I am going to state upfront that I am aware of the historical controversy of the main developer behind this title. I am going to critique this title on its own merits. So, if you are looking for any kind of commentary on the developer or gamer gate, it will not be present here and you can safely switch off now.
Depression Quest is sold, for free, as an interactive fiction game. You may better think of this as a choose your own adventure game. Depression Quest piqued my interest because of this. I have many fond memories of the choose your own adventure books that I played in my childhood. Particularly the Fighting Fantasy books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.
I feel the need to also state that my original script for this game tore it to pieces. I could not see any value to the game and felt that it had, in some way, stomped all over my childhood. I used to think that those reactions to reboots of media were complete hyperbole. Indeed, despite being a childhood fan of generation one Transformers, I did not have that reaction to the Michael Bay films. I think they are terrible but I guess I was glad in some way that there was just more Transformers.
I originally had such a strong reaction because the game does a very poor job of showing what depression is like for someone who has not suffered. On reviewing the Steam store page now, I can see that this is one of two stated aims for the game. In full, those two aims are:
- To show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings
- To illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people
From research and absorbing other critiques of the game, I saw that it resonated with people who have, or have had depression. They could identify with what was going on with the story and see how it applied to their own situations.
For this reason, I can no longer say that the game is without merit. I think now, the game achieves one of its goals very well based on other people’s testimony but does not show, or go far enough to someone without the experience of depression.
This is perhaps best illustrated by my general approach. I tend to treat choose your own adventures and role playing games in general, similarly to how I approach role playing games the first time through. I make choices as close to what I would do in real life and see where I end up. I am aware of the potential absurdity of this given that a lot of these choices are present in some kind of fantasy world and I have about as much experiencing wielding a sword and shield as I do launching fireballs out of my hands. What I mean to say is that given an approach like lawful, evil or chaotic, I will tend to follow my own morality.
If the game grabs my attention for a second play through, I will attempt to play something I am not. I might think up a specific character archetype and play to that. I have no personal frame of reference for depression and picking what I deemed to be the worst options on an initial play through, seemed a little childish. I also do not think that was the intention of the developer.
This approach did not help me on my first play through. I made the choices that I would make. So, I spoke with my partner, sought medical help and got counselling. The depression got more manageable throughout the game and whilst there does not appear to be a cured state, it seemed to be the “best” ending. Thus, I did not gain any insight.
My next play through, I did the complete opposite. I made what I thought would be the bad choices and the game tried to show me via striking through dialogue choices, making the audio track glitch and a greater presence of static imagery at the bottom of the screen that these choices were having a deepening effect.
The striking out of options bothered me in the sense that they forcibly lead you down one path and seems to trivialise the choice. In some passages, there will be multiple options but only one being available. The audio and graphical clues were subtle, do not directly affect the gameplay but are an illustrative touch. In my opinion, this would have been better handled by having more branching paths throughout the game. So, rather than eliminate options, replace them completely with more context relevant scenarios. You could counter this by saying well, that’s the point you don’t have a choice, you should be aware of the choice but not be able to enact it.
It could be that I am an idiot and not capable of grasping what the game is trying to tell me but to fix this game for me, I would have liked to have seen more information. A sliding morality style meter may be a bit too gamey but a greater emphasis on graphical and visual clues, the deeper you go into the condition would have got the point across stronger. Perhaps interactive links to medical resources would have been useful too. I accept that these can take you out of the experience but maybe they could have been bookmarked in some way in game for review later. I am particularly thinking about the medication that is offered in the story. I understand that there can be fear or reluctance to taking medication but I do not know why.
In summary, I could only recommend Depression Quest to someone who already suffers or has suffered. It does not do enough for non-sufferers to really understand what the condition is. That said the game is free and if you are a regular reader, by that I mean read regularly as a hobby, each play through should only take 15 minutes.