Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Depression Quest

I've been posting a lot lately about games which use interactivity to do something a bit different, be it to challenge our conceptions of conventional logic in Antichamber or to recombine our divergent senses in Proteus. One thing which is useful about Steam's Greenlight service is that even the voting arena gives airtime to already-released games just looking for some more exposure and through it I've managed to find some interesting experiences which I might discuss in another post. One which caught my eye yesterday is Depression Quest, an interactive fiction made using the Twine engine to help spread awareness about the symptoms of depression and give non-sufferers an insight into its effect on the lives of depressed people.
The premise and gameplay are both very simple. You assume the role of a twenty-something individual with an average relationship, an average family and social life and a mind-numbingly average job. There is one key discrepancy from all this normal life, however: the player character has depression. Three status updates at the bottom of the screen let you keep track of your level of depression and whether you are seeing a therapist and taking medication, which are more accessible as a result of context-specific events in the story. Gameplay revolves purely around making choices. The catch, however, is that many of the game's choices are visible, but unavailable, struck-through, inactive, to represent the difficulties faced by a sufferer. Choices like shaking off your mood and similar unhelpful pieces of advice are inaccessible, emphasising the fact that an attitude towards the condition exists which is irrelevant because it incorrectly presupposes a level of direct agency on the part of sufferers over their condition; people with depression cannot simply "cheer up" or stop being depressed.
The choices you make to progress the story affect your level of depression. The more depressed you become, the less choices are available beyond ones which are the most non-confrontational and avoidant, which involve doing and feeling less and less, and which involve spiralling into self-loathing and despair. By contrast, making what choices are available results in gradually opening up to people and finding professional help which greatly improves your psychological health. The game's numerous scenarios reflect both earlier choices and your state of mind across a number of constants as well as several optional ones.
The game's emphasis is that depression is most difficult when suffered alone; that it is a real problem, and that it does greatly impact the lives of its sufferers. It is not simply a bad mood, sadness or frustration, but a persistent and debilitating disorder. It is possible in game to end up heartbroken, friendless, alone and completely unable to communicate your feelings. That being said there are opportunities to improve friendships by helping others as well as yourself, find simple companionship through getting a pet (a few raised eyebrows from me at this point, not an animal person), seek therapy and medication to better understand and work through difficulties, discover the value of a positive relationship with siblings and turn a mediocre romantic life into an uplifting one. Failure is derived from solitude, isolation and apathy. Success derives largely from being as honest as possible. It's not just a matter of picking the highest choice on the list, though. The game has the occasional clever moment where it is the expression of issues through nonverbal means, and the willingness to appear vulnerable in front of others, which improves the player character's lot, particularly one crucial moment. There are a number of variables which occur throughout the game to influence things and it does emphasise how dealing with depression must be a long-term activity with no simple, easy or singular solution. The writing is straightforward, the language is realistic and the narrative pulls no punches and I think it balances its fictitious content with its genuine concerns to provide an insightful exploration of depression. This is supported by a basic but mood-setting soundtrack. The game is not customisable and it is not a simulator; it is a flexible narrative designed to encourage understanding through particular examples.
The game has experienced some difficulty on Steam Greenlight, mostly revolving around the issue of whether it's a game and whether the subject matter is being treated appropriately. Depression Quest is already available and it is free, although an optional donation to the charity iFred is just a click away. Its status as a "game" is, to my mind, not important. It is interactive fiction. It may not be a full-blown game in the conventional sense but there are the challenges of making difficult choices and a number of different endings - five, apparently (I've seen three). The idea that games should be "fun" and therefore depression is not a suitable topic is not worth considering as a rebuttal in my opinion. Games do not need to be "fun" any more than a confronting film or novel does, and to suggest that they do is in my view a sign of gross emotional immaturity.
I am not a depression sufferer myself, nor any kind of psychologist, but I have for many years given consideration to the idea that the luxuries, opportunities and comforts of the West do not by definition mean that its inhabitants have freed themselves of all forms of suffering, and that there are other, internal frontiers which still challenge us. I recognise the claim that mental health issues like depression are not recognised as serious and debilitating illnesses by much of "ordinary" society and I think that interactive media like this is an essential means of encouraging psychologically normative people to understand and empathise with the experiences of people suffering from depression. Awareness is vital for any issue and this is in my view one very effective means of spreading awareness. It permits an insight and level of involvement which might not otherwise be available. I admit that there were times when some of the unavailable choices seemed maddeningly sensible and obviously desirable to me, and that the player character's life was in many ways quite desirable - but his psychological state was not, and I was forced to recognise that choices I would have seized upon in the same situation were simply not accessible for a sufferer of depression.
Depression Quest is not an experience for everyone. I daresay that for all its aspirations of awareness many will find it impenetrable and frustrating - which to some extent is the point. It is not a fun or amusing experience, although the achievement of some of the better results at the end can be rewarding to read. Similarly I do not know if depression sufferers would find it useful or healthy to play. It is primarily aimed at non-sufferers who wish to understand. In that capacity I think it is a very interesting and throught-provoking experience and I would recommend it to anyone who seeks to perhaps better understand this misunderstood condition and indeed anyone willing to set aside an hour or so to have a rather unique interactive and narrative experience.
It can be played at

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