Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

REVIEW: Depression Quest

“This is ‘game’ as communication, comfort and tool of understanding.” — Adam Smith at Rock, Paper, Shotgun

“I found Depression Quest to be a laudable effort, and I think it can be an effective tool for teaching folks who don’t have to deal with depression what it feels like.” — Phil Owen at Kotaku

“Besides the blues-ridden story, it’s just a well-made game overall. It’s excellently written, well-paced, and so engaging that you might just find yourself playing again….” — Katie Williams at GameSpy

Note: The game can be played here.

Okay, let’s talk about game play, which it ultimately the only thing that really matters in a game. This is a “choose your own adventure” style game with neither dead ends nor successful outcomes. It includes some hyperlinks to expand on the detail of the back story, but apart from the occasional computer image and the haunting music score which gradually becomes more and more grating, there’s no reason that this… thing… couldn’t have been fully implemented in book format.

Oh, but there is one innovation of sorts: your options change depending on whether you’re in therapy or taking medication.  The fact that so many options are crossed out most of the time highlights your general sense of powerlessness and ennui. Those unavailable options are the chief message of the piece: that depression slowly saps your ability to take any sort of initiative or otherwise live your life. It’s painful.

There is no dragon to slay and no princess to rescue. There is no boss monster to fight and no puzzle to solve. There is no way to die even though the game makes you want to. Of course, that highlights the fundamental problem of the game’s premise: if it succeeds in getting it’s message across it won’t be particularly enjoyable. You’d think that someone would have spoken up on that point before actual implementation had gotten underway, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

John Carmack famously said that “story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but its not that important.” If you think that the game’s story elements salvage things here somehow, then you’re wrong. A lot of people play games to win against their friends. You see that whether it’s chess or Settlers of Catan or some epic wargame. (Role playing games are a different thing, of course.) But the point in this type of game, as in most single player computer games, is to exert your skill in such a way that you can “beat” it. And as I’ve said, you can’t do that here. This pointlessness is sort of the point. A frustrated player can only attempt to come up with his own objectives: trying to sleep with the girlfriend, for instance. (You can’t do it, however, though trying different therapies can open up the various choices there that are normally blocked off.)

While I despise this sort of “message” fiction in the first place and think it is entirely out of place in the genre, I will at least set aside my biases for a moment to point out one of the better text adventure type games along those lines: Adam Cadre’s Photopia which won the IFComp of 1998. While it was marred with tacky “choose your own adventure” elements that really shouldn’t be in a competition level game in the first place, its use of both color and vividly written scenes made it stand out. And even if you dislike almost everything about the game, it has to be admitted that it includes one particularly memorable puzzle that has a fairly stunning solution that requires lateral thinking. For that one puzzle alone, it deserves to be mentioned in any comprehensive treatment of the subject of adventure game design. Taste aside, it is unarguably a significant game.

Depression Quest doesn’t have anything remotely like that to differentiate it from it’s competitors. You begin the game as a “mid-twenties human being” with a “significant other.” (Is this tepid, politically correct language intentionally this antiseptic?) You go through several limited choices with no real autonomy. (If anything, the illusion of choice and control is the only redeeming quality of this type of game.) Those that persevere (which is not a whole lot of people) get this unbelievably brazen message:

We realize it may not be the most enjoyable game you’ve ever played, or even the easiest, and we sincerely appreciate your involvement…. Like depression itself, Depression Quest does not have an end really.

So the game itself admits that it is not enjoyable and that it does not have an ending… but only at the end! What a ripoff. There is no payoff here for the investment of our time and attention. This might happen with both games and stories, but I can tell you that it does not happen with the good ones. This is a really bad game and even the designers are conscious of that fact.

There may be people that want to rally around this game simply because it was made by a female designer. For those that actually care about game design (as opposed to whatever it is that gaming journalists actually care about) I can only say that you have the wrong woman/lady/girl/whatever. Just off the top of my head, here are women that have made actual, significant contributions to gaming and whose works deserve attention far more than this particular game:

  • For creating the best D&D themed Choose Your Own Adventure books, I can recommend Rose Estes.
  • For doing the editing work and game development work that turned Tunnels & Trolls into a much better role playing game, Liz Danforth. (She’s also made some of the most iconic artwork to grace any role playing game book.)
  • For a prolific interactive fiction designer, please see Emily Short. Her work Galatea by iteself sealed her place among the designers’ hall of fame, but she’s really done a lot more than that.

Honestly, though, hardly anyone cares about the designers. To begin with, only a handful of them ever reach “name level” and even then most people couldn’t even tell you who Steve Jackson, Reiner Knizia, and Miyamoto are. And that’s the thing really: people that love games get so into playing them that they hardly ever think about the race, sex, or nationality of the people that made them.

That’s actually a good thing come to think of it….

Gygax, Miniatures Battles, the Origins of RPG’s, and AD&D’s Domain Game

D&D’s now 40 years old, but there’s still a lot of work to be done completing the game. There’s never been a better time to be a gamer.

