Depression Quest was the most important game of 2013. In a year full of amazing achievements - Towerfall, The Last of Us, and Tearaway come to mind - Depression Quest did something those games couldn’t. Many of these games put us in the shoes of someone powerful, and cheered us on as we accomplished mechanically simple tasks – defeating enemies, collecting thing, and overcoming obstacles. They’re empowering, and why shouldn’t they be? Depression Quest, on the other hand, put us in the shoes of someone powerless. It presents similarly simple tasks – talking to your significant other, working on personal projects after your job, waking up in the morning – and makes them extraordinarily difficult.
Depression Quest is a game about helplessness and, more importantly, empathy. And this is exactly the kind of game we need. The game was initially released as a free-to-play browser game, which is accessible to nearly everyone. The problem is, being accessible means nothing if your intended audience doesn’t know the game exists. While Steam is a more restrictive platform, releasing the game there means hopefully its reach will now match its accessibility.
I met this game at a particularly rough time last year. I was in a slump, none of my classes seemed to matter, and I was inches away from giving up on my degree and dropping out. After years of feeling awful about myself, convinced that I was lazy or broken, I decided to look for help. The advice I got from authority figures was well intentioned, but unhelpful.
“You’re not depressed! You’re a smart guy!”
“Depressed? What do you have to be sad about?”
“You just need to eat better and exercise is all!”
“You don’t seem depressed!”
And so on. Thankfully, I still had support from my peers, many who had suffered mental illnesses of their own. People who actually experienced depression. They helped prevent the self loathing, but not the self doubt. This is where Depression Quest came in. Nearly every personal struggle I’ve had in life was suddenly staring straight back at me. I was bummed, sure. But finally, finally someone understood what I was going through. I finally understood what I was going through. Things started to make sense.
Depression Quest at it’s core is simply a choose your own adventure game, but the way it handles decisions makes it much more important than that. Every set of choices usually contains one or two options that would solve a problem in the best possible way. The only problem is, they’re crossed out, and you’re left with a handful of sub-optimal options. Some of them even sound pretty okay! But even then, when you think you’ve chosen the best option possible, often depression gets in the way.
You can’t find the strength to be honest with your significant other. Still, you choose the option that might allow for a conversation to start. You try to talk, and trip over your words. In trying to say something of value, you believe you’ve said something stupid and hurt your relationship more than you’ve helped it. Maybe you’ll try again tomorrow. Maybe next time it won’t be as hard. Maybe next time the option you wanted to pick won’t be crossed out, and it’ll be just as easy to tell the truth as it is to pick the other options. But not today.
Depression Quest doesn’t end in a conventionally happy way. You don’t find a cure. Things don’t just get better. In the end of the day, things still suck. But they suck less when you know you’re not alone.