Depression Quest might very well be one gaming’s more controversial titles from the past couple of years. Numerous gaming outlets have been singing its praises, even before its recent release on Steam. Meanwhile, non-press opinions have been notably more acerbic. Red thumbs litter Depression Quest’s Steam page, and the game currently holds a user score of 1.6 on Metacritic. All this over an effective little game. While it’s by no means a revolutionary video game, Depression Quest has a very clear sense of purpose that it delivers on reasonably well.
That said, there is at least a grain of legitimacy to some of the criticisms that I have heard. Namely, Depression Quest is not a video game, or at least judging it as one is a bad idea. Depression Quest is more or less a choose your own adventure novel in digital form. You read snippets of narrative concerning your daily life and how you emotionally process its events. At the end of each episode, you choose a pre-determined course of action, see its consequences unfold, and then move onto some other part of your life.
Naturally, this format places more emphasis on the narrative than it does the mechanics used to navigate it. True, the choices you make have some impact on the story. However, Depression Quest creates a lot of space between the events in its story. Sometimes, it can jump ahead a couple of weeks. Because of this, it’s difficult to see what impact your choices have outside the immediate consequences. The game really feels like a pre-determined narrative where your own agency and problem-solving skills mean little. (Multiple playthroughs might make the broader consequences more apparent, though.) In addition, while the game does have a clear goal (treating your depression) and a way to accomplish that goal (making the correct choices), completing this goal is no easy task. The consequences of your choices bend not toward some consistent logic, but to the character you play as. A choice that looks like it could alleviate your depression could very well lead you further down the rabbit hole. As such, any rules appear inconsistent and the game does not seem to value you as a player; only as a reader.
But that’s perfectly fine. Depression Quest does not have to entertain. In fact, it makes no claims that it should. From the very beginning, Depression Quest is upfront about its goals: to inform people about depression and inspire players to take greater action. Judged more along these lines, Depression Quest is a far greater success. Part of this is because of the format. Just about everything regarding how you receive the game effectively informs you of what depression feels like. The choices crossed out in red make you feel helpless, since the most obvious solutions are just beyond your grasp. The second person narrative is simultaneously personal and accusatory over very minor things. The listless piano music is always at the forefront, much like a depressed mood takes precedence over any other thoughts. Even the bevy of hyperlinks very early in the story demonstrate the fractured mental processes that severe depression can cause. Of course, some of this might very well be me projecting onto the game. Even then, Depression Quest still clearly displays a great amount of thought into how it presents itself.
Yet the game’s content is just as responsible for its success as its format is. Depression Quest pulls absolutely no punches. It shows depression in its rawest form. In Depression Quest, you will see:
- the disconnect depression creates between yourself and those you genuinely want to grow closer to.
- the exhaustion and self accusations.
- the feeling of not living up to society’s expectations.
- how easy it is for this condition to spiral out of control.
In short, Depression Quest paints a vivid yet still realistic picture of depression, of how destructive and painful it can be. And the game works the better for it. It’s very easy to feel depressed just playing this game. However, to hold that up as the game’s sole defining quality would be to miss the point. We must remember that this is a game with a mission, and how these emotions contribute to said mission. In this light, Depression Quest combines direct empathy with a realistic portrayal of depression as a sort of call to action. Because you have a complete view of this condition, you’re going to take depression far more seriously, and are more likely to take action against it.
Of course, this is utterly meaningless if the game does not offer a realistic solution. While Depression Quest does offer such a solution, this might end up a point of contention amongst some players. First, as I said before, the choices in this game can be misleading. True, it accurately uses choice to guide in the right direction, but things will not always appear this way. The situation can appear to grow worse, even when it is slowly improving. Thus, depression seems utterly untreatable, and the game seems defeatist for it. Depression Quest even appears this way in its “happy ending.” Although things are clearly better for you, your depression has not entirely vanished. It’s there for the rest of your life, as a condition to keep in check. While this sense of realism might put some players off, to me, it’s exactly what lends the game its power. If it had pandered to our desires and gave us an unequivocally happy ending, it would not be doing the subject matter justice. Its lessons would only be applicable to the world it has created for itself. But in choosing the more realistic path, Depression Quest can have its cake and eat it, too. Not only does it offer a solution to the problem it seeks to solve, but it offers one that could reasonably make the situation better.
And really, this is all you can ask of the game. You can’t come to this looking for some kind of complex narrative, seeing that the narrative it offers is relatively simple. Nor does the game challenge or engage some skill of yours (unless you count critical reading as a skill). Instead, Depression Quest only shows you a problem in the world and wishes that you take any action against it. In this light, it’s hard to criticize the game. It portrays depression in a harsh yet faithful light, offers a way out, and stops right there. Depression Quest might not be the most ambitious game, but it gets its job done and shows us what an interactive medium is capable of.