Through gossiping and bandwagons, the online video game community often does a disservice to what it supposedly cares about: discussing games. Depression Quest is the first Twine game to make it to Steam. While this fact might amount to nothing more than trivia, the game deserves our honest evaluations at this time, if only to counterbalance the heehawing and lack of self-examination that some members of the game community prefer.
During Depression Quest’s pre-Steam release, game critic Cameron Kunzelman said the game “is as perfect of a simulation of depression as I think we are likely to ever get.” If nothing else, Depression Quest demonstrates that developers Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler have a highly technical understanding of how audio and visuals can provide insight into human experience. I agree with Alan Williamson that Depression Quest’s “dialogue options you cannot choose” — visually represented as crossed-out (dead) hyperlinks — promote understanding about how depression impacts one’s life. I also agree with Richard Goodness that the game’s audio glitches powerfully convey the sensual disorientation of depression. Even the background of Depression Quest has an important function: the gray static makes the game’s text tiring to read, urging the player to engage with the exhaustion of managing depression.
At the same time, I disagree with Kunzelman’s statement. Depression Quest is not as perfect of a simulation as it might have been, nor does it trump the lessons of 2010′s Elude and 2012′s The Cat Lady. The game works quite well as a simulation of the depression of a working-class, 20-something white person, though it does not address the variability of backgrounds and feelings. (Attention to human variability is why Cart Life is more of a “perfect” simulation of street vending than Depression Quest is of depression.) To its credit, Depression Quest admits its limited scope in a preface.
Given the game’s honesty about its scope, the biggest weakness of Depression Quest is its use of exposition. Why can’t the story, the experience, stand by itself? At the beginning of Depression Quest, I was compelled to click hyperlinks in the body of the text. These hyperlinks didn’t lead to experiences; they approached relationships like note cards (in contrast, last year’s Actual Sunlight establishes the significance of the protagonist’s parents with a phone call and a reassuring thought). Thankfully, once Depression Quest gets going, the relationships become part of the player’s experience, which makes the game stand apart from other games that address depression. But the exposition does come back in obvious ways, as in this example: “You dial the phone number of the house you grew up in, the number that hasn’t changed during your entire life. Your old number.” This text struggles to make details experiential rather than referential.
Exposition also accompanies the main game mechanic in Depression Quest. Like Elude, Depression Quest indicates that depression has different degrees. In Depression Quest, degrees of depression determine the choices that you can or cannot make. The game reminds you of this with expositional text at the bottom of the screen, such as, “You are depressed. Interaction is exhausting, and you are becoming more and more withdrawn.” Why is this text necessary, outside of providing a constant explanation for having dialogue options struck out with a line? In Elude, degrees of depression are clearly communicated through what you experience as the protagonist, the relative lack of control (in both conceptual and mechanical terms) as you try to live. Getting the text at the bottom of the screen in Depression Quest to change doesn’t feel as fluid or natural. This unnaturalness is especially apparent if you play Depression Quest more than once and recognize the specific choices that grant you the ability to make progress. The simulation further weakens if one wonders if a choice should or shouldn’t have changed the direction of the game (that people with depression don’t necessarily have similar histories, feelings, or impulses was a fundamental point in The Cat Lady).
Despite these flaws, Depression Quest has noble purpose. The game’s most compelling accomplishment, aside from its sophisticated audiovisual effects, is disentangling depression from everyday working-class struggles. A lot of working people can say that waking up to an alarm is difficult, that fearing to leave work early is normal, that the drudgery of 8 to 5 is reality, and that never intending to work at the same job is common. Depression Quest acknowledges these sentiments, but unlike the Marxist Actual Sunlight, the game specifies that working-class struggles are not its primary concern. Even though the expositional design and storytelling in Depression Quest might reject imagination, the game’s conviction to illuminate the added weight of depression on life is intensely personal.