Showing Depression in Interactive Fiction

Depression Quest is a 2013 interactive fiction game by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler. On the game’s website, the developers share that they wrote the game with twofold intent – to both spread awareness about what depression can feel like and to let people who are dealing with depression know that they are not alone. The game arguably does succeed in achieving the first goal – as it contains clear descriptions of how depression can feel on a day-to-day basis. More broadly, however, I feel that the game does not work well as a game – it is a solid piece of text on the experience of depression, but the decision to make this text playable adds little to the experience of reading it.

One of the notable elements of the game are the status bars at the bottom of every page that let you know three things: how depressed your character is, whether they are seeing a therapist, and whether they are on medication. From a gameplay perspective I appreciate these bars, as it is useful to see how my choices in the story affect my character’s level of depression. From an education perspective, however, I find that these bars undermine the game’s ability to show what depression is like.

One of the hallmarks of depression can be an inability to have much perspective on the feelings that you’re dealing with – though you may have been feeling better yesterday, when depression kicks in it’s often accompanied by a conviction that things have always been this way and will always be this way. As Allie Brosh writes in one of her comics on depression, having someone tell you that things will get better when you’re depressed is often met with a feeling of “look, guy, I don’t know what it’s like in I-still-have-meaning-in-my-life-land, but every direction looks like bullshit right now.” The game writes these feelings into the text, but it does a bad job of actually making the player feel them. Depression creates an unreliable narrator, and games are a great way to integrate unreliability into the player’s point of view. Depression Quest misses this opportunity by always telling players exactly how depressed they are, rather than letting them experience some of the confusion and lack of perspective of not actually knowing.  

This ties into a broader set of issues the game has with telling rather than showing – as a player, I am repeatedly told that my character doesn’t like their job, but no part of the game actually lets me experience this. There are no penalties for making my character go to work when they don’t want to, and as a player I never have to experience the frustration that my character is said to experience at work. Further on in the game, I am given the option to have my character stop taking their medication, since they have been feeling better lately. While this is a real decision that many people come to face in the course of their treatment, the game doesn’t effectively represent the weight of this crossroads. As a player, I know that I will do better in the game if I keep my player on their medication, and none of the things that the character may be feeling – shame, worry, fear – are made to influence my decisions as a player at all.

There is one mechanic in the game that does effectively show rather than tell, and this is my favorite part of Depression Quest. Almost every time the game gives you options about what action to take next, one or more of them will be crossed out. The more depressed your character is, the more options are crossed out. So, early in the game, when my character’s girlfriend invites them to a party, I have the options of “agree to go” and “say that you’re really just not feeling well and can’t make it.” Above these options is a third: “shake of your funk and go have a good time with your girlfriend,” but it is crossed out and I am unable to click it.

The game is filled with large stretches of time in which you can’t select the option that you think, as a player, would be best for you character. When I played through, even after starting therapy and medication there was a long period of time in which my character was still listed as ‘very depressed’ and I was unable to click many useful options. This is an element of the game that really works to show something to the player rather than telling them about it, and effectively conveys the feeling of knowing, vaguely, what the best thing to do would be while still being unable to do it.

This mechanic, however, isn’t enough to turn the experience of the game around. Overall, Depression Quest feels like it would function better as an essay on depression than as a game, and the parts that make it engaging as a game aren’t enough to fix this feeling. The mechanics of the game don’t work to support its epistemological intent, ultimately undermining the game’s ability to fulfill its stated goals.

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