‘Depression Quest’ cripples players with despondent gameplay

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“Depression Quest” isn’t a typical game. It’s not even typical for an atypical game. Unlike convention-violating indie titles like “Journey” or “The Unfinished Swan,” “Depression Quest” isn’t artistic, captivating or even enjoyable. Rather, it’s a gray, text-based and emotionally draining experience about living with depression.

“Depression Quest” casts the player as an ordinary 20-something with a job, a girlfriend and crippling major depressive disorder. Throughout the game, the player must make simple day-to-day choices — whether to go out with his girlfriend or how he should conduct a conversation with his mother, for example — with the catch being that the best answer or answers are crossed out and unavailable, just as they would be to someone with depression.

It’s a simple gameplay mechanism, but it’s incredibly powerful in depicting life with the disorder. Depression isn’t just feeling sad or gloomy; it’s an overwhelming physiological state marked by a lack of energy, motivation and hope. Getting up and going to work isn’t always an option, as many of those afflicted simply can’t find the energy or willpower to do so.

Accompanying the actual gameplay is a melancholic piano and a synthesizer, which create a background more or less like white noise. It seems pointless and can get a little wearing, but it’s effective in putting the player in a despondent mood.

The most video game-like element in “Depression Quest” is the character development, which is subtle but key to the experience. The player only has three stats: how depressed he is, whether he’s seeing a therapist and whether he’s taking medication, all of which gradually change as different choices are made. Once again, the simplicity of the design is “Depression Quest”’s greatest strength, completely immersing the player in the ins and outs of managing depression by making it his sole focus.

Still, “Depression Quest” is almost too simple at points. Depression affects millions of people around the world, but there’s still serious stigma surrounding the illness, and a lot of people either don’t understand it or don’t take it seriously. While there are plenty of people who seem to misunderstand the player in “Depression Quest,” the game is missing the added dimension of true conflict — from a boss or perhaps a roommate — due to the illness. Conflict is an underdeveloped avenue at best and one that, if explored, would add even more depth to an otherwise heavy and thought-provoking experience.

Additionally, the game could benefit from some serious copy-editing. For an experience that relies almost exclusively upon text, there are far too many errors, ranging from simple grammatical flukes to confusing pronoun-agreement problems. It doesn’t detract from the emotional environment of the game, but it could divert some players’ attentions from an otherwise-immersive experience.

Still, “Depression Quest” is not an experience to forgo. Though it’s short — a single game only takes about an hour — it’s free to play and, due to its simple design, can run in the browser of even the most bare-bones computer. However, the general consensus is that the game is extremely hard to finish. Many people on Twitter discussing “Depression Quest” said that they had to stop playing before the hour was up.

The overall impression players will get from “Depression Quest” is one of deepened understanding. Regardless of the ending, good or bad, the game provides a comprehensive glimpse into the life of a depression sufferer, which is an amazing feat in itself. Although it’s not a “fun” game by any stretch of the imagination, it’s certainly worth playing.

Contact Kallie Plagge at [email protected].