Interactive fiction strikes me as a combination of the internet and the choose-your-own-adventure novels that many people my age borrowed from their elementary school libraries. They aren’t games in a pure sense, but share some characteristics with games. That brings me to one work in particular from 2014 called Depression Quest. In case you aren’t already painfully aware, this is the game around which the shitstorm known as Gamergate originally formed. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the game, if we can call it that. Interactive fiction is somewhere in between the linear story and the plot-heavy game. And this interactive fiction game might just hit you very close to home.
I have to admit, for being as interested as I am in the possibility of games being used for social good (or social evil), I have remained shamefully ignorant about Depression Quest. I knew the gist of it, and followed the Gamergate fallout in the news, but I didn’t play Depression Quest until a few days ago. The game is fairly simple: a grainy polaroid sits at the top of the screen, a closeup of some object relevant to the current scene which is described by the text below. Sometimes the only option is to click “next” to continue, while other choices are presented at some points. Right away, you notice that the best choices are dangled in front of you but are then crossed out in red, like this:
It’s, well, depressing if you pardon my word choice. I kept trying to choose the best of the blue choices, but found myself wandering into progressively more dreary situations. It quickly becomes apparent from the changes in the status fields, the top one in particular, that reaching out to people and asking for help is the way to go. If there is one thing that Depression Quest is not, it’s being subtle in making its point.
And then, suddenly, it was over – as much as Depression Quest can be be over. It leaves the reader/player with a message thanking them for playing and reminding them that life is just about moving forward and provides helpful links to mental health resources. Neat. Now, being a person who likes games, I would be remiss not to try at least one other path if I know there is more than one ending. I went back to the beginning and started a new run where instead of choosing things I either know are the right thing to do or are the thing I would do/have done in the given situation, to go ahead and choose the ultimate path of self-destruction.
Yikes. I made some bad choices, refused to open up, and more and more of the choices I made last time came up crossed out. As I keep going down this path, several times I am given only the “bad” option and other times what looked like it might be a path back up to the light but sometimes it’s already too late to change some future events. Keeping on the dark path leads to a bleaker conclusion, though no more decisive than what seemed like the “good” ending.
Have I missed the point of the game? Perhaps the author wanted the audience to focus on relating to the emotional content more than trying to achieve objectives with their actions. While I can’t deny that this game is disturbingly relatable, at times seeming like it was spying on my own life, I can’t just look at it as a piece of literature I can relate to. If my actions didn’t matter then I would not feel like I needed to be offered the choices in the first place. But the player’s choices in Depression Quest do matter within the context of the game: it’s not just your well-being at stake. Your parents, your brother, and your girlfriend are all affected by your actions. If you choose wisely, they become happier people. If you choose poorly, they suffer. The difference between those two outcomes is up to you. If that’s not making a point about our real life choices about how we deal with depression, I don’t know what is.
Where does this fit into the big picture? Games, or game-like interactive stories, can illustrate important messages in different ways than linear stories or personal interactions. That is not always necessary, but sometimes it can be helpful. That’s why I think we, people who love games, have a responsibility to push back against the misconception that games are for simple amusement and wasting time. We also have to stand up to the toxic elements of gaming culture who want to reduce gaming to finite contests that exist only to stroke their egos. I don’t always hate power fantasies that give the player the ability to shoot things, blow things up, or wage wars from above. I couldn’t play Civilization if I didn’t enjoy a good power fantasy. Rather, I hate the idea that games, video games in particular, are thought to be limited to that sort of thing when games like Depression Quest also exist to make people think.
So, if playing this game can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes you have to reach out and call for help. If you need it, go to therapy. If you need them, take your meds. And, unless you’re allergic, don’t say no to a kitten. I’m glad I didn’t.