Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest: Depressingly Bad

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I said the game was dull at best earlier, and that’s technically true. But what I really should have said is that the game is dull if, and only if you play with the sound off. This is, as it happens, not the recommended way of playing the game, as the intro page to the game states:

"This game uses audio as part of it’s gameplay. We encourage you to play with your sound on."

If you want any kind of enjoyable, or even interesting experience playing this game, disregard this instruction immediately. I played through the game twice, both times with the music on, and had to actively force myself not to just rush through it so I could stop listening to it. It’s not that the music is bad — it’s actually rather haunting and sad and fairly immersive in that it makes you feel genuinely uncomfortable.

For the first few bars.

Let’s just say this soundtrack isn’t going to win any awards and leave it there. I honestly wasn’t sure if it was looping or if the pianist was just playing gratingly similar chord progressions, but either way it has all the subtlety of being hit in the head by a brick and all the complexity of a child’s drawing. So do yourself a favor and switch to mute. Unlike, say, Amnesia, this isn’t a game where headphones or even speakers will enhance the experience at all.

And now, let’s talk about the gameplay, or what little there is to speak of. As far as that goes, Depression Quest is supposed to be based on a “choose your own adventure” book, in that the player reads through various “pages,” then picks what their character does at the end of each page, with certain of the better options being unavailable depending on how “depressed” the player’s character has become. This last bit’s a bit of a clever touch, and this isn’t a self-evidently unreasonable way to construct a game, given that “Choose your own adventure” books are themselves a primitive variety of roleplaying game that lends itself to the sort of minimalism the designers were clearly going for.

There’s just one problem: “Choose your own adventure” books have stakes. I remember reading through the Goosebumps “Choose your own adventure” books and being greeted with wave after wave of bottomless pits, or monsters jumping out from behind things. Effectively, “Choose your own adventure” in my experience reduces to “choose your death scene” more times than not, which makes the times when it doesn’t that much more meaningful because you have something to lose. You have a stake in the outcome. What you do matters. Moreover, you can identify with the protagonist — literally — because that protagonist is supposed to be you and has very little definition beyond that. Finally, “Choose your own adventure” books are fun because even though you often know what your goal is, you have no idea how you’re supposed to get there, which makes the act of exploring page after page of the book that much more engaging.

YOU LEAVE ME THE HELL ALONE. I’M NOT GETTING BEHEADED BY YOU.

Depression Quest fails at all of this. Start with the part about having stakes. After finding my way to the game’s “good” ending the first time playing through, with visits to a therapist and medication leading to a partial recovery, I decided to be a sadist my second time through and see if I could make my character do something really drastic like, say, commit suicide. I mostly wanted to see if there was a truly catastrophic “death” option in the game. I did a pretty good job of it, too. By the end of the second playthrough, my characters’ parents hated him, his girlfriend left him, and he basically was critically behind at work. The game told me I was “severely depressed,” and I anxiously waited to see if this would actually spiral into something worse.

No such luck. The game just ended with my character slumping forward at the dinner table with nothing to say while his parents looked on disapprovingly. And that was it. There wasn’t any nuclear option in this game. Not even a suicide attempt. You just become actively useless, know it, and stop caring. Well, that can’t be taken the wrong way at all.

But okay, so maybe the creators were worried about encouraging suicide if an actual depressed person got the “bad” ending. Fair enough. So I went back and started the game again and this time, I just backpaged after the first few options and kept picking different things, to see what effect, if any, they had on gameplay. And then I saw something that made me angry, not just as a critic, but as a former depression sufferer: There is absolutely no option on the first few screens that doesn’t either make your character more depressed than he/she already is, or keep them just as depressed as they were before. In other words, there’s literally no point to making any of the choices, because you’ll end up in a worse place or the same place whichever one you pick. And that is a terrible and irresponsible way to program a game if even part of your audience might be suffering from depression. If they wanted you to start off “very depressed,” the programmers should have just programmed it that way, rather than making you choose from a variety of equally poisonous options. After all, that’s what depression sufferers are afraid life is.

Bottom line: The game has no stakes, because there’s no way you can fail to finish it, and a good chunk of your choices actually make no difference, which means there was no reason to program them in at all.

Not only that, but it’s impossible to identify with the protagonist, because you simply know both too much and too little about them, and some of what you know you’ll probably have no reason to care about. Let’s count the ways.

1. You’re told you’re a “20-something human being.” In other words, if you’re a depressed teenager or a gamer over 30, get lost.