Over at Castalia House, I’ve taken a short break from my Appendix N series to delve into some serious game blogging, over eight thousand words altogether on how miniatures battles influenced the design of role-playing games and how to integrate them into an ongoing campaign. If you’ve got unfulfilled dreams of striking off into a wilderness hex, clearing out the monsters, and establishing a stronghold of your own, then maybe it’s because the essential game design problems related to that have never been adequately addressed. Until now…!

Don’t limit yourself to just dungeon crawling and wilderness encounters. Expand the scope of your game and put the players to work developing the campaign setting for you!

RETROSPECTIVE: Warriors of Mars by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume

REVIEW: Domains at War (Battles) by Alexander Macris


So Much Mars Series Coverage, You Won’t Be Able to Stand It!

Okay, I can’t take it anymore.

I mean, really. Literary criticism? Me? Yeah, right. Who’m I kiddin’? I wanna talk games, so here it is: over four thousand words on a nice moldy game that nobody cares about!

RETROSPECTIVE: Warriors of Mars by Gary Gygax and Brian Blume

Just feast yourself on that succulent gaming wonder!

Oh, but there is a literary connection here. Now, I know people are sick to death of three things right now. They don’t want to hear one darn thing more about consultancygate, the Hugo awards, or the significance of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I’m going to wade into that last bit one more time anyway because this is important. (Also… I dropped the ball back when I covered Princess of Mars the first time around. Hey, what can I say? I was completely overwhelmed by the awesomeness of Dejah Thoris!)

But let’s get one thing straight here. Burroughs was hugely influential to Jerry Siegel, Ray Bradbury, James Cameron, George Lucas, Gary Gygax, and scads of other creators. He also, as Ryan Harvey says over at The Black Gate, “re-shaped popular fiction, helped change the United States into a nation of readers, and created the professional fiction writer.” The fact that Burroughs went from being a household name to becoming all but unknown in the past forty years is crazy. The fact that Burroughs is a prime inspiration for Superman, Star Wars, and Dungeons & Dragons is undeniably astonishing. People don’t know this stuff and if they could find out about it they would be shocked.

The fact that the gamers at the local game store don’t know and don’t care about Appendix N literature? Irrelevant. Tell me more about how ignorant people are…! Oh, you say, “Nobody but guys like James Maliszewski, Wayne Rossi, and Jeff Rients are at all influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs at the tabletop.” Horse hockey! If we’re playing role playing games at all, then we’re influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Even more so if we’re playing something with a planetary romance or a superhero theme. Just because we don’t have an explicit green cavalry charge in our game session doesn’t change the facts. We’re influenced by the man whether we appropriate his shticks directly or not.

If saying that’s “yellow journalism,” then hey… call me Jeffro Sinclair. ‘Cause I’m gonna keep sayin’ it!

Okay, I have to say it. James Maliszewski is a better writer than me. A lot of people are better writers than me. But how many of those better writers are doing an in-depth series on Appendix N? None! Heh. And hey… if I can’t emulate their cogency then I’ll quote them directly whenever they completely outdo me. They only make me that much more of an Appendix N Juggernaut! BWA-HA-HA!

Retrospective: Warriors of Mars (Grognardia) — “Though largely unknown today — to the point where the ignorant have suggested that the movie John Carter is ripping off the innumerable films inspired by Burroughs — the Barsoom novels were hugely influential for decades. They are, in many respects, the wellspring from which contemporary fantasy and science fiction flow, even if the debt both genres owe to these seminal books is often unacknowledged. Gary Gygax, though, was not shy in acknowledging the debt he owed to Burroughs. He mentioned his name in both OD&D and in Appendix N of his AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and the Greyhawk campaign included at least one expedition to the red sands of Barsoom.”

I totally missed this bit about the miniatures rules’ background. Oh, and Thomas Denmark paid $364 for his copy back in 2011. The thing’s rare!

Warriors of Mars (Original Edition Fantasy) — “If you don’t know the history of this book it is really quite interesting. Gary and Brian put this together without permission from the Burroughs estate, and were almost immediately told to cease printing and selling these books when it was published. So I don’t think there are a whole lot of copies out there.”

Oh, and then there’s this bit on the forums, some other old school controversy that I’m not completely up on:

Dave’s influence in TSR’s Warriors of Mars? (Original D&D Discussion) “Combat round are listed as 1 minute for large scale battles but only 10 seconds for 1-to-1 battles.”

Did I miss anything else? Throw a link up in the comments. Let’s nail this sucker down. We got a lot of books to cover…!

