Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Depression Quest

The award-winning game that sparked a bazillion sea lions is, at least in its web incarnation, a beautiful little experiment, a throwback to the mid-90s, before the dot-com hustle began in earnest - the days of alt.adjective.noun.verb.verb.verb, when the web was spare and tiny, yet filled with bizarre experiments blurring the lines between poetry, fanzines, and hypertext. The thing it reminds me most of is Carl Steadman's placing.com, which was a weird sort of requiem for a failed relationship, in the form of an alphabetical catalog.

It also vaguely reminds me of the small interactive fiction scene, which started with text games like Adventure and Zork, and still continues today with fun little toys like Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground), where you play a dim-witted orc who wanders into a dungeon by accident, or the Machiavellian Varicella, where you play a Venetian palace bureaucrat out to seize control of a kingdom.

It's virtually impossible to escape awareness of the weird festival of hatred and threats which accreted around the main developer of Depression Quest, yet it's actually quite easy for the game itself to sail completely under the radar. This is kind of backwards, to say the least. If you're interested in this kind of thing, it's worth it to play the game for a minute.

It's kind of just a Choose Your Own Adventure with some musical accompaniment and some very simple, primitive stats relating to your depression: how severe it is, whether you're taking any medications for it, whether or not you're in therapy, and what effect the therapy is having. The text is kind of enormous.

At first, I did my best to read every word, and make choices in character. The depression got worse, and there's a lovely sincerity to the game, which, unfortunately, meant that the character's in-game hopelessness started seeping into me in real life, as the player. So I switched strategies, skimmed the text, and made my choices not based on how I felt the character would react, but what seemed like the right thing to do. My reasoning was, "fuck it, this is going to be negative, might as well get through it feeling good about how I handled it."

That, of course, might actually be the point of the game. Every time I did it, the depression eased up. Winning the game is actually really easy - do the right thing, even if it seems like it'll be hard or risky for the character.

I wrestled with depression during my teens and early 20s, although I don't know if it ever got as severe as true clinical depression. Maybe it was this memory, maybe it was the writing, maybe it's just the years of acting classes turning me into someone very emotional, but I actually had a hint of tears in my eyes when I got to the end of Depression Quest and won.

Certainly, this game is not for everybody, as a variety of intense overreactions (to say the least) have already very conclusively shown, and on a programming level, all it really consists of is text and links. However, if you like good writing, it's pretty great, in a small and modest way.