2. You have a girlfriend, so if you’re gay and depressed, or just single and depressed, sucks to be you, sparky.

3. You don’t get to pick your girlfriend’s name. They already chose it for you, and it’s “Alex,” about whom you can read another wall of text if you care (you probably don’t, and a lot of the details probably clash with your own relationship, assuming you have one). However,  there is not a single picture of “Alex” in the game, nor any real trace of personality to her actions. She’s just a vapid source of support you can choose to rely on (or not), and only defined by her relation to you. I would say where’s Anita Sarkeesian when you need her, but as I’ve written elsewhere, we don’t need her. Either way, unless your real girlfriend’s name is Alex (mine’s isn’t) you’ve got yet more reasons not to care about this character, and thus to feel alienated from the protagonist.

4. You have two parents, who are raging jerks with no emotional sensitivity throughout the game. So if you grew up in a single parent household, or are depressed but still have a good relationship with your parents, or have problems with them but not these exact problems, there’s another barrier to immersiveness the game developers just threw up.

5. You have a salaried job with a boss. Because no one who’s unemployed, self-employed, or does freelance work, ever gets depressed, apparently.

6. You barely see any in-game consequences for being depressed, other than the removal of options at various “choice” points, and otherwise your life appears to progress in a completely fixed narrative, with your mental state being told to you constantly, but never represented. In other words, because the game tells you what you’re feeling, rather than showing you what it’s like in a serious way, you never engage with the emotions.

I guarantee you at least one of these is going to make every player have trouble identifying with the game, and thus caring what happens to the main character. And if you can’t care, you’ll probably either skim the entire thing, shut it off prematurely, or do sadistic things like try to make the main character commit suicide (and I know, because as already established, I did just that). “Choose your own adventure” book success requirement #2 failed.

And then, finally, there’s the question of how you get from point A in the game (being depressed) to point B (coming out of depression). This could’ve been a really interesting puzzle to try to solve, if the game designers didn’t basically flat out tell you what you had to do in order to win on every single page. On every page you go through, there are three status bars that keep track of how depressed you are, whether you’ve seen a therapist, and whether you’re on medication. In other words, if you ever encounter the option to see a therapist, you know to take it, and if your therapist offers you medication, you know to take that, too.

Not only does this make the game insultingly easy to beat, but it’s also a ludicrous oversimplification of how therapy and medication can actually impede recovery from depression. What if your therapist’s a quack? What if you get assigned the wrong medication? What if you get misdiagnosed? What if going on antidepressants gives you the energy required to actually commit suicide? These are all real-world concerns that depression sufferers deal with, and which could have been programmed in as twist options, but apparently the designers didn’t think that creatively, despite supposedly being depression sufferers themselves, which suggests that they only experienced the shallowest varieties of depression, or never seriously grappled with the more troubling implications of their condition before trying to educate the world on it.

Verdict

Despite its noble intent, Depression Quest is an embarrassing, colossal failure and barely qualifies as a game. The gameplay fails to create any sense of stakes for the player, fails to make the player care about what their in-game character is going through by failing to allow customization of the player’s specific situation at all, and telegraphs the way to victory so obviously that there’s barely any puzzle as to how to get the good ending.

Add this together with the forgettable and grating music, the eye-glazing dullness of the game’s primitive design, and its utter failure to render many of the complications and complexities of the disorder it purports to represent, and you don’t so much get a game as an attempt to take an introductory site design course project and combine it with testimony at a depression support group, and call it a game. The only situation I can possibly see this game being useful for would be as a tool in an intervention for a depressed person who had no idea what the symptoms of depression were and needed to be convinced it wasn’t just them. But that’s only if the people at the intervention had no idea how to search Wikipedia for “Depression,” because reading that page would be both more entertaining and shorter.

Depression Quest achieves none of the goals it sets out to meet. It’s a failure as a game. It’s a failure as a therapeutic tool. It’s even a failure as an expression of the author’s individual pain, because it fails to make the player care an ounce about anything in it. It’s as tedious, grating, unimaginative, tone deaf and narcissistic as a sad poem in a whiny teenager’s journal, but with none of the clumsy pathos. It is a work of such existential pointlessness that it might even make a depressed person find meaning in their life simply by contrasting it with this game’s vacuity.

I award this game one point for noble intentions, and one point for accurately portraying the symptoms of depression in its main character. I award it zero points for music, gameplay, story or characters.