If there was a single trend during the Game Developers Conference this year, it was empathy.
Cart Life tries to convey the daily life of a struggling, working class cart owner (spoiler: it's not fun). Depression Quest wants (hopes?) to help the player understand what it’s like to live with the crippling disorder of depression. Most cannot know what those experiences entail. These games bridge the gap.
There is no way to “win” playing Depression Quest. There are endings, the story comes to a conclusion, but at no point will you, the player, be granted the satisfaction of a happy resolution. That’s not what Depression Quest is about. It’s not what you’re left with when the story is over.
“There was a moment where I just lost it and broke down crying.”
That’s Jennifer. Earlier this year, Jennifer found a game that finally spoke to her.
Jennifer is not her real name, but she is an active member of the Giant Bomb community, and for understandable reasons, wanted to remain anonymous while talking to me about her experience with Depression Quest.
Like many people, she lives with depression every day. She has for a long time. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said one in 10 adults in the United States reported signs of depression.
“Like a handful of my family members, I have a lifelong history of it,” she said.
Depression is specifically defined by the CDC as follows:
“Depression is a mental illness that can be costly and debilitating to sufferers. Depression can adversely affect the course and outcome of common chronic conditions, such as arthritis, asthma, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Depression also can result in increased work absenteeism, short-term disability, and decreased productivity.”
Depression Quest is a “game” from designer, writer, artist, and coder Zoe Quinn, writer and editor Patrick Lindsey, and musician Isaac Schankler. The quotations around game are there only to remind you what to expect, as Depression Quest isn’t about empowering the player. It’s a text adventure (which is more commonly referred to these days as interactive fiction) that addresses a very serious subject matter that is often dark, unsettling, and confusing. I consider Depression Quest a game, but I have loose definitions. In any case, it doesn’t matter. It’s semantics, and it doesn’t remove the power of Depression Quest.
"Games are in a unique position to elicit empathy from players, since when you're playing a game you kind of take on a different role for a little while."--Depression Quest designer, coder, writer, and artist Zoe Quinn
“We hadn't seen depression represented much in any medium, much less games,” said Quinn. “Considering that in our research we found that more people would rather tell an employer that they'd committed a misdemeanor and served jail time over telling them that they've received psychiatric care, we thought we could make something to push back against the stigma. Games are in a unique position to elicit empathy from players, since when you're playing a game you kind of take on a different role for a little while. A lot of the experience is autobiographical. The situations may be slightly different but the little things and the thought processes and the emotions, those are very much autobiographical.”
The game opens by explaining why it exists, partially because the experience could possibly trigger episodes with anyone already living with depression. It's a serious warning. There’s much more to the opening, though. It’s honest. How many other games lay themselves bare before they’ve begun?
“Our hope is that in presenting as real a simulation of depression as possible, other sufferers will come to know that they aren't alone, and hopefully derive some measure of comfort from that.”
The playing part is deceptively simple. You read blocks of text, and some bits are highlighted. Those sections contain information about the main character, but you aren't beholden to these backstory details. Then, at the bottom of each page are some options. Click one, go forward. If you want to take the character in a direction than their past history suggests, it’s an option. Each time, the first choice, a seemingly obvious one, one a person might rationalize in their head, is presented but scrawled out.
Jennifer discovered Depression Quest through humor-centric website Cracked.com, of all places. She actually hangs out on the forums a fair bit, which she described as a “safe place" to be open and honest.
Dealing with depression is not new to Jennifer. It’s a struggle that’s been with her for decades.
“I distinctly remember situations in elementary school," she said, "where I would be surrounded by friends who were laughing about horses and tamagotchis and Rose Art, and I would have moments where I would get pried out of my body. I went through the motions of smiling and talking but I didn't feel like I was actually there. Like I was lost somewhere in the wrong place, although where the ‘right place’ was supposed to be was unclear. It was strange and confusing. I assumed it was normal and never told anyone.”
As she approached puberty, a ruthless and complicated emotional period even without depression being in the mix, the situation became worse. Now, she was having suicidal fantasies and fighting bulimia.
“I was bullied relentlessly because I was pale and skinny and weird,” she said. “I excused myself to the bathroom once per class every day so I could lock myself in a stall to cry so hard I couldn't breathe and then go back and smile and pretend it never happened. One day as I was walking along the tile floor of my home while my parents were running errands, I was just so tired of everything that my legs gave out mid-step and I didn't see any reason to get up for hours afterward.”
Jennifer, now in college, has sought help in various forms, but still struggles with the term “depressed.” It has a stigma. Depression Quest was like looking into a slightly foggy mirror--familiar but different.
Though Depression Quest is about a person, the story is written vaguely enough to avoid trapping the player into specifics. This person is suffering from depression. This person has a boy/girlfriend trying to understand. This person may as well have been Jennifer.
“As a college-aged straight lady with a long-term boyfriend,” she said, “I can relate to the main character's struggle to such a degree that playing the game made me feel sick to my stomach. It was as if I were looking in a mirror under harsh fluorescent lighting--I could see everything. The little secrets, the ugly truths, the things I tried to deny to convince myself I was okay. And while I still hesitate to look back on the experience of playing because it was so unpleasant, it led me to the first step of saying, ‘Hey dummy, this is not normal behavior. You have a problem.’
One of the most repeated scenarios in Depression Quest is struggling to explain the character’s conflicted feelings to another person, whether a boyfriend, mother, brother, or friend. These moments are infuriating, as I struggled to understand why a person would bury their feelings, forcing themselves into awkward situations. The reasons they do this, though, are the point. It’s why Depression Quest gives us access to the moments before and after, listening to the character reflect on their own action and inaction.
I’d heard about Depression Quest, but like so many games, the link sat somewhere ignored. When Jennifer sent me a message, writing hundreds of completely unsolicited words about the impression Depression Quest had left on her, I wanted to know more. Something so simple managed such an impact.
“I want to push the boundaries of what people expect from games, and welcome people who might not understand that there's more going on in games than FPSes,” said Quinn.
"It has helped me. If it can do the same for someone else, I think it's fair to say that it's a game worth supporting."--Jennifer
Depression Quest hinges on its deeply personal writing style. It feels as though you’re reading someone’s unfiltered mental diary. Depression Quest is uncomfortable in that it feels voyeuristic, but the cramped proximity is how you develop a relationship with the character. It’s why, by the end, I was able to say I understood depression a bit better. It's a window.
In some ways, the choices in each scenario provides some agency to the player, but that’s mostly uprooted by the end. The game provides no real closure. The character is still depressed, and depending on your ending, it actually feels like they’ve regressed and you've failed them. No matter what you do, no matter how much you push the character to change themselves for the better, you can't win. It hurts.
“It was really important that the endings reflect that depression is something you live with and manage, it's not like you magically are cured someday,” said Quinn. “We wanted there to be some hope for players who were able to reach out to others and seek help, because we didn't want to portray depression as a death sentence or essentially emotional snuff, but we didn't want it to be suddenly cured either. That doesn't reflect our experiences or those of who we've talked to while making the game.”
Playing Depression Quest isn’t "fun," like watching Schindler’s List isn’t "enjoyable." They're important for different reasons, and it’s okay if they exist for the small audiences who will appreciate them as they are.
“It has helped me,” said Jennifer. “If it can do the same for someone else, I think it's fair to say that it's a game worth supporting.”
(Depression Quest is free on browsers, but you can donate. A portion of the proceeds go to iFred, which supports depression research and education. It's also trying to get approved on Steam Greenlight.)