If you’ve been following me for awhile then you probably already know this, but just to make sure everyone is on the same page: I’ve been struggling with depression for years. I’ve written about my experiences with it on my personal blog, most notably in my two-part retelling of my suicide attempt (part 1; part 2). So I was very interested last year when I heard about Depression Quest, a Twine-made text-adventure-type-thing that purported to convey what it’s like to suffer from depression. But I was afraid it would trigger me, so I put off playing it until just a few weeks ago.
Now I’m really glad I played it, and I’m kind of angry at myself for not doing so sooner. Depression Quest is fantastic. It’s written and designed so well that not only does it give non-depressive people insight into what depression is like, it can also give depressed people like me a sense of comfort and hope. The game uses the capabilities of Twine creatively and masterfully. I want to discuss how and why, but first I want to put up a little spoiler warning.
Anyway, Depression Quest is a deeply enthralling game because of how well it manages to capture the feeling of suffering from depression, but it’s also a really interesting piece because of how it manages to involve Choice And Consequence, a gameplay concept that RPG fans have been demanding more of for years.
Choice & Consequence
For the uninformed, many gamers want story-focused games to give you choices that impact the events of the narrative. They want the choices you make throughout the game to actually affect how things play out later on. Some companies have tried to address this — in most cases this boils down to a “moral choice” dichotomy. (For examples, see Mass Effect, inFamous, Fable, and Dishonored.)
Generally you’ll get a choice to either, I dunno, spare a rival character or kill him. If you spare him, maybe he’ll pop up briefly later on and give you something, and if you kill him maybe that’ll change a dialogue line from a support character scolding you for being cruel. But this doesn’t significantly impact the story as a whole, and most of the time its only major difference is a stat increase (+5 Good or +5 Evil). That’s pretty unsatisfying.
Depression Quest works like a choose-your-own-adventure game where you’re confronted with a number of daily problems and you get several choices for how to deal with each of them. Those choices affect your emotional state — some choices are more healthy for you than others — and your emotional state effectively determines how the narrative plays out in the end. In doing this it sort of presents some gameplay elements that gamers tend to complain about, but it presents them in ways that perfectly reinforce its narrative. Let me explain…
Railroading is a complaint leveled at games that force you, as the player character, to do things you wouldn’t want to do. Maybe the game gives you two choices and neither of them seem sensible. Or maybe you’re playing an action game and it suddenly transitions into a cutscene where your character gets cluelessly blindsided. It feels contrived, because we want to feel like we’re in control of our character, but instead we’re forced to do stupid, unjustifiable things.
Depression Quest puts a really interesting twist on the standard choose-your-adventure game by deliberately crossing out and disabling specific options. Observe:
This game mechanic is the cornerstone of Depression Quest’s brilliant design aesthetic. They could have just left the first option off the list, but instead they put it right there for you to see. For someone who’s never experienced depression, this probably seems strange and nonsensical. Why can’t I just get over it and get some work done? But that’s exactly what suffering from depression feels like. The first option on a given list of choices is always the one that a depressed person wishes she could choose, but she can’t, because she has that gremlin in her brain. Why can’t I just get over it and get some work done?!
By seeing the level-headed, straightforward, productive option crossed out in choice after choice after choice, you really get a feel for what depression does to people. At least I’d assume it does, if you don’t already know what it’s like. I do know what it’s like, so it gave me great catharsis to know I’m not the only one that feels this way.
But there’s actually more complexity to the system than this, and it took me two playthroughs to realize it…