Monday, March 18, 2013


Depression Quest
an interactive (non)fiction about living with depression
by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler

Music by Isaac Schankler

Text on the screen, disquieting music, minimalist visuals consisting of abstract Polaroid-style photos of computer keyboard keys, room texture, and other mundane things.

Read the text: it's a second-person narrative (like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure Novels) of a twenty-first century city dweller coping with a mindless cubicle job, a mother that judges him for his lack of ambition in life, a careerist older brother named Malcolm, a sweet-natured girlfriend named Alex, and a hard drive full of half-realized creative projects. Depression suffuses this narrative like a narcotic heat haze that drains one's energy, and fills the mind crowding out pleasure, joy, and hope. Depression is an oppressor which squats in the mind, issuing a kind of defeatist internal monologue which deflates one's ambitions while also mocking the afflicted person's inability to heal themselves.

That's the insidious thing about this mental illness: it's not something you can just shake off, but the condition also makes it seem futile to even try to ask for help.

Just below the descriptive text are a series of choices which you can click on which will take you to another block of text. You can have anywhere from three to five choices, usually, but the top one or two are almost always crossed off, even though you can still read them. This seems to be the game's way of simulating the despair and self-recrimination which comes with depression: "I know I should make this choice, but I can't bring myself to do it. I'll never be well or even normal." Usually, these choices entail something highly idealized, like "Buckle down, shake off the bad feelings, and get to work!" or something like that. In the depths of depression, you know something's wrong, but you cannot help but compare yourself to unrealistic examples of confidence and success. It is the proverbial vicious cycle.

Below the choices are three status lines: one describes in a few sentences your overall level of depression and functionality; another tracks whether or not you're seeing a therapist and how that is affecting you; and a third tracks whether or not you're taking any anti-depressant medication. These three factors change as you click through the various chunks of text, perhaps eventually deciding to seek therapy, or choosing to do a course of anti-depressant medication. Or not.

Depression Quest is very much a Choose Your Own Adventure text game for adults. Instead of adventuring through a Cave of Time, exploring the vast insides of UFO 54-40, or trying to thwart an invasion by Space Vampires, here you must navigate a life afflicted by depression. There is no challenge in the usual sense of the term. There are no fighting combos, military strategies, or puzzles to master or solve. The decision tree is quite basic, but I found the text, which is highly generalized in its descriptions giving the story the overall sense that it could be taking place in any number of American cities, unexpectedly moving. The way the game gives you a range of choices, but crosses through some of them I thought was a rather brilliant way of suggesting the inner suffering of a person afflicted with depression, yet struggling to make good choices in life. It has been said that we can only choose from a range of choices which we actually know about, but how painful is it to see other, appealing possibilities yet be unable to explore those choices? It isn't exactly great literature, but it does give a reasonably realistic sense of what it's like to suffer from depression.

Which is what the creators of the game expressly intended. According to the Depression Quest website, this game was created to give people suffering from depression a sense that they are not alone and that healing is possible (if not easy), and to give a general audience a sense of what it's like to live with this mental illness, and what the daily struggles are for a person in such a situation. The noble goal of this game, which is available to play online for no charge (donations optional), is to create a sense of empathy, hope,  and understanding within the mind of the player.

And once you play through it once, play through it again, making different choices, and experiencing other consequences and outcomes. It is quite fascinating to explore.

Depression Quest is rather crude compared to the latest next generation console games like Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim, and others, but consider this: what if a game like Depression Quest got an entire company behind it, with an army of programmers, artists, musicians, voice actors, motion capture performers, writers, psychiatric consultants, and all the research and development assets that a major gaming corporation could muster? Right now, most games, even deep, highly detailed open world games with rich RPG fantasy environments have little to do with trying to creatively portray reality and reality's struggles. They are primarily escapist power fantasy entertainments.

 And that's all well and good. Nothing wrong with gaming just for fun. I myself love fantasy, science fiction, and ultraviolent shoot-em-ups with exploding heads, guts coiling about my blade, and oceans of blood everywhere.

But . . . that stuff does get old, doesn't it? I get kind of tired of seeing video games create scenarios which can only exist within a post-modern, anti-realist, self-referential computer fantasy world entirely without any relevance to what actual homo sapiens deal with on planet Earth right here, right now.

 Wouldn't it be intriguing if one of the large gaming companies hired the people who created Depression Quest, and put vast resources at their disposal.  Just for one game. Gave it the full production treatment with no compromises in realism and empathetic vision. Even if this new, next-gen version of Depression Quest didn't make any money it would be a truly worthwhile experiment. It would perhaps be the first time a major console game actually went beyond the usual fantasy escapism art (and it is an art) of most video games and into a realm of realist video game art-which would be a new artistic breakthrough for the medium.

It'd be a helluva thing. Here's hoping.

Click here for the Depression Quest website. Game is available to play for free, although they are requesting donations.

A rather unsettling trailer for Depression Quest:

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