Depression Quest and Indirect Representation
The ability to be the protagonist allows for a great deal of player empathy. Media personalities that do not play games yet decry their portrayal of charged subject matter see only the possibility for a player to become less empathic with their fellow person. What if the ability to be a protagonist could educate and create more empathy through a player’s agency?
Depression Quest is a 2013 interactive fiction game by Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey. In it, you play as a person suffering from depression and are faced with simple situations that may occur in a normal, everyday life. You choose how you react to those situations, but some options may be disabled or enabled because of the player’s current emotional status and whether they are seeing a therapist or taking medication.
The interaction is fairly straightforward: Read a section of text and then choose one from a defined list of actions. What makes Depression Quest a particularly effective tool for showing a non-depressed person what depression is like is that the game shows the reasonable reactions that a healthy person might make and specifically marks them as off-limits, just as depression sufferers may know that their decisions are causing them further mental anguish but are stuck choosing them anyway. “Why don’t you cheer up?” is a common category of responses to depressed people. Telling these people that it isn’t an option is less compelling than showing them how it is not an option. It may not change their outlook, but what is ever guaranteed to?
Depression Quest isn’t a fun game. The fact that one has to address that shows how far games need to come as an artistic medium. By noting that Depression Quest isn’t a fun game, we are tacitly saying that the expectation is that games should be fun. The late president of Nintendo, Satoru Iwata, said as much: “Above all, video games are meant to just be one thing: Fun for everyone.” That may work when you are the president of an entertainment company, focused on your own particular mission, but it is not a universal truth. Limiting a medium to one particular type of experience and then measuring it by the valence of that experience means that you are essentially ruling out other possible worthwhile experiences. Depression Quest cannot be measured as an experience by how fun it is like Blackfish, The Hurt Locker, or Raging Bull cannot be measured by the smiles on faces walking out of the theater.
It is worth noting that your experience with Depression Quest does not exist outside of your experience with depression. At its most technical level, Depression Quest is a big flowchart with some tracked variables. Riding from Node #1 to Node #14 to Node #72 without context is just a bland maze. Many “Choose Your Own Adventure” books can be said to have a near identical structure without any of the emotional touchstones.
Have you ever read a horror novel that is utterly nail-biting for the first two-thirds but falls apart when the author starts explaining the source of the terror in the final act? Or watched a mystery show that left you guessing at every turn but then felt unsatisfactory when the mystery was explained? You do not have to be an author, filmmaker, or game designer to have the necessary creativity to fill in the blanks of a mystery or horror story with the most compelling details imaginable. You likely never even nail those details down; they exist only as a subconscious set of possibilities. It is when those possibilities are extinguished by an authorial explanation that the man behind the curtain is revealed. And no matter how excellent that man is at pulling the levers, he will never be as good as the particular vector you imagined for the story. Directly telling or showing the audience something that fills in the blanks for them is necessary at times but can serve to limit the audience’s imaginary version of events.
I believe that this is why Depression Quest works so well as an interactive fiction game. There are no characters modeled or drawn, so it is easier for the player to imagine himself as the protagonist. There is no dissonance that the player doesn’t look like what the player imagines himself to be. There is no spoken dialogue, so the audience is forced to fill in his own friends’ voices instead of what he could get from voice actors. There are no representations of place besides some blurry stock photographs, so the player can more easily imagine himself in the places familiar to their ordinary lives.
Another game that gives a new perspective on an already familiar theme was 1979 Revolution: Black Friday by iNK Stories. The game tells the story of ordinary people going through the Iranian Revolution in the 1970s. As an American growing up after the Iranian Revolution, I’ve only known Iran as a country hostile to mine and assume stereotypes based on that hostility. 1979 Revolution presents the events of the game using an interactive format similar to that of Telltale Game Studios games. In it, a fully 3D-modeled and voice-acted cinematic plays and you are given the opportunity to intervene at a number of key points that may or may not change the narrative.
While I feel I learned something playing 1979 Revolution, I fear that its attempt to directly represent its subject matter may have hurt it. Some characters that I probably should find sympathetic annoy me because of quirks of voice acting and other likely subconscious biases. The context of knowing what happens in Iran for the next four decades means I already have an opinion on the revolutionaries. It is hard to separate from that opinion. It is also hard for me to see myself as the main character Reza, as he looks and sounds different enough from me that I can easily identify him as different. This is one area where the silent protagonists common in video games have an advantage.
1979 Revolution has greater production values but has an underlying structure fairly similar to that of Depression Quest. Despite that, the former is generally seen as more “game-like” than the latter, which is a shame. Both should be judged on the efficacy with which they execute on their goals.