Depression Quest: a surprisingly fantastic interactive fiction experience

DepressionQuest_021913_toppy2-610x179I cannot be the only writer who’s suspicious of interactive fiction. For twenty years, people have been trumpeting about interactive fiction, and the promised land has never come. That’s because when you strip the ‘gameplay’ out of a game and reduce it to a series of choices, then what you’re basically writing is a hundred stories that all have the same beginning. And that’s not going to be a good story, because good stories ought to contain some coherent logic. The beginning ought to, in some way, resonate with the ending. Thus, the interactive fiction experience is rarely as satisfying as it would’ve been if the writer had sat down and written a single throughline (i.e. one story).

However, the whole Gamergate controversy prompted me to take an hour or two and go through Depression Quest, which is a game created by one of the developers who has been a main target of Gamergate harassment. The game, which is in classic second-person choose-your-own-adventure format, is about a person (the gender is never specified) who is struggling with depression. As fiction, it’s not amazing. The writing is pretty generic. All of the elements of the story–the job, the partner, the family–lurk in archetypical territory. Nothing has much personality of its own. And the text struggled to hold my interest. I sometimes found myself skimming it or clicking through without reading.

But as a gaming experience, it’s really very gripping. Surprisingly gripping. And that’s because there are actually some very simple and clever gameplay mechanics here. As you play, it becomes clear that the choices you make in the game are affecting your mood and your energy levels. And that these choices, in turn, affect which options you’re given. In fact, throughout the game, you’ll be presented with the grim sight of red crossed-out options. These are usually the healthiest and most energetic thing that you could do in any given situation. You don’t get to do those things (mostly). What you do get to do is choose between the options at the bottom that basically amount to ‘try’ or ‘don’t try.’

What makes the game interesting is that you’re never quite sure which one is the best choice. In some cases, it’s obviously better to try. But in other cases, you wonder, “Is trying going to drain me of energy? If I try to scrape myself out of bed and go to work, will I not have the energy to call a therapist later?”

It’s the perfect example of a game where the ludonarrative* is spot on. You understand, intuitively, the things you need to do to combat depression. But when you get down to specifics, things are murkier. You’re never sure what rules you’re playing by.

And what makes things more interesting is the general randomness of life. Sometimes you’ll try to do a healthy thing and it’ll turn out wrong. And sometimes you’ll do a maybe less-healthy thing and it’ll turn out to be perfect. It makes things pretty tense. Like when you finally get up the momentum to call a therapist, then the player is left thinking, “Oh my god, it was so difficult to get to the point where my character had the energy to make this call? If the therapist doesn’t answer, or if there are insurance problems, then what will happen? Will they ever get another chance?”

And, in the end, I was very emotionally engaged. Definitely worth playing around with.

 

*A term I learned from one of the best essay collections I’ve ever read: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. It refers to the intersection of the gameplay elements and the story elements of a game. In many cases, the gameplay clashes with the story. For instance, in a first-person shooter, the story is all about life being cheap and survival being very difficult. But the gameplay is the opposite: you’re capable of taking tons of damage, and if you die all you need to do is reload from a saved game. Stories with lackluster writing can often provide better ‘story’ experiences if the gameplay and the narrative align. For instance, the writing in Fallout 3 isn’t as good as in Fallout 2, but the gameplay is much more immersive, because it requires you to actually walk across this vast postapocalyptic landscape, rather than just skimming through it in map-view.