The first part of an ongoing series about games/interactive experiences that deal with depression and mental illness. First posted 11/12/2013.
Depression Quest, by Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey, is ‘an interactive (non) fiction about living with depression.’ What it boils down to is a choose-your-own-adventure where you fight mental demons armed only with the internet, a girlfriend and (if you choose wisely) a cat.
Made in interactive fiction maker Twine it’s even set up like an online version of those old fighting fantasy books: you have a story chunk at the top (including hyperlinks to chunks of background information) with options on what to do next listed below. All that’s missing is a ‘turn to page x’ command and the need use your thumb as a bookmark in case you’re killed by rampaging mountain spiders and need a do-over. The only real gaming twist comes in the form of a static filled bar illustrating your current mental state on each page and red lines through the options your current condition won’t allow you to consider.
Depression Quest sets out it’s stall on the opening page – it aims to give as realistic a portrayal of depression as possible, hoping to give those who’ve never suffered fro it a greater understanding of what it is like to live with the illness. It also hopes that those prone to depression will empathise with the protagonist’s situation and perhaps, in recognising the thought patterns and decision processes, feel less alone.
These are lofty aims for something with such a limited amount of interactivity. You ‘play’ as a mid-twenties ‘human being’ with a partner, a boring job you feel trapped in and a small handful of friends you’ve managed to keep hold of despite being flakey and difficult to be friends with. You have a more successful brother and supportive (if a little disappointed) parents and an online friend; the only person you feel able to occasionally open up. The game runs through a number of scenarios and the choices you make affect your mood and in turn the choices that are open to you later on. Your goal is to manage your relationship with your partner, your family, your friends and your work colleagues whilst deciding the best way to manage your illness. Do you open up to the old friend who’s visiting town? Will you reveal the extent of your problems to your girlfriend and risk scaring her off? Will therapy help? What of anti-depressants? All the while a beautifully mournful looped piano piece (courtesy of Isaac Schankler) soundtracks the story. Ambient background noise fades in to colour the setting of the current part of the narrative. And that’s pretty much the whole set up.
An entirely text based game like this lives and dies by it’s writing and Depression Quest is clearly the work of individuals who understand depression and who do a fine job of describing the feelings of apathy, isolation and helplessness depressives know and loathe. It also makes the most out of it’s limitations by denying choices as the protagonist’s mental state deteriorates. Giving the player only so many options for any given situation, limited by those red lines through options that the protagonist is not in a state to consider, is a clever way to illustrate the lack of agency felt by those in the pits of despair.
A lot of the issues explored will feel familiar to depressives but as the writers concede in their opening spiel their story has been written as a sort of median experience of depression. In seeking an average they’re inevitably leaving people on the margins out. To be fair to them this is unavoidable – it would require a much more complex narrative system to afford more choice in the protagonists habits and issues cover everyone’s experiences, something I imagine would be out of reach for a small team making a free to play game in Twine. However for a lot of people who are depressed as well as long term single or with serious family issues there may be a temptation to think of the protagonist, “they’ve got a partner/their parents are still together/they’ve got a Dad etc – what do they have to be depressed about?” Which may be an irrational response – but no one ever said depression was rational.
Smaller details occasionally jar as well. Everybody’s experience with depression is different and when playing through someone else’s the odd thing will feel off. For instance the protagonist of this piece suffers from insomnia, their brain constantly in motion and keeping them from sleep. I’m the opposite – my brain seems to have developed a self-protecting shutdown routine in these situations, which makes me borderline narcoleptic at my lowest moments. Little things like that can take you out of the experience. However the writing is good enough to just about overcome these incongruities- they’ve managed to colour the depressive experience very well, capturing the listless time killing, social reticence and feelings of inadequacy in ways that will ring true to anyone who’s ever been bitten by the black dog.
