Justin Keever | Mar 22, 2016
Let me explain that title, because it’s not a title I deploy without consideration. I loathe the performance of anger in videogame criticism: it is the domain of disingenuous provocateurs and brainless YouTubers. So please trust me when I say that I’m not exaggerating my disliking of Depression Quest. I am expressing a genuine personal hurt that is derived from the ways in which Depression Quest has failed me as a player with depression.
Coincidentally, its failure begins with its title. Depression Quest is a terrible title. Imagine a scenario where Bicycle Thieves was titled Poverty Adventure, and ask yourself if you’d have a harder time taking that film seriously. Now, the title Depression Quest does make some sense given what the game is trying to accomplish. It is evocative of the naming conventions of the early text adventures from Crowther and Adams: a tradition of straightforward titles that promise a nondescript adventure with a vague theme (Colossal Cave Adventure, Pirate Adventure, Adventureland, etc.). Depression Quest’s acknowledgement of the garbage which would ultimately prove formative to the narrative videogame isn’t, as one might expect, a rhetorical move to place Depression Quest within a lineage of text adventures. Quite the opposite: the words “Depression Quest” are deployed in a manner that is as sarcastic as it is arrogant. Depression Quest positions itself as a break from the tradition of low-grade fantasy text adventures, pretending that its relatively serious subject matter is somehow a revelation. Oft-cited games like Elude, The Cat Lady, and Actual Sunlight dealt with depression with more nuance and poeticism than Depression Quest ever manages, and all were available before DQ’s initial release in early 2013.
But arriving late isn’t the game’s crime: its transgression is the way in which it very deliberately and explicitly positions itself as a “serious game.” The game opens by informing the player that “Depression Quest is a game that deals with living with depression in a very literal way. This game is not meant to be a fun or lighthearted experience.” Embedded in that text is the assumption that the player is unaware of – or resistant to – serious videogames. Thus, the vestigial statement of intent doubles as polite condescension, wherein the game treats itself as though it were more radical than it actually is. It’s difficult to parse out the purpose of this thesis statement: the hypertext format of Twine is immediately evident, and insisting that the game is not meant to be fun will not prevent criticism of the game for not being fun. Authorial intent matters very little to the self-identifying “gamer” who believes the emergent chaos of dreck like Just Cause is the height of the videogame form. By acknowledging and immediately dismissing the empty fantasy of text adventures past, all Depression Quest is able to do is meekly grasp at subversion and self-importance before actually presenting any actual content.
The remainder of the paratext on this pseudo-title screen is equally as frustrating in its attempt to anticipate and sidestep criticism of the game. One passage insists that “It goes without saying that because of the very nature of depression, it is experienced differently by every person who suffers from it. We aren’t trying to say that this is the “best” or “most accurate” representation…” This caveat is preceded by a stated goal of “presenting as real a simulation of depression as possible.” As contradictory as these two statements seem, there is some precise diction that actually reveals the game’s sensibilities: a disinterest in representation in favor of simulation.
The game’s systemization of depression is its claim to fame. Chris Franklin summarizes the system thusly: “it systemizes depression by having your level of depression affect your freedom of choice. The more depressed you are, the fewer options you have available to you. It’s subtle, but totally functional as a means of conveying the way depression saps one of energy and motivation.” Franklin’s apparently broad definition of “subtle” notwithstanding, this is an acceptable appraisal of Depression Quest’s core system. Mike Joffe elaborates:
Depression doesn’t mean you don’t know what you should do, but rather that you know what you want to do but have a mental block making you unable to. You WANT to be happy or social or productive, but your brain is fighting against you. Someone without depression playing this game can see the option they want to make, but are unable to select it.
According to Mattie Brice, this system “instantly complicates common advice that ultimately sum up to ‘just make yourself feel better.’” This is not true. All this system does is amend that statement to “just make yourself feel better through therapy and medication.” Depression Quest’s interest in simulation leads it to present depression as a master-able system, wherein therapy and medication result in a win-state and the refusal (or inability to accept, as the case may be) those treatments results in a lose-state. An excellent piece written at The Orts notes that “by claiming depression has a clear system, and designing a system around it in which players are encouraged to make the ‘correct’ choices,” Depression Quest “promotes a singular, biomedical framework through which to understand the experience of depression” that frames mental distress as an illness that holds no value for the self. It describes the general experiences of depression and demonstrates an aspect of those experiences through systems, but it very deliberately delegitimizes them, adhering to an unearned optimism to expose one’s experiences while depressed as false. By positing that depression is a ruleset that can be (easily and quickly) mastered, Depression Quest rejects the emotions of paranoia, self-loathing, and anger, treating them as symptoms of a losing battle rather than aspects of my identity. By treating these emotional states as though they are no different from a bad cough, the game strips me of my personality, reducing the emotional core of my being to a diagnosis. In its focus on systematizing depression, Depression Quest becomes something of a paradox. It is an empathy game that lacks real empathy for its subject: a mechanical beast that coldly examines depression through the lens of professional medicine and easily understood systems.
