I’ve decided to share a post I wrote for IGM last year about text-based Depression Quest. There’s an ongoing conversation about depression and suicide, and talking about games is also how I like to talk about feelings. Depression Quest is a simple text-based game, but it succeeds in using the gameplay format to mimic the hopelessness and frustration of depression. The game brings empathy and highlights the difference between having a bad day (or week. Or month. Or when feeling like garbage is connected to garbage events.) and depression.
Depression Quest is an interactive story in which players take on the role of a twenty-something living with depression. Players attempt to manage family, work, a romantic relationship and a creative project, while struggling with the challenges presented by the character’s depression. Depression Quest resembles another indie game experience, Actual Sunlight in that the game makes a statement about the effects of depression through the player’s interactions.
The game uses a format I particularly enjoy, with a segment of narrative and and list of player options. I’ve already written pretty extensively about how much I love this type of interaction in text-based games like Heroes Rise. This format distills gameplay to its simplest form, a series of situations and choices for the player to make.
Depression Quest very successfully plays on this expectation by presenting a narrative passage describing the character’s experiences, and then offering several player choices, with a range of possible outcomes, but makes some of the readable choices inaccessible to the player. Players can read options like making the most of a social situation, getting a good night’s rest, and so forth, so it’s very clear that these are possible reactions to the presented narrative segment, but they just aren’t able to choose those options.The player might want to call a therapist or get out of the apartment for a change of scene, but the depressed character literally can’t.
Some of the attempts to make the experience universal — a project for an unspecified hobby, a vague but menial job, some awkwardly non-gender-specific pronouns — make it harder to relate to the character’s experience in the beginning. I’m not sure if so much generalization was necessary, readers can connect well to protagonists with names and individualized experiences in novels.
But as the game progressed, the vagueness did create a feeling of isolation. I knew my character was overwhelmed by his job, and worried about screwing up in unspecified ways, and so was I, especially since I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing at work, anyway. I felt like the named characters – older brother Malcolm, coworker Sam, and college friend Amanda – were bright spots in a vague and somewhat confusing environment, a very effective part of the game’s portrayal of depression.
Player choices influence the progress of the story, but it’s not always a simple cause and effect. Players can’t, for example, decide to seek a therapist or pursue antidepressants. Instead, players are told that a co-worker’s cat has had kittens, and one of the litter needs a home, and then decide whether getting a kitten is a fun distraction or another overwhelming responsibility, for example. Giving players some choices with a little agency, but not a clear way to fix things or counteract depression is an accurate representation of living with depression.
Although it’s not a “fun” gaming experience, Depression Quest successfully uses interactive fiction game mechanics to tell an artistic and informative story about the effects and experiences of depression.
Depression Quest is available online. Players are encouraged to pay what they can, although there is no minimum requirement to experience the game. A portion of the proceeds earned from the game will be donated to iFred, a non profit that works on depression research and education.