Last year, I was surprised by a game’s power to make me question my values in such a subtle way. The Sea Will Claim Everything stole my heart with its simplicity; with the ease that it crept into my mind and made me think about aspects of my life. I never expected to play anything that could change me like that, but here we are, one year later, and another game has touched me in much the same way. As Jonas Kyratzes’ work made me think about the plight of those around me, Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest has shown me how to better empathize with my friends and loved ones suffering from depression.
It’s a simple game that you can play completely for free. In it, you play as someone suffering from depression, and you navigate their life through text choices. The entire game is text-based, which you read and manipulate as you listen to some soft music. It’s something I thought I could play by picking the ‘right’ choices as I went along, like striving toward a good ending in Mass Effect or something like that. Instead, I found myself confronted with many different choices that didn’t seem all that much better than each other. Even the ones that were a bit better were only slight upgrades from worse decisions. Would I try to do a little work before going to sleep or would I just rest in hopes that I would feel better the next day? Which answer would make my character’s life better? Both of them had similar results, but which one was leading toward an improvement?
That’s assuming I could choose all of the available options. As your life deteriorates or you fall further into your depression, you can see dialogue choices that are blocked out for you. Even at the start of the game, simple choices like telling your girlfriend about your depression or asking a friend for help are crossed out. These are things you will want to do after reading about how terrible your character’s life is, and you can tell that your character wants to do them too, but neither of you can. This is the curse of depression – a mental trap that keeps you from doing the things you know would help you. It takes a lot of fighting and work to get these options to open up for you, and all of this has to be taken in baby steps.
It’s through hiding these options and making the player take small steps toward making their character’s lives better that we get to see a little of what it is like to live with this condition. Depressed people don’t need to just cheer up or shake off a funk, but are rather in a mental position where they just can’t make these kinds of calls and changes to their lives easily. You get to feel the same frustration as a depressed person would when you’re not allowed to make these decisions in the game. You get a sense of the bleak outlook that overtakes their lives as wall after wall of dark, saddening text meets you. You get to immerse yourself in that darkness and hopelessness, and if you fight tooth and nail with your limited power, you just might have a chance to make a slightly more positive turn in your character’s life.
You will have fought hard to get that ‘good’ ending, and even then, I would hardly say it’s that great. It’s more like a step in the right direction for your character, and once again reminds players just how much of an uphill battle depression is. It’s one few people will understand while they’re undertaking it, and something that would be just so easy to quit on, in real life and in the game. I was sick of fighting my character to get him to make the right calls in his life by the end of it, and that’s when I felt a sickening realization in myself about the disease and what it does to people. All of a sudden, guilt came crashing in on me over every time I’d given half-hearted advice to someone suffering from depression that they should try to cheer up or commit themselves to their passions more. What had I done?
This game let me get a taste of what every dark day feels like for people suffering from depression, and does so with nothing more than text, a handful of pictures, some sombre music, and the heart and soul of its developer. That this could make me feel more about this subject, that it could make me experience these feelings myself, directly, is incredible. It took a complex subject and didn’t just tell me about it; it made me feel what it was like to go through it. It was just a glimmer of it, something I could shut off at will, but I had been touched by depression. I could empathize better with those who suffered it from this experience.
It takes a steady hand and sharp mind to distill something this complex into something just about anyone could play and understand, but Quinn has managed it here with Depression Quest. Once again, I find myself blown away with how elegant and easy a game has made this difficult subject, one I’ve spent years fighting to understand and empathize with better. That this can come along and make so many difficult things feel simple to me, to make them feel like real lessons that I have felt, leaves me in awe. This medium never ceases to surprise me, as do the talented people working within it, and the amazing work that is Depression Quest is not just a must play for this year, but it is my game of the year. There is little nobler in this industry and medium than the aspiration and achievement to make the people within it better, and no other game has done this to the degree that Depression Quest has.
Depression Quest is available for free, although you can make a donation.