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….

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7 responses to “REVIEW: Depression Quest

  1. Alex August 29, 2014 at 8:32 am

    I played it for a few minutes before I got bored. Really, I think the only reason it garnered much attention in the first place is that it was “developed” by a “quirky” porn-star-turned-social-justice-advocate. “You Are A Bear” is much better.

    • jeffro August 29, 2014 at 9:13 am

      The hubbub is basically another chance for us to bow the knee. New gods, old story:

      Then an herald cried aloud, To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musick, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of musick, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.

      • Alex August 29, 2014 at 9:26 am

        Well, the game, such as it is, will now be forever overshadowed by narrative it’s been tied to: game journalists (and any journalists, really) will give favorable reviews if they think it will contribute to their chances to sleep with their subjects. Lust makes the most mediocre meritorious on the tongues of the hungry, and reasoned criticism will be shouted down by those who think they have a chance to score lady points.

  2. Alex August 29, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Also, thanks for the link to Galatea. That was… something.

  3. JSpace August 29, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    Off hand, I can add a few more women who have worked on games or influenced them. C.L. Moore comes to mind for the excellent Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry. I mean I could probably name hundreds of characters from games and other works of fiction who are strinkingly similar to them (Star Wars, nudge nudge).

    The original Phantasy Star video games from the 1980’s/ early 90’s are significant. Reiko Kodama and Chieko Aoki were a big part of that very popular series. Also Junko Kawano wrote probably the most popular installments of the classic Suikoden RPGs (which are inspired by The Water Margin).

    Also, Rumiko Takahashi, who’s numerous successful manga series (going back to the 70’s) have had a tremendous influence not just on anime, manga and video games, but also the now surprisingly almost mainstream cosplay subculture.

  4. JSpace August 29, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    I almost forgot about Roberta Williams! Whether you like Sierra’s point and click adventure games or not (King’s Quest, Space Quest), she was a major player in electronic games for a long time. Hugely influential.

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