Note: this post and game aren’t particularly enjoyable or happy, so don’t read on if you don’t feel able to or don’t want to deal with a heavy subject.
Depression Quest is a game devoted to helping people understand what it feels like to be depressed, as well as to let those who have similar experiences in reality understand that they are not alone. While I’d seen it before but didn’t play, I stumbled upon it again, on Christmas Eve, through some indie game developers on Twitter. I decided to play this game, though not because I suffer from depression, nor because I wanted to destroy any feelings of happiness or joy during the holiday season.
Instead the game felt appropriate after hearing of friends having difficulty with the stresses of the holidays. There’s a pressure to perform and be cordial and social. There’s a perceived necessity for everything to Go Just Right. For some, there’s a lot of pain in forced interaction with certain family members. Even transgressions and lack of consideration for triggering or harmful behavior.
So I played it with all that in mind, trying to better understand those close to me who don’t go home and find comfort, but stress.
The game is online and freely available, which is fitting for a significantly consciousness-raising, almost educational experience. The game starts with a preface advising professional help if needed and disclaiming that this is simply a representative story, including several important life elements that everyone may not have. The player progresses through web pages with text describing a particular day or moment, with insightful and well-written internal monologue or spoken dialog often leading towards a choice of actions or responses.
This is the game’s most obvious and powerful mechanic. The multiple-choice questions almost always include an option that is visible to read but crossed out and unselectable. These options are often the more enthusiastic, positive, and seemingly easy reactions to a decision, which are all too often what people who do not understand depression suggest.
But further, if you make choices in the game that make matters worse, fewer options become available to you. Options that would be positive, that would lead to recovery, are also unavailable. So in this sense it simulates a spiral downward and the difficulty of recovery. Statuses at the bottom of the page inform you of the severity of your depressed state and how you may be treating it.
A more subtle aspect of this design is the message it conveys from the range of options. The fact that from the start, and even at the highest points, options are consistently unavailable implies a larger spectrum of experience that remains challenging and difficult to achieve even for people recovering from depression. Even on the best days. Even with a quite positive ending, the text, depression status, and tone emphasize that this may be a lifelong battle. That bad days will happen. That the mental fuzziness and static remain in the background.
Bad choices are always still available, too, pointing towards the constant possibility of slipping down and the necessity of constant, positive decisionmaking and reinforcement.
The game features work stress, misunderstanding parents, expectations with a romantic partner, the effect of a pet, interactions with physical and online friends, and the experience of seeking therapy and medication. Many aspects of these people, situations, and interactions are explored, and I almost always felt the choices covered all reasonable possibilities, even if I couldn’t do them all.
Never once did the story feel contrived. Every step, every page, and every option felt natural and fair for a person in the situation. This was helped by the very generic nature of the narrative. While details like aspects of characters necessarily needed to be fleshed out, descriptions of your job, of your personal side project, and generic activities like watching Netflix are broad or left ambiguous and able to be interpreted and personalized for anyone. Even your partner’s name, Alex, is conveniently gender-neutral.
Yet while it is generic on those details, the descriptions of anxieties about friends and family members truly emphasized in me the fears and thoughts people with depression may have about worthiness, success, being burdensome, and sorting out preoccupying and incessant negative feelings. It explains with brilliant imagery (both descriptive and through actual images on the pages) the lack of motivation or ability to take certain actions.
The game has music. A somber, slow piano solo loops in the background. Both it and the image on each page responded to your current depression severity and relayed the constant sense of unease and cloudy headspace. Occasional light atmospheric noise helped convey the setting.
This game is perfect for anyone who wishes to understand a mental disorder from the inside and to see just why common suggestions are not helpful. It’s great for shedding light on stigma and showing the process of recovery, if you choose wisely. It takes a certain time and emotional investment to give each page time to breathe and consider. This game is, I think, useful and enlightening to both those who know quite a bit and quite little about depression, and whether they feel they have depressive symptoms or not. It’s good for anyone who wishes to understand in vivid detail one difficult form of the human experience.
If you are in an acceptable mood to challenge yourself, I recommend playing through this game.
(It’s worth noting for any who are hesitant to play that the game does not end in any particularly horrible way. It ends, from my diverse couple of playthroughs, with a discussion around the holidays, which was a strangely appropriate and timely development.)