Be warned, I wouldn’t necessarily call DEPRESSION QUEST a “game”, so to speak, so this isn’t technically a review. It’s game-like, and I’ll get to that in a moment. It’s more of an interactive non-fiction Choose Your Own Adventure in which you can start seeing a therapist, have an ugly breakup with your girlfriend, or awkward conversations with your mom. It’s more of an exploration of the experience of being depressed in a dark, cold, brutally real way. No, really.
This is the official synopsis for the game:
HA HA. Um, what? Wait. What?
I’ve played a lot of sad games before, including the title HOME (not the Benjamin Rivers game), a black and white retro game where you star as an old man slowly falling apart and end up bedridden while you wet yourself. But I’ve never had a game warn me of not killing myself after I play it. “Play” is a relative term here as DEPRESSION QUEST is mostly big walls of text following a nameless male narrator and his struggles with a serious depression problem. You have a girlfriend named Alex, with whom your relationship is strained. You have a really terrible job. Life sucks. And you have crippling depression.
The element of gameplay here comes from the fact you can choose your responses at certain times, which alters the narrative and 3 stats you have: your level of depression, success with your therapist, and effectiveness of your medication. Due to the slight level of choice, I played through the experience twice and came out with two very different endings. Since I’m not clinically depressed, I knew which options to choose to get help, like seeing a therapist, talking about your feelings, staying on your meds, drinking lots of Diet Coke, etc. I decided to play the game through again and make all the wrong choices: don’t talk about your feelings, don’t see a shrink, keep it all bottled up. A lot of times I got the exact same text, but the context of it had changed. Maybe your hands won’t stop shaking because you’re afraid to explain to your mother about your crippling depression, or you’re afraid of what she might say if you tell her that you’re finally getting help. The experience ends with the realization that clinical depression never really ends, it’s just managed more or less effectively based on your choices.
This isn’t really a game, but more of an interactive narrative that has a lot of game potential. Or is it a game? I don’t know. There is the element of player choice, the drive of the narrative, and an interactive experience. Yet it doesn’t feel like a game because I don’t control the entire experience. Or is that the point? Perhaps this concept needs to be extended into something truly interactive.
The story is told from a second person perspective with you assuming the role of the narrator, which immediately leads itself to a gameplay style: the 1st person game. There have been lots of games about first person horror, but not first person depression. Why is that? I guess because no one wants to play a game to experience the abyssal darkness of the human soul. You chumps! We like being frightened with cheap, Halloween sideshow jump scares in DEAD SPACE or even pissing ourselves in immersive dread with SLENDER, but not much about something that is truly frightening: suicidal depression.
There have been depressing games, or even games where the main character kills themselves at the end, yet the actual struggle of depression has never found itself into a game as a core mechanic. It’s not marketable in the least, and it could be brilliant: a true art game. DEPRESSION QUEST is the first interactive experience where I’ve seen a character actually struggling with something a lot of Americans can seriously relate to. Its horror is its plausibility. We’ve fought aliens, enemies, monsters both human and not, but never ourselves. Mental illness in a game is seen as a carnival trick or excuse to have a deranged killer. But what if the killer is your own mind, and the victim is you? Would you make the right choices? How could this challenge be translated into an interactive experience for a player? Something like this?
If you want to experience DEPRESSION QUEST, it’s free-to-play or you can provide a small donation. You can check it out at their homepage.