“Hello darkness my old friend.”
There’s a scene in the TV show Californication where one of the many fawning, underdeveloped female characters drunkenly tells David Duchovny that her drug of choice is the written word. It’s a sentiment I empathize with: a finely crafted sentence is indeed pretty intoxicating. With a love of well-written prose and interactive storytelling you might think I’d be drawn towards text-based gaming, but the truth is I’ve never had much luck in that arena. Ever since I first tried The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy on a friend’s Commodore in the nineties, only to die when my house was bulldozed very early in the first act, I gave up on text games in favor of platforms and first person shooters. But when I heard on the 21st century grapevine (a.k.a. the ‘internet’) about Depression Quest, I was ready to delve back into the world of text gaming.
Depression Quest was created by indie developer Zoë Quinn, in collaboration with Patrick Lindsey (writer) and Isaac Shankler (who provided the hauntingly desperate score). Quinn and Lindsey, both of whom have suffered from the clinical black dog, sought to “show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.”*
The player is tasked with navigating a series of everyday life events while simultaneously attempting to manage the illness, a relationship, a job, and (depending on the decisions they make) their treatment. I’ve never had the misfortune of suffering capital D depression. I’ve had my downs like everyone else, but have always been lucky enough to find the ability to pull myself up by the bootstraps. That’s why I played the game trying to make the sort of decisions I felt I’d have made in the character’s shoes, as a way of seeing how I might cope. The results were… well, depressing.
The game begins early on a Monday morning, with the main character holding down a relationship, a day job and a social circle of friends and colleagues. For me, it rapidly deteriorated from there, as I had to deal with increasingly difficult challenges such as a lack of concentration, a partner who wanted answers about fluctuating moods and an office party where the character’s urge was to melt into the wall and disappear. Frustratingly, many of the seemingly sensible options are struck out in red, showing us that such options are rarely available to those dealing with the disease.
I applaud this type of gaming. It’s inspiring to see that such a horrible experience can be turned into a reality-based ‘adventure’ with a social conscience (if you choose to donate to the creators, a portion of your donation goes to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline).
There’s no escapism here, no dungeons to explore or bulldozers to knock you down in the first act. The character is an everyday anti-hero like all of us, who happens to be undertaking the massive challenge of getting through life with a crippling illness. The dungeons are in the depths of our own psyche, and whatever bulldozers threaten to flatten us cannot be defeated by a button bashing combo or inputting the right text.
*So says the game’s official website: http://www.depressionquest.com/