A Depressed Person Reviews: "Depression Quest"
I’m doing a series called “A Depressed Person Reviews . . . ” where I tackle a different piece of popular media each week dealing with depression and related themes. Thought I’d start with Depression Quest, an infamous, controversial text-based game that handles depression head-on.
I haven’t been writing for a while. Largely because I’m just not as much into anime and manga anymore, even though that’s what I’ve mostly written about before. I still might occasionally talk about anime. But what interests me really, as a person with depression, is media that either talks about the subject of depression, or portrays the experience of what depression feels like to people who suffer from it. I have PTSD and my depression is rooted in that trauma. I am in therapy, and on medication, but it took me a long time to get help. And I still have bad days, especially since the COVID-19 crisis has made ordinary life very stressful.
Anyway, I thought I would start a series of articles on depression, and perhaps social anxiety, and PTSD, in various pieces of media. What I’ll be looking for in a review is the extent to which the portrayal feels realistic—although I cannot speak for everyone with the same disorders as myself. I will also assess the extent to which I think the media in question makes the audience care about and empathize with the character or characters dealing with the depression, sadness, grief, trauma, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, etc.
I have a definite list of works I want to talk about, but I’m not sure in what order, and the list may expand or contract while writing this series, so I will not give it now. Just know I have a lot of these planned, and if you can think of a good show, movie, book, game, etc. for me to talk about, I’ve probably already thought of it, but just in case, feel free to let me know in the comments.
I thought Depression Quest would be as good of a place to start as any, since it tackles the subject of depression directly, whereas many stories hint at it, or use metaphorical, symbolic language for it. For example, J. K. Rowling has stated that the "dementor’s kiss" in the Harry Potter series is a metaphor for what it feels like to have depression. It externalizes the depression as an evil to fight, by conjuring up good feelings with happy memories. But Depression Quest is explicit and direct. It’s a game that’s text-based, like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, where you live the life of a person who has depression.
Depression Quest: An Overview of the Game
Depression Quest is a text-based, story-driven game where you live the life of someone who has depression, and you have to make everyday life decisions for them. However, usually, the best things the person could do for themselves will be crossed out in red. You can’t select these choices. Sometimes, you’re only left with poor choices, and you simply have to choose whichever one is the least bad. Other times, you may have no choice at all.
For example, if you battle your tiredness and drag yourself to a party for your significant other’s sake, socializing normally and easily is not an option. You have to choose between various ways of being socially awkward, and deal with social discomfort. I found this very relatable.
The game has a display that tells you if you’re in therapy, on medication or not, and if you feel like these treatments are working. For the best ending, you get these treatments and stick with them, even when it’s hard. For the player character, the first step towards recovery is the hardest; going to a therapist or doctor. This is true of most real people suffering from depression, especially if it’s compounded by social anxiety. If you stick with medication and therapy you will improve, and more choices will become available. Then the story will end, and the last page will tell you you’re improving, but can never be “cured."
The Controversy of Depression Quest and Its Developer, Zoe Quinn
To detail the whole history of the “gamergate” scandal of the mid-2010s with all its many incidents and issues would be tedious and not relevant here. The main thing that is relevant: Depression Quest’s inclusion on Steam, a platform and store for PC games, kicked off a big part of the scandal. Lots of people got angry, sometimes disproportionately so, at the very existence of this game, and its inclusion in the category of “video game." Unfortunately, this anger resulted in some very regrettable behavior against developer Zoe Quinn, including threats, online harassment, and doxing (releasing personal information online, usually so that a person can be stalked, threatened, and harassed in person). Because Zoe Quinn was female and a feminist, the fighting led to a kind of internet war between feminists and gamers, using the infamous hashtag, #gamergate.
It’s only since the dust has cooled from all this fighting, that it’s possible to discuss this game calmly and critique it rationally.
I will say the game is more like an interactive novel than a video game. It’s also not intended to be fun. It’s similar to the rise of the term “graphic novel” to replace “comic book” when the author wants to use the visual language of comic book art to tell a serious story. “Visual Novel” is a common genre of video game in Japan, and gamers never objected to their inclusion on Steam, even though they are also heavily text-based. In fact, quite a number of them, such as Higurashi, Clannad, and Katawa Shoujo, have small but very passionate fandoms. No one hates these games as passionately as some have hated Depression Quest for being “low effort," even if they too only have a few simple images, accompanied by a lot of text, and only offer the players a few choices as they scroll through said text.
