Depression Quest, aptly subtitled An Interactive (non)Fiction About Living With Depression, reminds us how games can serve as a launchpad for understanding and honest self-realization. Video games, especially text-based interactive stories, have the unique ability to inculcate these motions with a bizarre mix of roleplay, narcissism, and empathy. Depression Quest does this so well not only because it attempts to remain general enough to still this volatile mixture of emotions. The generalized, somewhat aimless direction of the narrative reaches out to the player and forces him/her to respond narcissistically to the game’s events. This narcissism begets a simulacrum of existential agency and despair which in turn successfully emulates a “day in the life” portrait of depression.
Depression Quest primarily prompts the player’s narcissism by creating a very generalized account of story experience. The player directly controls the actions of “You,” the player character who is struggling with depression. Additionally, the plot primarily consists of events and themes which are relevant and familiar to people in day-to-day life. The player makes decisions about work, interacting with friends and family, daily health, and entertainment while controlling “You.” The precise details of the people and places are intentionally vague; this invites the player to freely, albeit perhaps unwillingly, insert various details of their own life into the game’s narrative.
These seemingly tiny narrative prompts blossom into emergent behavior within the player – they create a simulation of the player’s life to provide a sense of real agency and existential responsibility for “You.” This existential responsibility instills, especially within players who are not suffering from depression and have healthy narcissistic drives, self-regulatory impulses to improve their character’s quality of life. The designers, aware of this, have included narrative options that people who do not have depression may simply choose – these are the solutions or advice people who do not understand depression may offer as advice to those who suffer with the disorder. For example, when invited to a party with your significant other after an emotionally exhausting work week, the game presents three options to you: 1)
Shake off your funk and go have a good time with your girlfriend; 2) Agree to go; 3) Say that you are really not feeling well and can’t make it. The designers intentionally force the player to not only feel existential agency for the player character, but also simultaneously display and negate the “right” or normal response to narrative life events. This emulates the cognitive experiences of many who suffer from depression. People who are depressed are definitely aware of the potential to just “shake off [their] funk” but this does not feel like a realistic option to them. To those on the outside it may appear that depressed people aren’t even trying to cheer up or improve their quality of life, but the game swiftly dispels this myth – the sufferer sees this option as a non-option. It is a brass ring which eludes their grasp because their “jump” button is broken. It is a very successful and effective simulation of outright despair for which the designers should be applauded.
We are in an era of gaming in which mental illnesses are turned into a quirky, skewed trope. The villains we love to hate and the protagonists we find the most compelling often are twisted, pop-culture tropes of psychological disorders. In opposition to these well-worn figurative clichés Depression Quest’s approaches mental disorders with a very humanistic outlook. This, frankly, is a breath of fresh air which shouldn’t be passed up by anyone, gamer and non-gamer alike. As someone who is all too familiar with the more intimate nature of depression, I found this game to still be incredibly enlightening. It shows us that games, as interactive simulations, are one of the best-suited mediums to explore those areas wherein normative descriptions of experience are hard to come by. Some experiences almost entirely escape the endless array of clauses we may throw at them, and may only be phenomenologically experienced – whether real or part of a simulation – as the sticky, marsh-like events that they are.