If you’re the type of person who comes to reviews to read one little line, shrug your shoulders, and close the tab, here’s Depression Quest in that tiny little line: it’s the only game I’ve ever played that begins with a mission statement. In an era where 99% of games struggle to be about anything more than various degrees of foreigner getting shot, stabbed, or otherwise maimed, DQ’s iconoclastic stand is downright refreshing. Make no mistake; this is a video game With A Message, that is About Something, and it is willing to do anything and everything to get that Message across. Unfortunately, this razor-sharp focus on its own mission hinders the game’s own ambitions as a piece of interactive storytelling, and it ultimately sacrifices its narrative strength for mere inculcation.
Now, as a rule I typically avoid personal disclosures like the following, but considering this subject matter I think it informs my opinion of the game enough to justify a brief explanation. I, like so many others who have played Depression Quest, have battled with depression as long as I can remember. For this reason, I feel a personal obligation to echo the game’s own opening and say that, if you are prone to depressive episodes, you probably shouldn’t play this game. Though I did not personally experience an attack before, during, or immediately after my two hours with the game, I could easily see where it could negatively affect anyone who experiences the daily struggle DQ endeavors to depict.
By design, Depression Quest tells its tale in the broadest of strokes, simultaneously its greatest asset and most glaring flaw. You are an amorphous, genderless blob of a twentysomething that works a nondescript crap job in Anytown, USA. The game’s largely-fixed plot chronicles the player character’s sufferings with the titular disease, which, according to the player’s choices, can either gradually improve or spiral out of control. Along the way, the player interacts with a handful of characters, including the protagonist’s doting girlfriend, their more successful brother, and – of course – the overbearing mother who just can’t seem to understand what’s got her child feeling down.
Now, the first reaction that a fellow sufferer like myself might have to a game like Depression Quest is to stomp one’s feet and bellow “that’s not my experience!” into the nearest computer monitor. In fact, this criticism is so obvious that the game’s mission statement even anticipates it, stating that “…this is an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them.” If the game is intended to be a teaching tool alone, this is a fine approach; the game succeeds in conveying, through clear and often pained prose, the cloudy darkness that ceaselessly invades the seemingly powerless victims of this foul condition.
However, in narrative terms, the true story of depression is that of lone individuals – people who have lived and loved in a variety of bizarre circumstances – forging through their own darkness in amazing, unique ways. Yet, no matter the routes you take, Depression Quest never quite adds up to one of these tales. Instead, it feels more like a collection of photocopies; cleaned-up, recolored versions of the most obvious events shared by all, with neon-lit paths to either absolution or doom. Spend a night out on the town, you’ll feel better. Go to bed early, you feel worse. Take pills, you feel better. Go off them, you feel worse. In Depression Quest’s world, there is no room for nuance, happenstance, or even personality. It’s a one-size-fits-all experience for perhaps the most deeply personal problem that one could ever know.
Does this mean, as so many angry internet commenters have claimed, that Depression Quest is not worth playing? Of course not – but only with proper expectations. Do not mistake me: Depression Quest’s lack of specificity remains a completely valid design choice, but – like almost every aspect of the game – it reports to its mission, not its storytelling. As such, Depression Quest is not so much an interactive story as it is a valuable piece of edutainment for a condition that desperately needs it. For many, it will prove startling but enlightening; however, those who desire a robust representation of depression in video game form may find themselves with only shaking hands and bad memories to show for it. It’s altogether necessary, but hardly mandatory.