This Is Why You Don’t Know How to Design an RPG

“While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism?” — Starship Troopers

Character generation with “3d6 in order” followed by a player-character death within two hours of play is utterly essential if you’re going to introduce people to what role playing games are really all about. The second dungeon-run looks decidedly different… and if they come back with even a single magic item, it is something of a triumph. You have to communicate quickly that failure is possible, success is not guaranteed, and choices matter… and this does it as well as anything. And no, I have no idea what the people doing “everybody wins; nobody dies” at the next table are getting out of their game. There can be no glory if there can be no failure. Their players have nothing to boast about after a session. But the guy that died in my game falling off the side of a volcano… hestill talks about it. Something happened.
The rules in a “real” rpg are largely theater. Players only cite them when they are in their favor. The real work of the referee is not constrained by them. The referee does not “win” by using the obscure rules against the players. He lets the players coast along making informed decisions on the basis of the 10% of the rules that they are familiar with… so that when they undeniably screw everything up, there is no argument about who is and who is not dead. The fact that the players know what it means and what the consequences are before the dice fall is the entire point. But there must be something at stake for them to actually care about what is happening!
Most people designing rpg’s have no clue about this. They see something in the old games that looks stupid or broken to them, and they go off to make these bloated monstrosities, the bulk of which either adds nothing to role playing or else completely undercuts it. What you really want to do is engage people and get them playing and get them learning as quickly as possible. They are familiar with the tropes of classic dungeon adventures, but they have no concept of either the “push your luck” aspects or the absolute necessity of learning how to cooperate with the other players. Gaming appears to be ubiquitous, but a great many “gamers” have had essentially no exposure to this!
Most people try to make some kind of role playing experience by eliminating those two things as far as possible, but there really is no game there. It’s a mode of play that emerged in browser based video games that are designed to hold the attention of people that do not actually like games. There is no substance there, just a never-ending stream of easy victories and hollow rewards. “Everybody gets a trophy” is a dead end mentality, at the tabletop and elsewhere.

Ten Books that Can Change the Way You Game

I’ve written ten posts over at Castalia House now, each one covering a different book. It’s about 20,000 words in total… and though I tend to write about whatever happens to be the biggest gobsmacker I come across with each installment, I’ve still managed to fit in a massive amount of gaming stuff over there.

It’s starting to get hard to keep up with all the material there now, so I’ve made this guide for gamers. I list each post in order based of how significant it is for gaming and then briefly detail what the work specifically brings to the table. If you love gaming and haven’t spent a lot of time with Gary Gygax’s famous “Appendix N” book list, then you owe to yourself to at least check out at least a couple of the top books I delve into below.

RETROSPECTIVE: The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance — Some books will inspire a new character concept or house rule. Some provide great ideas for adventure design. This one will make you want to overhaul the magic rules of whatever game you play. It’s epic. (But read The Dying Earth first, of course.)

RETROSPECTIVE: Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson — This is the only take on alignment that has ever made sense to me– the concept behind it got completely butchered in the translation to gaming. If the situation in B2 Keep on the Borderlands seems weird to you, then you need to read this book! (Your problem is you’re thinking in terms of derivative Tolkien rather than in old school fantasy.)

RETROSPECTIVE: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs — A good role playing game should be able to alternate between individual dueling, small scale skirmishes, massive battles, sieges, and epic air wars. AD&D’s domain-level play is in there for a reason; embrace it!

RETROSPECTIVE: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance — Vancian magic is fundamentally apocalyptic. Every magic-user should be living in a state of acute paranoia, forcing people to go adventures for them, and trying to raid other wizards for their spells.

RETROSPECTIVE: The Winds of Gath by E. C. Tubb — Many of Traveller’s more obscure elements have been passed over by gamers. With this book, you can see huge chunks of the game portayed in their original context. It all makes so much more sense now!

RETROSPECTIVE: The High Crusade by Poul Anderson — Medieval people are different from us… but that doesn’t mean they were stupid. After reading this book, I can see group of “primitive” Englishmen having a better chance at toppling the Ziru Sirka than some kind of analog to The United Nations!

RETROSPECTIVE: Derai by E. C. Tubb — A patron encounter, a great “hand-to-mouth” scenario, and even an fairly comprehensive take on The Hunger Games schtick. If your Traveller game tends to focus on just one or two worlds, this second novel in the Dumarest series will demonstrate the sort of attitude you’ll need to expand that out to a dozen or so.

REVIEW: Shadow of the Storm by Martin J. Dougherty — A look at what a naval career on the Solomoni side of the border would look like. This is a more sympathetic look at the inheritors of Terra’s legacy: their racism is quietly omitted, their paranoia is justified, and their institutions are shown to work more or less even if they’re technically not the “good guys” of the Official Traveller Universe.

RETROSPECTIVE: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny — This is a solid resource if you’d like the classic thief class to have a bit more of an epic magic feel. Bonus: a good overview of the consequences of implementing “extra lives” and an explicit re-spawning mechanism in a fantasy world.

REVIEW: Fate of the Kinunir by Robert E. Vardeman — This is not entirely consistent with “real” Traveller, but it should give you a number of ideas for running an iconic adventure that leverages an iconic ship.


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