Background: In 2014, “Depression Quest” developer Zoe Quinn was accused by her former boyfriend in a lengthy blog post of having an affair with a game journalist. The gaming public then began to suspect that the journalist in question gave special treatment in his coverage of Quinn and “Depression Quest” in two of his articles. She soon became a highly controversial figure in the gaming sphere and unfortunately a target of death threats and harassment campaigns. In the end, her game was largely overshadowed by the controversy, so my goal with this review is to let the game stand on its own merits.
“Depression Quest” is an interactive narrative that isn’t meant to be fun and lighthearted, according to its title screen. Instead, it aims to illustrate the experience of depression purely through storytelling. You play as an unnamed protagonist who suffers from depression and you make choices that will impact how the story unfolds. Unlike most interactive narratives where visual elements such as character illustrations are a key aspect, “Depression Quest” consists mostly of chunks of text against a white background. On the one hand, it’s a bland design. On the other hand, it captures quite well the feeling of emptiness that can be a result of suffering depression. Naturally, for a game with little to no gameplay to succeed, the story must be everything. It can’t just be decent. It needs to be brilliant, and sadly, the story of “Depression Quest” falls completely flat.
In order for us to understand what it’s like to have depression, the story’s number one priority is to make us identify and connect with the protagonist. However, the game makes virtually no effort to tell us who the protagonist is and what they care about (we don’t even know their gender). A good chunk of the narrative is about how much they hate their job and, yet, it is never revealed what that job is. Occasionally they spend time working on a passion project that we likewise have no knowledge of. The character is defined by the fact that they have depression and nothing else. Do they have aspirations in life? Is there a cause to their depression? Once again, we are left in the dark.
Outside the main character’s own struggle, there is almost no conflict between them and other characters. The most we get is the disapproving mother that doesn’t really understand mental illness, whereas the other characters are always accommodating and actively caring. The protagonist has a co-worker who gifts them a cat, a close online friend to discuss personal feelings with, a brother who, despite being more successful in every way, remains respectful and loving and a girlfriend who is basically a saint. For a game about experiencing depression, there are surprisingly few opportunities to feel depressed and isolated.
“Depression Quest” has an overly optimistic depiction of depression. After I finished my first playthrough, I decided to see the bleakest outcome that can happen to the protagonist by always choosing the worst possible options: turning everyone down and pretending to not be depressed. I was anticipating that being overwhelmingly aloof and dishonest would eventually lead to self-harm and even suicide. While the game did explicitly tell me that my character was “profoundly depressed,” nothing really came of it except that the girlfriend finally broke up with them. I’m not saying that crippling depression should always lead to a cruel fate, but I find the game’s bad ending to be a scarcely believable representation of it.
As much as “Depression Quest” doesn’t want to be a video game, some design choices render the story to be more video game-y than it really should be. For instance, it is often obvious what choices are “right” and what choices will make the protagonist worse off.
During my playthrough, there was no doubt nor hardship in regard to my course of action, to such an extent that conquering depression actually felt like a walk in the park. I doubt any individual suffering from depression will always make the right choices. In addition, the game gives off the impression of oversimplifying mental illness with status reports that persist at the bottom of the screen. These are messages like: “you are depressed and you don’t like to interact with others,” “you are not taking meds” and “you are not seeing a therapist.” Basically, the game shows its hand right from the beginning, telling us that we just need to do these three things to win.
Some choices are deliberately written in red, crossed out and unable to be chosen to represent just how powerless and unmotivated one can feel during depression. Keep making bad choices and eventually every choice will be crossed out except the worst one, which is an interesting idea. But it’s throwing subtlety out of the window. The choices could have just been straight up removed and the player can find that out on their own in subsequent playthroughs.
Play time is also an issue. I finished my first playthrough in under an hour, which is too little time for the narrative to have any substantial impact. I think it’s fair to say that “Depression Quest” is more of a concept demo than an actual finished product.
As much as I want to like this game, which is unfairly overlooked due to the controversy surrounding its creator, it’s just executed poorly. It is a detached and overly simplistic narrative that I will probably forget about as soon as I finish this concluding paragraph. I don’t mean to be (too) harsh with this review, since this is the developer’s first published game and we all have to start somewhere. Also, the game is free on Steam. If you’d like to try it out for yourself, you can do so at no cost. But if you read this article looking for a proper game about depression and dealing with trauma, then I recommend “The Cat Lady” made by Harvester Games.