Depression Quest: A controversial review

Depression Quest: The game about depression for people who aren't depressed

Depression Quest: The game about depression for people who aren’t depressed

INTERNET — Recent controversy over several blogposts from the anonymous ex-boyfriend of author Zoë Quinn alleged that Quinn promoted her work, Depression Quest, by exchanging sexual favors with powerful “gaming journalists,” who then helped her promote her game. However, at least one of the allegations appear to have been dismissed as little more than veiled slut shaming in the virulent, twisted form given by a pathetic ex-boyfriend. A major complaint among the chauvinists piling on Quinn is that the game is barely even a game and no fun at all. In some yowling sex-deprived voice, they all say something like, “She must have been prostituting herself for that to be popular.” The veil for their attacks is their interest in protecting the sacred objectivity of gaming journalism, something which is not even at stake, as the reviews of her game fall in the realm of criticism or opinion.

Like many others fascinated by this absurd non-controversy, I fired up corporate-controlled Steam and downloaded a free copy of Depression Quest, hoping that by reviewing this video game I could restore my castrated manhood. Clocking in at 105 megabytes, I expected something more involved than the retro web 1.0 visuals that looked lazy juxtaposed with repeated appearances of the Netflix logo. An ominous epigraph from David Foster Wallace boded well, and the introduction played up the game’s potential descent into depression with trigger warnings and a link to a suicide hotline.

It might be wrong to classify Depression Quest as a game or even as an interactive fiction. In interactive fictions like MUDs or text-based dungeons, players respond to a textual world with text commands, participating, in a sense, as a writer of a story within the framework of an already-created world. Depression Quest, however, has a much more limited interface and is closer to a choose your own adventure paperback.

It takes about twenty minutes to read through Depression Quest, and the reader is given a few choices at the end of most frames. Each frame is a roughly page-length second person story about the painful banality of a depressive’s everyday life. While there are some evocative vignettes of the interiority of a depressive, most especially in family scenes, I found myself scanning over repetitive fragments of cliche or stereotypical thought patterns of any depressive. The protagonist is an empty container who cannot bring himself to work on a project that is never described, but constantly referred to.

The protagonist’s depression is charted by three textual scores at the bottom of each frame, one rating the depth of depression and the other two tracking cumulative visits to the therapist and use of medication (A combination of depression and medication, I assumed, was the only way to win). There seems to be no continuity at all between frames, which creates a disorienting effect that contributes to the unpleasantness and fragmentation of a depressive’s everyday life. However, at one point I found myself wondering if the cat the protagonist adopted had disappeared, only for it to appear a few frames later to console him. In the last syrupy-sweet frames, the protagonist whispers to his totally clueless girlfriend that he’s depressed and seeking help, and then he honestly tells his mother that he is feeling well.

I would have liked Depression Quest much better if it hadn’t come off as a doctor’s prescribed program for how to deal with depression, although there were a few times when calling in sick to work or vegging out on Netflix did relieve the depression score. At its best, Depression Quest does achieve the goal stated in its introduction by evoking the interiority of a depressive to foster understanding, but much of this is undone by the kind of stereotypical advice it takes to win. I found myself wondering if anyone could ever empathize with the game’s empty narrator and his unspeakable project when continually steering him away from depression with the kind of glib advice that is never advisable to foist onto a depressed person. I assume if I went back and truly inhabited the mindset of a depressed person, I would lose and the story would end with suicide, but then again perhaps I (or the writer?) approached the text wrongly by treating it as a ‘game’ that needs to be ‘won’.

It is little wonder that this minimally game-like text that purposefully inspires icky unpleasant feelings in its readers has received so much scorn from gamers, but I could not at all connect the story to the controversy over its author’s personal life, except that it has achieved some moderate popularity and chauvinists out there can only rationalize this with some kind of sexual conspiracy. As a first foray into writing forked path narrative, it’s not a bad effort and even interesting in concept, but I have no desire to go back and explore all its corners.

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