Before beginning this review, I should like to make one thing clear: I am going to keep ..."/> Before beginning this review, I should like to make one thing clear: I am going to keep ..."/>

Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest: Depressingly Bad

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Before beginning this review, I should like to make one thing clear: I am going to keep my comments on the game’s developer, Zoe Quinn, to an absolute minimum. Depending on your point of view, her infamy/martyrdom has already been established. The allegations against her remain allegations, and as someone with a friend who has suffered similar public shaming by a vindictive ex, I am perhaps more predisposed to be charitable than others. Moreover, her personal dirty laundry is, in my view, irrelevant to the much more productive wider discussion of conflicts of interest within certain sectors of the gaming press, which despite the best efforts of certain writers to distract from the issue with red herrings, have already led to at least some public purges of major news outlets, as well as a welcome change of editorial standards at others.

Whew, now that I’m done being serious, let’s talk about the matter at hand. Namely, Depression Quest, an “online novel” that’s supposed to make the reader aware of the challenges faced by a person with depression. I’m writing about this not just because the game apparently has failed to garner a single unbiased review, but because…well, I’ve had some experience with depression, anxiety and panic. In fact, I’ve had rather acute experiences with all three, and have been medicated for them twice. So I took this review on primarily out of curiosity about what such a “game” would look like, and how it would depict the experiences of an actual depression sufferer, having been one myself.

Let’s not mince words: The game isn’t fun at all. And in fairness, it’s really not meant to be. When you finish it, the creators themselves acknowledge as much:

"We realize it may not be the most enjoyable game you’ve ever played, or even the easiest, and we sincerely appreciate your involvement."

Now, on one level, if we’re going to take the game on its terms, we have to judge it based on other criteria than fun, which I’ll be doing shortly.

That being said…really?! That was the creative choice they went with?! Look, I get that at its worst, depression is being bored out of your mind half the time because you’ve technically lost the ability to care about anything and can’t pull yourself out of the morass, and that strictly speaking, a game that tried to make players empathize with this experience couldn’t be conventionally enjoyable. But did the creators really think that no other game has ever tried to induce a feeling in a player, or even done so accidentally?

Take horror games. It’s not like “Amnesia: The Dark Descent,” for instance, was programmed to be fun. It’s a game where you have to run through barely lit corridors with rapidly diminishing sanity and a very limited ability to generate light, while being stalked by nightmarish man-made abominations. Yet it’s one of the most well-regarded and beloved games among horror game aficionados practically ever, and sold an unbelievable amount of copies.

If looking at this seems fun to you, seek help.

Why? Because even if it’s not fun, it’s freaking engaging. And if you want to experience being terrified interactively, there are very few better options. It’s hard to imagine that a game about depression couldn’t have been made engaging in the same way. In fact, I can think of a great way to simulate the feeling of depression, right now. Just go play Penn and Teller’s “Desert Bus,” and actually play it through all the way from one city to the other.

That feeling that everything you’re doing is a purposeless slog with no end in sight, except if you screw up, in which case you’ll just have to suffer for even longer? Yeah, imagine that feeling all the time. About everything. 

But okay, that experience clearly isn’t engaging or fun, so here’s an idea for how to simulate both depression and anxiety. Go find an NES and a copy of “Battletoads” at your local flea market, and just try to get past level 3.

And I mean really try. Hard. For hours on end. To the point where your fingers twitch at even the sound of the word “Hover Bike.”

That feeling of mounting dread and the surety that something terrible, unfair and unavoidable is about to happen to you? That’s anxiety. That eventual feeling you had while playing that nothing you were doing could prevent failure or even slow it down, and that the game itself was trying to thwart you, and that you were just too darn weak to beat it? Yeah, imagine that applied to everything in your life, and you’ve got depression. I just saved you the process of playing through Depression Quest.

That being said, it’d be unfair if I didn’t take the game on its terms and at least acknowledge that the game does a passable job of depicting what it’s like to live with depression, which seems to have been its primary goal.

However, they did a piss poor job in service of that goal, because they did it in probably the least compelling way. The game designers didn’t have to make the game fun, but they could have at least tried to keep you engaged with the game. They could have programmed the game to be ludicrously difficult to the point of sadism — by making it harder every time you died, for instance — while still making you feel like what you did mattered, so that your failure to succeed at the game felt that much more crushing every time it got harder which in itself would be, for lack of a better word, depressing.

But they didn’t, and as a result, Depression Quest not only isn’t fun, but it isn’t cathartic or emotionally resonant, or engaging in any way either. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s dull. Really, really dull. At best. And yes, this is a lot like depression. When you stare at the soulless, monochrome gray background decorated by nothing but walls of black text, and nothing except the occasional photograph with barely any relevance to what’s proceeding, you will get a feeling that you are going through the motions and performing pointless tasks in the service of no discernible intelligence or reason, and that everything you’re doing is a pure slog. This is an accurate simulation of depression. It’s also an accurate simulation of a waste of your time.