That said it can seem a little too…nice. Obviously the game wants to help – it says all the right things (“the call with the doctor is quick and not nearly as unpleasant as you were fearing”). Which is good, it’s doing the right thing – but I did feel a little patronised. Everything goes smoothly when you pick the ‘right’ option. The girlfriend is kind and understanding when you tell her your problems, as is the old friend back in town for a chat. The therapist is well trained and gives the right advice. The medication works first time and there aren’t any nasty side effects. Again, it’s doing the right thing, trying to reduce the fear factor in reaching out for anyone in the midst of battle with the darkness – but of course real life isn’t always like that. It sacrifices realism to show the positives of seeking help, of opening up. This could well be invaluable to a depressive who has never done so; however someone seeking to understand the illness must wonder why everyone doesn’t do this. If there are no downsides, what’s the problem? Why not just do the ‘right’ thing? But then, on the other hand, perhaps the alternative, a game where you do all the ‘right’ things and nothing improves would be too…well, depressing.
Even so – it’s still too easy. Early on there is always a choice that sounds like it’ll be hard but is obviously the right course of action. The game is clever in that occasionally has better, healthier, more enjoyable options crossed out to illustrate the frustrating lack of choice you can feel whilst in the midst of a depressive episode but there is always a tough option that will help things in the long run available to you. Of course the same is true in life – there are always steps you can take to make things better. But actually taking these steps yourself is of course a lot harder than a simple mouse click. Rather than feeling like you’re the protagonist making these choices it feels more like advising a friend – it’s easy to pick the ‘right’ option from the outside but much harder to act upon such prompts when you’re the one being advised.
These decent options only stop becoming available when you make a few of the obviously wrong choices – isolating yourself, not communicating with loved ones etc. You become locked into those poor choices. This act of removing player agency to simulate the hopelessness of depression is a very effective design choice and the way that you can drop into a downward spiral, forced to compound your depression with further poor options, is where this game is at it’s most affecting. Seeing even the half decent choices slip away, alongside the actual fun and productive choices that were locked away from the start, is heartbreaking.
Of course, if you’re playing this as a game, with the aim of ‘winning’ and making yourself feel better, you’ll never see these options taken away. You have to actively choose to have a ‘bad’ playthrough to see any of this. I had three runs through the game – one where I purposefully went about making life better, one where I set about making everything worse, and one where I played to what I would honestly do. It probably goes without saying that I got the most out of it whilst playing honest. But I wonder what someone with no experience of depression would make of it. Why would they not pick the ‘best’ option every time? Clicking an option you know to be right and good and healthy is obviously so much harder than actually doing something in reality. From the midst of a fog of complacency, deafened by the background hum of angst, it’s hard to do even these little things that can help so much. I’m not sure if in such a simple format it could have done more to get this difficulty across to non-depressives. However, for people playing the game in whilst under a black cloud the game could be useful as a reminder that there is a path forwards, which is so easy to lose sight of.
Though it should be noted that in reality the path forwards does not always include getting a cat, something the game seems to see as a vital step in curing the blues. There comes a part of the plot where you’re offered the option of getting a kitten. Spoiler – cats solve everything. I’m pretty sure one or more of the games three creators either is a cat or is being blackmailed by one. It’s practically feline propaganda.
One other thing that will jar with people on this side of the Atlantic – this is obviously aimed at the US, as getting therapy and/or CBT is nowhere near as simple on the NHS as it apparently is across the pond. And should you choose to go for the antidepressant route it should be noted for people who have never taken them that it seldom runs as smoothly as doing so in Depression Quest describes.
But for what it is a barely interactive piece of fiction Depression Quest is quite an impressive achievement. The internet is awash with people who have found the game moving and a great help in their own battles with the black dog, so I’m loathe to criticise it too harshly. It’s a well written piece that captures the alienation and frustration of depression deftly in it’s prose, but it’s choice system isn’t really sophisticated enough to really capture the desperation of those long, dark nights of the soul. And in pitching itself both towards those looking for an insight into the mind of someone suffering depression and to those who suffer from it themselves it falls between two stalls. I wonder if in aiming for both it achieves neither as well as it could have done. However it’s clearly been made by people with a lot of experience in dealing with mental illness and I hope they take another crack at it at some point, perhaps outside the restrictive boundaries of Twine. As lucid an account as it is I found it to be a much better piece of writing than it is an interactive experience.