Thursday, 30 January 2014

Xynnia Reviews 'Depression Quest'

Developer: Zoe Quinn
Release: 14th February 2013 (PC, online)

Trigger Warning: This review contains some discussion of depression in the context of a game.

The free indie PC game Depression Quest came onto my radar about a month and a half ago, after I saw a Twitter shout-out to support the game on Steam Greenlight. The game was first released on Valentine's Day of last year, but the journey to greenlight it on Steam was long and filled with sexist harassment directed against developer Zoe Quinn. After being taken down once and resubmitted, the game was finally greenlit just earlier this month.

For my part, I was extremely excited as soon as I found out that there was a game which aimed to show the player what it was like to live with depression. Even before I'd played the game myself, I supported it on Steam, because I knew it had to be good. I've long thought that more people should be realising the potential of games to educate and convey different life experiences, and raising awareness about depression is just about one of the best and most suitable uses for gaming that I can think of. I have close friends who suffer from depression or very similar mental states, and I regret that I haven't always been as supportive as I could have been due to not understanding their condition well enough. I could have used a game like Depression Quest years ago, but I'm just glad that it's around now to hopefully benefit as many people as possible. I'll definitely be passing it along to anyone I can think of.

With that said, it took me a while to get down and actually play Depression Quest. I did my research before playing the game, and there was one comment or review - though I can't find it again now to attribute it - advising anyone not to play the game if they were in a particularly good mood. The game itself begins with a trigger warning and a frank talk about the aims and motivation behind the game, as well as the quote by David Foster Wallace that you see above. I wanted to play the game well and properly, without compromising my own mood or being unable to pay proper attention to what it showed me, and I also wasn't sure how much time it would take up. Finally, while laid up in bed one weekend with a bad cough and desperately procrastinating some uni work, I embarked upon the Quest.

The gameplay of Depression Quest is more like interactive fiction than a traditional video game, and on more than one occasion it has been compared with the complex Visual Novel Analogue: A Hate Story. In total the game consists of over 40,000 words of text, and depending on the choices you make as the game progresses, you will be presented with different scenarios and have different options for responding to them. Three static-filled grey text boxes at the bottom of the screen track your progress with your depression, therapy and medication respectively. Depending on how you deal with your depression, some options will become unavailable to select, although even before you have a chance to make any choices in the game, there will be routes you cannot take. I saw these as the game's way of showing that with depression, some things are just impossible to do, no matter how straightforward they might sound. I was surprised and pleased the first time that I realised all of the options for a scenario were open and I was completely free to choose whichever one I wanted.

In spite of the highly interactive nature of Depression Quest, a lot of the time it feels like events are out of your control and that trying to influence them is an exercise in futility. I think I picked a lot of "good" options during the game, but even then, I could choose what I thought was the right course of action only to have a character (my significant other, or my mother for example) interpret my actions in completely the wrong way, leaving me floundering and confused as to what I should have said or done differently to make them happy. Or I could finish a scenario feeling pleased with how things went only to wake up the next day or a few days later back to square one, still battling lethargy with a whole new set of challenges to try and surmount. Often I would hold my breath while picking an option, hoping against hope that it was a good choice and wouldn't completely mess up my job, my life or my relationships with the other game characters.

I appreciated that at the start of the game, the player is described as a "mid-twenties human being" without specifying gender or anything too prescriptive that might keep them from stepping completely into the character's shoes. I thought that the game was going to do the same with the player's "significant other", whose identity is at first only given as "Alex", a fairly gender-neutral name. Unfortunately, we do find out through the use of pronouns that Alex is female. I can understand that going to pains to avoid giving the gender of the player's significant other might have been time-consuming and beside the point of the game, but it would have made a nice change and been another positive trend for Depression Quest to set amongst all the other great things it is already doing. Having a female significant other has caused a lot of people to assume that the protagonist of Depression Quest is "a guy", but this is never so much as hinted at during the course of the game.

I experienced just one small bug whilst playing when a page seemed like it wasn't going to load fully, but I think it was a result of Skype click-to-call interfering with the therapist's phone number that was meant to be displayed on the screen, and after a couple of refreshes I could proceed with the game. Otherwise, every aspect was smooth, polished and believable. The descriptive language used in each scenario was vividly evocative of the experience of being depressed - "your alarm blares with caustic inevitability"; "the sickly green glow of the time"; "you're being choked by how isolated you feel, how trapped you feel just being here with yourself". The increasing levels of static on the little image at the top of the screen and in the music added to this atmosphere. Of course the game still requires a certain amount of investment, imagination and a willingness to enter into the experience, which can be unlike other games that do the immersive work for you; but if you're looking for an easy, effort-free ride, then Depression Quest isn't the right game to be playing anyway.

It goes without saying that I thought Depression Quest was excellent and I thoroughly recommend playing it - whilst heeding the warnings that come attached, of course. It's free to play on the game's website and hopefully soon on Steam as well, though if you have the money to donate and support the game, a portion of the proceeds go to iFred, the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression. I hope that the game's success can set a positive example for anyone else who might be considering making an educational, experiential game, as well as being an invaluable resource for anyone who is at all concerned about depression, or who simply wants to know more. Thank you to Zoe Quinn and everyone involved in this project for making it happen.


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