Depression Quest’s emphasis on its system leaves it with a severe identity problem, insofar as it resists giving any of its characters any kind of identity beyond a vaguely defined relationship to a wholly undefined protagonist. Given the game’s self-identification as semi-nonfiction, this accusation appears somewhat cruel, until you see that the game has been constructed as “an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them.” Any meaningful specificity has been lost in the amalgam, and the result is a game that deals not in characters but featureless archetypes. So I admit I am perplexed when Brice identifies “specific scenes undoubtedly from an author’s past.” I don’t doubt that Depression Quest comes from a lived experience of depression, but none of the events or people depicted in this game feel tied to a particular person.
They are, however, tied to a particular kind of person: “a working-class, 20-something white person,” as Jed Pressgrove succinctly puts it. But that iota of specificity does not lend the game’s characters any identity – in fact it detracts from what little character they have. “Normative” is the best word for the scenarios of Depression Quest: the protagonist, or “you” as the game calls him/her, is a financially stable white person with a “traditional” nuclear family and a committed significant other. Your interests include the occasional multiplayer videogame and watching things on Netflix. You complete undefined “projects” at an undefined 8-5 job. In this context, it becomes hard to ignore that your significant other goes by the unisex moniker of “Alex.” These details do not create a portrait of a singular person, but a framework for a player to graft their own experiences onto.
What’s particularly troubling about this framework (other than how it uncritically deploys a very regressive, Western ideal of “normalcy”) is the way in which the game prescribes it onto the depressed player. The game lacks an intermediary player-character, giving the depressed player no layer of remove from the framework that the game provides. Thus, the game is making a set of assumptions about “you”: that the framework it provides is an analogue for your lived experience. It makes these assumptions because the “solution” for depression that it provides is embedded within that framework. For Depression Quest to be a useful tool to the depressed player, it must assume that “you” have the financial stability to seek professional medical help. It assumes that therapy is an absolute good, and that “you” will never be pawned off on an inexperienced therapist, whose fixation on irrelevant details will ensure that your sessions will never once be worthwhile. It also must assume that “you” have the emotional support of a group of stable, close friends, family members, and a significant other.
Speaking of Alex, there’s a series of scenes involving “your” girlfriend near the game’s conclusion that epitomizes the game’s disinterest in its own narrative. In the first of these scenes, you are given a chance to confide in Alex about your depression. This is one of the few “good” choices you can make near the game’s conclusion that doesn’t require that you be in therapy. Alex reaffirms her love for you, and you carry on. In your next interaction with her, Alex either asks that you two move in together, or tearfully confirms “your” suspicion that the relationship is taking its toll on her. The latter conversation ends with the relationship either reaching its end or being sustained, but in shambles. This scene is the game’s climax, the moment where “you” are judged for your treatment of Alex, and by extension, your disease. What’s troubling about this climax is that your willingness to confide in Alex and her affirmation of her love means absolutely nothing if you have not sought out therapy beforehand. What should be a moment of redemption is reduced a discrete value within a larger tally. You can feel the system at work beneath the text: may have had a small breakthrough with your girlfriend, but unfortunately you didn’t exchange enough therapy points for Alex points before now. If you haven’t made strides before Thursday night, you’re a lost cause.
Depression Quest’s epilogue insists that “Like depression itself, Depression Quest does not have an end… instead of a tidy ending, we want to just provide a series of outlooks to take moving forward.” But all the game accomplishes by providing that series of outlooks is generating an excessive feeling of closure. Depression Quest is deterministic in how it maps out your future: if you end the game in a bad place things will get worse, and if you end in a good place things will get better. This complete lack of ambiguity ensures that Depression Quest, despite what it may claim, has a concrete ending. And because this is a game that expects the depressed player to inject her own lived experience into its system, these endings end up making a value judgment about the player themselves. And let’s be clear: the game’s “bad” ending is a resolute condemnation of the player. It is a portrait of utter and unyielding failure that is derived from an inability to master a system. But somehow, the “good” ending is the one that concerns me more, because the secret to conquering depression’s supposed ruleset is embedded within the framework of friends, family, and financial stability that the game assumes the player is able to lean on. If you lack a referent for one or more parts of that framework, where are you left? Given the game’s deterministic attitude towards my future, it’s hard not to feel an implication that I am undeserving of the kind of success the “good” ending prognosticates. Despite my best efforts, I do not see myself in the equation that Depression Quest lays out for something resembling happiness. Whether I earn the good ending or the bad, to play Depression Quest is to view myself as subhuman.
I don’t doubt the noble intentions of Depression Quest. I will readily admit that Depression Quest is a perfectly adequate representation of the debilitating effects of depression. I know that it has been a learning tool for people who have not suffered from depression, and that people who do suffer from depression have found in the game a measure of solidarity. I can’t take that away from you, nor do I want to. But I implore you to at least try to understand my frustration. I played something expecting to find fraternity and understanding, but instead found that it made me feel like less of a person. And no one can take that away from me.
But I wish you could.
 This passage gets at an aspect of Depression Quest I appreciate: it is a representation of clinical depression with stakes lower than suicide, a view of depression as a persistent pain rather than inherently fatal. This is not a unique observation: Mattie Brice identified this dynamic as well.
 And I recognize that there are not only two discrete endings for this game, but there are clear ‘good’ and ‘bad’ results