[Warning: The game I am about to describe contains scenes intended to show the effects of deep depression. As a result, people who do suffer from depression may be triggered by some of the scenes in the game. I have included links at the bottom of this post to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as iFred, an organization dedicated to researching and preventing depression.]
When I was shown Depression Quest by a friend, I didn’t really know what to expect. My first reaction was to be wary of it. A game that simulates depression? Certainly, at best, I thought it would be a game that just repeated things that people have already heard over and over again: to seek help from a licensed professional. At worst, I expected it to miss the mark entirely.
Well, let me just say that I was extremely surprised.
Depression Quest is a ‘visual novel’-style game, meaning it presents you a scenario and then lists a set of choices that you can make. Each choice affects choices further down the line, and all of this builds toward which ending, out of a possible five, that you acquire. It is a simple game style that either thrives or dies on the strength of it’s writing, and in this case it is the writing that makes the game what it is, and it’s all the stronger for it.
It’s the little details that show that this game really knows what it’s doing. It’s the little things that only someone who has had a lot of experience dealing with depression and researching into the lives of people who suffer from it would know.
The truly interesting part is that through the game’s mechanics, it really illustrates the fact that people who have the symptoms of depression do not experience the world the same way as others do. It is very important to realize that whenever someone has anxiety or depression, it isn’t that they are simply afraid or sad at things that aren’t real, or are ‘blown out of proportion’. Instead, it’s that their reality is different from the reality of others. The things they think and feel are absolutely real.
The game shows this the best when it shows the selection of choices you can make. See, when you reach a choice point, you can see all of the possible choices you can make. However, you cannot select all of them. In most cases, you can see the choice that you know is the best one, the most rational one, but that is usually the choice that is grayed out. This, I think, is a very accurate representation of what depression feels like sometimes. It’s not like someone with depression doesn’t know what to do, it’s that they do know what choices any other person would make, but their thought processes won’t allow them to make those choices. And that in itself is another step in the cycle, the step of wondering why one can’t just make the choice that any ‘normal’ person would.
The other thing the game shows very well is that it isn’t the big things that trigger depression or anxiety. Or rather, not always. It’s the little things. Perhaps it’s something that someone says, offhandedly: a word or a turn of phrase that hits exactly the wrong note. Perhaps it’s a chance encounter with someone, or maybe it’s just some random misfortune. It’s that last snowflake that triggers the avalanche, so to speak.
However, it’s also the little things that start to affect change in someone’s life as well. It’s not any grand, sweeping gesture that causes someone to finally gather the willpower to break the cycle, it’s usually something little, or a combination of little things. On my playthrough, it was a kitten, offered by a friend. The option to enthusiastically take the kitten was grayed out, but the choice to grudgingly become a cat owner was there. That companionship was the catalyst that started to break the cycle.
It is also important to note that, just like in real life, each playthrough is different. There are random factors as well that will cause each run through the game to produce at least slightly different results. Just like in real life, nothing is ever set in stone, and just like in real life, the endings aren’t always happy. They’re just endings. Depression is a chronic condition, one that comes and goes, and that’s the other reality that this game really drives home. There is no ‘all better’, there is only ‘better, right now’. There is no quick fix, no miracle cure. With effort and treatment, however, ‘better, right now’ can happen on a daily basis, and quality of life improves dramatically.
This game succeeds as more than just a way for a person to realize their own symptoms. In fact, I would warn those who already have symptoms of depression that reading the thought processes of the character in this game will probably act as a trigger. I would say that Depression Quest is more effective as a tool for communication. It is a very, very hard thing for someone with anxiety or depression to describe what they are feeling to someone who has never had to experience it for themselves. Even if one can talk about it to others, it is a very hard thought process to understand for those with no direct experience. I think that this is where Depression Quest comes in: as a way to explain that this is how some people experience reality.
Originally, I wasn’t sure if I should write about Depression Quest. However, I came to the conclusion that if this game helps even one person communicate to someone they care about, to seek treatment, to help end the cycles and thought processes, then that is the most important thing.
[Depression Quest can be played for free here. In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 1-800-273-8255. For residents of other countries, this page is an up-to-date list of numbers to reach out to. Depression Quest is a free game, but if you choose to pay, a portion of the proceeds are donated to iFred, an organization that supports research for depression and strives to eliminate the social stigma against it.]
[This review originally appeared on the gaming website Attack Initiative.]