So I think the reaction to Depression Quest being called a video game is, in fact, a reaction to its seriousness, the fact that it directly tackles a heavy real-world subject. It doesn’t offer fantastical escapism or heroic wish-fulfillment many people expect of a video game. And many reacted negatively to the fact that it is trying to teach people a moral lesson. For the gamer used to games offering pure fun, detached from reality, and the sometimes unpleasant moral considerations living in the real world entails, it’s not a “real” video game. A “real” video game, to them, is something fun that they can play to get away from reality. Higurashi is fun to play because it takes you somewhere bizarre, where bizarre events are happening. Even the somber and often gut-wrenching Katawa Shoujo has elements of absurdity that offset that mood. Notably, the whacky comic relief character Kenji.
Perhaps we need terms like “interactive novel” or “interactive art experience” to describe games that are more intended to give moral lessons, or that consider moral questions and different points of view using interactive media. The purpose isn’t to be entertaining. The purpose of Depression Quest is to get someone without depression to walk two moons in the moccasins of someone suffering from depression. It is similar to how some visual art is not intended to be beautiful, but to speak a particular message. People educated about art understand this, but people who only know about video games don’t. Not to say that their perspective is wrong, but perhaps it is close-minded and myopic. It also comes across to some as entitlement. It seems to come from a mindset that gamers can dictate the content of every video game, and gate-keep what is and is not considered one. They are defensive, because their hobby often makes them vulnerable to bullying. To some, saying that you don’t get to threaten someone with brutal torture for a game you dislike (or don’t think should be called a game), is the same as telling them that liking video games is wrong. Since I was bullied, I wanted to rush to the defense of the “underdog nerds” when I first heard about this scandal. Feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian got mixed up in this, and since I don’t like her and don’t agree with her message (I could expand on that, but it’s not relevant here), I felt like joining the hate mob against her. Anita was on “Team Zoe Quinn." So with no knowledge of who Zoe Quinn was, I was primed to hate her, by association with the nun scolding me for taking pleasure in the beauty of characters like Bayonetta and Lara Croft.
But I changed my perspective upon recognizing that:
- Just because you don’t like something, doesn’t make it bad.
- Depression Quest really nailed what it feels like to have depression, making it a valuable teaching tool. And,
- Even if a game is bad, you don’t get to dox, harass, bully, defame, and threaten the people who made it. Just, you know, don’t play.
You can freely express your displeasure in negative reviews and in gaming forums. But no one gets to do those things just because they’re pissed that a thing they dislike exists.
I like, as someone interested in philosophy and social psychology, when something pushes the limits of socially defined categories, exposing the associations society has with certain labels. I would like to see more video games, or interactive art pieces if you prefer, that tackle what I feel are important topics.
More information on the scandal surrounding Zoe Quinn and "Depression Quest":
- Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest | The New Yorker
Zoe Quinn has come under heavy criticism for her PC game Depression Quest, in which the player is cast as a person who suffers from depression.
A Review of the Game
The point of Depression Quest isn’t to be fun to play, as I’ve said above. It can be frustrating, even. The game sometimes confronts the player with questions for which there are no easy solutions. I think that might be why so many people were quick to hate or dislike this game. People play video games for escapist, fantasy entertainment. They like games for the same reason that people go on thrill rides. This means they go into it with specific expectations. They want there to be a clear, good solution to every problem in the game. Not for it to happen like real life, which is messy, hard, and what many of us are escaping from by playing a video game in the first place. It’s not even really a “game." As I said, I’d describe it more as an interactive story or novel.
But, the point of Depression Quest is to get people without depression (if they care enough to play the game) to understand people with depression. What we go through, and why some things are easy to them are hard for us. I think it does a good job for that purpose, even though it’s hard to fully represent the wide range and infinite variety of experiences people with depression can have. It certainly shows off the main common struggles that most of us have.
If you're interested, the game is free to play online here.
© 2020 Rachael Lefler