication, as in real life I’ve had bad experiences with meds. I was surprised and pleased to see that you can ‘get better’ in the game without medication (not to say that medication isn’t good/helpful for a lot of people IRL, just that it’s often touted by doctors/ignorant people as a straightforward cure, when in reality it can be pretty hit-and-miss).

  3. Kaja Rainbow says:

    An interesting thing thing is that it isn’t based only upon the autobiographical experience of only one person, but several. The creator talked to a number of others and attempted to create an amalgam of their stories. It’s mentioned in some of the supplementary making-of material.

    Playing this was kinda painful, but it actually gave me perspective on some of my problems and better understand myself. So there’s a third audience: people who might not quite realize they’ve got those problems. It made me go, “Oh, I see, I’ve felt like that, actually.”

  4. Matt says:

    I kinda avoided this post for a while, then finally sat down, watched the vid, then eventually clicked on the game.

    Two struck-out choice pages in and I LOLd. This is EXACTLY the sort of crap that happens to me.

    I’m somewhat reminded of all those times in the Mass Effect games where you know you’ve got this perfect response lined up but because you (ME1) had to buff out a bunch of other skills or (ME2) you didn’t take a couple extra Paragon/Renegade interrupts when you had the chance, and you just kinda have to muddle through.

    Except you can’t replay to get it “right” and unlock that option, and everything is consistently greyed out except the bottom right, the middle left, and “I should go”.

    ::a few clicks later:: okay, this guy definitely has it worse than me, I’m pretty sure I could, with some straining, have taken at least some of these crossed-out options. A lot of it still resonates though, though (not having been diagnosed with anything, ever, besides the occasional cold or infection or misaligned tooth) I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say I understand this so much as I may be unconsciously reading this as an exaggeration of all sorts of everyday mishaps rather than someone suffering from a serious mental disability.

    • Matt says:

      …ah, I see, it escalates. Drastically.

      I don’t even see an option to take meds or see a therapist, just alcohol and TV.

      • Matt says:

        …ah, I see.

        Just replayed, made two tiny changes and both options have rapidly opened up! O_O

        I’m just struck how fragile it all seems now that I’ve found the route that isn’t “straight plummet downwards”…

  5. Jonathan says:

    Posting the transcript is a brilliant idea. When I’m browsing the ‘net, I’m often in a reading mood, not a watching video mood, so it’s ideal for me.

    I played Depression Quest a few days ago and I found it a very uplifting experience. I’ve suffered from depression for years and it’s been especially bad over the past couple of years since my marriage broke down. Despite medication and counselling, it’s about as bad now as it’s ever been. Yesterday, I spent the whole day bored and lonely because I’d turned down the opportunity to go out with friends, yet when I was invited to do something with friends in the evening, I turned it again and had an evening of anger and frustration as well as the boredom and loneliness.

    Playing Depression Quest was solid, tangible proof that someone else gets it. DQ related to me, a kind of digital solidarity. Those crossed-out choices are one of the most perfect game mechanics I have ever encountered. I want to show the game to everyone who has told me that I “just” have to be positive and get on with things and shout “This! This is how I feel every day!”

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