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Tag: Depression Quest

Gone Home

“Take recommendations from the comments section” isn’t generally good advice, but when you know it’s a good friend of yours commenting on something you wrote then seems like less of a bad idea. Today I will follow through on that recommendation, and play Gone Home. What I already knew about it before playing is that it is a “story exploration game” like Dear Esther, so it was going to be a “walk through the plot deal” rather than a “defeat the adversaries/environment” thing more typical of adventure games. So, I fired it up with the intention of seeing whether or not I fundamentally disagreed with the premise of the button on the start-up screen: “new game.” Will I be able to consider this thing a game?

Ransack the entire house searching for clues in each object, while listening to Sam’s audio diary: that’s the closest thing to gameplay you will experience in Gone Home.

Is it a game? Yeah, sort of, in the sense that old school point-and-click room escape rooms are games. There are details to notice and codes to find in order to move forward. Trying to walk through without interacting with any objects won’t get the player through the story. Like I do in those escape the room games, I spent a lot of time ransacking the place and clicking on everything to ensure I don’t miss that one little clue upon which the entire rest of the game hinges. I am rewarded for this behaviour on two occasions, one of which was necessary to advance the main plot, and the other part of revealing an optional side plot. Towards the end I found that I had missed one other optional clue and had to get on the Google to find out where to pick up that one scrap of paper I didn’t even notice on my own (which lead to the clues that I would not have completely understood without this spoilerific guidance). Most of the things I can pick up and examine are completely inconsequential, while others seem interesting but fixed in place. This is the sort of thing I find tedious and would have turned me off playing this game if it didn’t come highly recommended.

The centre of this board is what I feel like most point-and-click adventures are telling me as a player when I miss that one clue.

Sifting through some of the internet commentary on this I noticed that the sort of people who hate Feminist Frequency also hate this game. But they haven’t made any videos or blog posts talking about how this game is overflowing with awesome. Aside from this Tumblr post and a short blurb on the video games section of their recommended media page it doesn’t seem to get very many mentions. In the Tumblr post they call Gone Home “genuinely moving, meaningful and emotional” which I can completely agree with because it doesn’t say anything about excellent gameplay, or pushing any boundaries other than through the content of the narrative. I agree that it is moving, meaningful, and emotional; but it carries that experience forward with the gameplay as an afterthought. It’s not a great game, but it is an efficient narrative: I feel like I know the characters and the plot even though I am only given small snippets and expected to put the plot together myself. It works better than getting all the details laid out right before my eyes. I don’t care deeply about the characters, but cared enough to be interested in the whole family right up to the end. This is good fiction. It’s not good gameplay; if I was looking to play a game rather than experience a story I should look elsewhere.

I enjoyed Gone Home as a narrative experience. I really enjoyed discovering the characters and the twists and turns of the plot revealed through my own assumptions and expectations as much as through text and audio log. In some ways it is a well-written love letter to the riot grrl subculture of the 90’s that I was 5-10 years too young to interact with at a meaningful level. It makes sense to me as an homage to something that I couldn’t quite grasp at the time despite the fact it was happening during my lifetime. Perhaps a spiritual successor writing about the struggles of teenagers in the War on Terror era complete with a soundtrack featuring the Dixie Chicks and buckets of references to American Idiot and pre-TEA party, pre-Trump red state/blue state cultural anxiety could speak to me more directly than this or another version set in a 2010’s era of teenage Snapchat and Twitter (rather than my teenage MSN Messenger and Myspace). I am glad that Gone Home and interactive stories like it exist and that the themes presented in these narratives are pushing their way into the mainstream. I am starting to come to the opinion that narrative experiences on computers and consoles ought to be regarded as a distinct types of software rather than video games of a certain type, just as video games are not simply “software applications” indistinct from desktop publishing software. Perhaps that would mitigate the risk of something like Gone Home being misrepresented as a “fake game” because a bunch of gamerbros who volunteer to be “explorers” just aren’t the right audience for interactive novels about other people and other life experiences.

So, to circle back to my original question: no, it’s not a game. It’s a work of fiction. It’s a narrative experience that I think is well worth the time and money. Your mileage may vary.

Going on the Depression Quest

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:

depressionquest1

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.

I made many of the "right" choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I clearly have not won the game yet.
I made many of the “right” choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I am clearly not out of the woods yet.

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.

depressionquest3
The increasing/decreasing static is a neat visual effect.

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.