Talk of the Ninja: Depression Quest

Snowballing

Snowballing is something that happens generally in competitive games like League of Legends. Basically, whichever side starts the match well gets an upperhand by gaining more rewards through better play, and those rewards lead to a high likelihood of that team continuing to play better. It becomes quickly and increasingly difficult for the other team to “catch up” because they’re continually falling behind in power as well as progress. In most games, it’s something the designers try to avoid as much as possible, as it takes the tension out of the late-game.

Depression Quest’s choice-disabling feature extends further than simply crossing out the first choice in each list. On my first playthrough I picked the healthiest, most beneficial choices — I’m fairly aware of what helps you deal with depression because I’ve been dealing with it for years and I’ve interacted with several counselors — so things remained pretty straightforward for me. But on my second run I picked the bad choices, the ones that I knew would hurt the most, and I discovered the true depth of Depression Quest.

depressionquest_2

This choice comes late in the game. If you played well, options 2 and 3 would be available to you. I made poor choices throughout, so all I’m left with is number 4. And in case you were wondering, that’s the least healthy choice in this situation. See, the worse your emotional state is, the more limited your options are. And if you’re low, you’re usually limited to the worse options.

From a purely ludic standpoint, this is frustrating. It means that the further down you are, the harder it is to get back up, and once you fall too far down you can end up feeling trapped. But in this case it works, because that is exactly what depression feels like. The proper methods of dealing with depression — reaching out to loved ones, seeking therapy and/or medication, going outside regularly, etc. — all become monumentally difficult when you’re really suffering from it. It really does make you feel trapped and isolated, like you’re stuck in a pit and you lack the power to climb out of it.

The Message

One common complaint leveled at many games going for Choice & Consequence is that they reward one set of choices more than another (say, Good gives you better rewards than Evil) to service the game’s “message.” And this is a valid complaint with most of these games, because the “message” tends to be ham-fisted and overly simplistic. (Spare = saint, kill = monster. Fable and Dishonored are perfect examples.) But Depression Quest uses its systems to portray real insight and make important points.

Depression is a growing issue, and many depressed people (such as I!) look to media like video games to escape from their problems. Games like Depression Quest are important because they can help us learn how to deal with depression, and the game definitely knows this, because each element in its narrative serves to teach a lesson. You have a brother that doesn’t fully understand your plight but supports and comforts you nonetheless. This exists to show the player the benefit of families as support structures. Your mother is loving but judgmental and can’t give you any insight or support regarding depression, and this demonstrates that some family members won’t “get” what you’re going through. You have a girlfriend who nurtures you and shows support whenever you open to up to her, and this shows how much support loved ones provide. And if you distance yourself from her too much throughout the game she’ll break up with you at the end because you’re holding her back from her own life, which demonstrates that being too insular can alienate even those closest to you. It also brings up therapy and medication, and both of these help you deal with depression if you choose to use them. I’m really glad this is brought up because there are too many misconceptions about antidepressants in our culture, and speaking personally, they’ve helped me an awful lot.

In conclusion…

Depression Quest is such a finely written and designed interactive narrative that I can’t go without recommending it to anyone who has the patience to read for a few hours. I mean, it did have mixed effects on me — it helped give me perspective and insight into my own depression, but it also drudged up some memories and feelings I didn’t want to experience again. But I’d say that it’s had a net positive effect on my life. It’s an enriching experience. It can be frustrating, saddening and unsettling, but in the context of a narrative about experiencing depression, that’s how it should be. And even beyond all that, it’s just a damn good game — it gives meaningful choices that impact later events, and there are practically innumerable unique situations that can occur throughout. I’ve played through it something like twelve times, and I don’t regret doing so.

3 comments

  1. First of all, I wouldn’t have played Depression Quest any time in the foreseeable future (mostly it was just me not realizing it was free and not bothering to look it up), so thanks for that!

    As for the article itself… It was good! I’m not even just saying that, it really was. You mentioned on twitter that you were worried about sounding pretentious, but I think you’re fine. It’s a different sort of game that requires a different sort of perspective – like the epilogue said, you need to be willing to play games that aren’t fun.

    I just played it (once), and I agree a lot of the systems are pretty smart, like the crossing off options one. I’d replay it to analyze it a bit, but… ah, I’ll let it sit for a bit, let my thoughts settle on it. Might (probably?) say something about it tomorrow.

  2. Great write-up. Really wanted to try this game, but I figured it costed money and I don’t have much of that. But it’s free, which I didn’t know, so yeah! Awesome! I’ll totally check this out, like now.

    And first page in, it’s already hitting *really* close to home. Oh, man…

  3. Great writeup of an amazing game. This article convinced me to both play Depression Quest and to start following your articles here; I’m looking forward to more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *