Depression Quest – Portraying Mental Illness In Interactive Fiction

A new addition to Steam caught my attention this morning; Depression Quest, developed by Zoe Quinn, co-developed by Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler. The aim of the game is to show people what it’s like to suffer from depression or to show depression sufferers that they are not alone (although there are warnings stating that if you’re already suffering from depression you may want to avoid playing.) I was curious because the idea of conveying deeper issues like Depression in games is one that I’ve also considered myself. I also suffer from a bit of depression – mostly in the form of Anxiety. A lot of reviews are claiming that the game put them in a bad mood, so you may want to avoid it, although it didn’t seem to effect me too deeply. To be honest, things like this tend to open my eyes to how irrational my own thoughts often are.

Depression Quest feels more like interactive fiction than a game. I enjoy interactive fiction, but I think it’s important to make a distinction between the two as many gamers are very traditional with what they will accept as being a game. Much of the experience involves reading with a few options at the end of each passage. It was clever in the sense that some options – the ones that people without depression would be more likely to pick – were ruled out to emphasize the character’s state of mind. A lot of the time I felt powerless to change things, which I suppose adds to the point it is trying to make. Overall however, the mechanics are all pretty basic. There are definitely much better interactive fiction experiences out there. The story itself wasn’t particularly interesting either and didn’t really change pace much from start to finish.

To be honest, while I understand the direction Depression Quest is trying to take, I would have preferred to have seen it done in a more positive way. For example, showing how there can be a light at the end of the tunnel; Make it about overcoming depression, rather than just living with it. I know that for some people it can be a lifelong problem, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still find some way to help them to cope. I think there are some better endings, but the one that I got was really negative despite the fact that I felt like I was making the most positive choices – I got a kitten afterall :3. The grainy images, text and sombre music all felt like they were put there just to make you feel bad.

It’s pretty frustrating that there is so much taboo around mental health problems like Depression, but I’m not entirely sure if you can expect many people to want to boost their understanding through a game that claims to not be fun. Some of the reviews I’ve read also suggest to me than even after playing Depression Quest, many still don’t understand what it’s like to have Depression; Perhaps it’s difficult for people to role-play a mindset that is too different from their own. I’ve always thought that if you want to educate through games it has to be in a more subtle way. In other words, the player picks up on an idea while engaged but doesn’t necessarily realize it straight away. I think you could do a lot more with game mechanics in this instance. As a rough idea, maybe simulate a social gathering but give the character an anxiety meter that you have to manage to get through it; That way the player can still make what they think are positive choices from their own perspective, but then see how it would adversely affect the mood of a character who has Depression/Anxiety. Even though the player may never be able to fully understand what it’s like to live with Depression on a regular basis, the game mechanics could be used to add a level of pressure to the gameplay experience that would help them to simulate it, rather than just reading about it and trying to imagine. It’s already possible to find many people to relate to about mental illness as they brave sharing their own feelings through blogs and social networks.

For most people Depression Quest will hold no interest at all, but I’m sure there are some that will find value in it. I personally believe that interactive media is capable of communicating all sorts of ideas and emotions, but I don’t think Depression Quest has fully succeeded here.

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About wallcat

I have a strong passion for computing. In particular programming for which I am able to use a variety of languages including C++, Visual C#, Blitz Basic, Actionscript 2.0, Python and Lua. I also enjoy web-design and have some knowledge of HTML/CSS, PHP/SQL and Javascript. As well as programming I have a strong background in art and enjoy drawing in my spare time. When I’m not sat at my computer I like to keep fit by going to the gym or using my exercise ball.

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