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.

Why Video Games Matter

As I mentioned awhile back, I have something in common with most males of my age and social station: I have been an avid player of video and computer games. And like most of my peers, I have at times questioned the aesthetic worth of electronic gaming. Are games art? Are they good art? Did I get any sort of positive return from the thousands of hours that I spent in front of a rapidly-flickering screen?

These questions form the basis of essayist Tom Bissell's collection of musings on electronic gaming, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Bissell approaches these questions in just the right way. He has impeccable gaming credentials. He's not some outside cultural critic like Roger Ebert (who recently stirred up a shitstorm by claiming that video games were not art). Bissell is a gamer, like us. But he's also kind of a snob. And he definitely has alot more doubts about the aesthetic worth of video games than his forthright subtitle suggests. In the end, he is not quite sure whether video games matter. He writes:

More than any other form of entertainment, video games tend to divide rooms into Us and Them. We are, in effect, admitting that we like to spend our time shooting monsters, and They are, not unreasonably, failing to find the value in that.

Do the question of whether video games are art, his answer is a qualified 'yes'. Of course they are. As visual art alone, video games are often arrestingly beautiful. But he remains ambivalent over whether any video game is really an artistic masterpiece.

...what distinguishes one work of art from another is primarily intelligence, which is as multivalent as art itself. Artistic or creative intelligence can express itself formally, stylistically, emotionally, thematically, morally, or any number of ways. Works of art we call masterpieces typically run the table on the many forms artistic intelligence can take: They are comprehensively intelligent....Many games have more formal and stylistic intelligence than they know what to do with and not even trace amounts of thematic, emotional, or moral intelligence. One could argue that these games succeed as works of art in some ways and either fail or do not attempt to succeed in others. "True" art makes the attempt to succeed in every way available to it. At least, I think so.

Basically, the problem is that even the best games have pretty bad narratives. Oh, there are some games with okay stories--Fallout 3, Bioshock, System Shock, Deus Ex, Planescape Torment--but even these games are rife with poor acting, laughable dialogue, silly plots, and a basic lack of thematic complexity. To Tom Bissell--and to me--it often seems like the best video game narrative is no better than a mediocre novel or film.

And the problem goes beyond simple quality: the sort of thing that can be solved by hiring better writers and designers and voice actors. No, there's something in the video game form that actually seems to resist narrative complexity. After interviewing Jonathan Blow, a designer of indie games, Bissell writes:

...the video-game form is incompatible with traditional concepts of narrative. Stories are about time passing and narrative progression. Games are about challenge, which frustrates the passing of time and impedes narrative progression. The story force wants to go forward and the "friction force" of challenge tries to hold story back. This is the conflict at the heart of the narrative game, one that game designers have thus far imperfectly addressed by making story the reward of a successfully met challenge. According to Blow, this method is "unsound," because story and challenge "have a structural conflict that's so deeply ingrained, it's impossible" to make game stories strong. Can better writing solve this? In Blow's mind, it cannot. The nature of the medium itself "prevents the stories from being good."

When a person plays a game, they experience the game's story in a sort of linear way: one thing happens after another. But they experience the game itself in a repetitive way: they're performing the same actions over and over and slowly getting better at them. This creates a weird kind of dissonance. It's like playing a game of football where you have to watch a movie after getting a first down. In this case, even if the movie is very good, it's still fundamentally set apart from the play.

Blow suggests that the solution is to pare away in-game narrative: the dialogues; the cut-scenes; the radio broadcasts; the overt characterization. Instead of trying to resemble movies or books, games should look to another form of aural/visual entertainment: Dance. With their gameplay and their visual elements, games could create a more unified experience. Examples of this would be games like Tetris, Flower, or Blow's own (fairly popular) game, Braided.

Bissell kind of steps back from agreeing with Blow here. This book of essays is not normative, it's descriptive. The issues that Blow brings up are real ones that, I think, every gamer can agree with.

As for myself, I share Bissell's ambivalence. Gaming is one of the most entertaining things Iv'e ever done. And I have many exhilarating memories of playing games. But, after I spend a few hours reading books or watching TV, I don't feel quite as cheated as I do after spending a few hours playing video games. Perhaps part of this is cultural--our culture places a fairly high value on being well-read--but I think part of it is that games frequently feel vapid. Their characters and stories don't resemble anything in the real world. They don't create interesting effects. Video gaming is often a very immersive experience. Fallout 3 transports me to a post-apocalyptic wasteland in a way that post-apocalyptic literature frequently fails to do. But I don't feel like I bring anything back from that wasteland. It's a dream that fades away as soon as I wake up. The emotional experience offered by literature is, in some ways, more paltry, but it also offers an intellectual content that is a bit slower to fade away.

Reading literary essays

I've been reading a bunch of essay collections recently. I began with John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, went on to Tom Bissell's Magic Hours: Essays On Creators and Creation, and am currently working on Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them.

I liked them all. How can I dislike it when an intelligent writer tries to work through a knotty problem in as simple a way as he or she possibly can? Of course, I did have my quibbles here and there. Sullivan's book seemed a little too focused on providing colorful bits of the author's personal experience and sometimesfailed to actually provide much insight into whatever he was writing about. This was particularly notable in one of his essays on attending a Christian rock concert, where he failed to answer what seems like the most basic question: "Why does this music excite people? Why have 100,000 people--most of them teens--come to this festival?"

Perhaps that was the point of the collection. Sullivan is willing to shine as much light on a subject as he is able, but he's not willing to BS up some insight that he doesn't actually possess. And, okay, that's fine, but at some point I'm kind of going to prefer the writer who's actually able to say anything. The David Foster Wallace style thumbsucking faux-innocence is cute enough when it actually pays homage to the basic complexity of the world, but it ceases to be cute when it is used as a way to avoid coming to a conclusion.

But that's just a minor gripe. In general, I enjoyed the essays. Tom Bissell's collection was particularly good (especially for aspiring writers). He had a great essay in which he categorized all the different kinds of writing books, and another in which he dissected a literary movement by a bunch of angry writing aspirants. Both were fascinating glimpses into literary culture.

Mostly, though, I just want to know how a person gets into this whole essay-writing racket? It seems awesome. I'd like to pontificate about stuff at length. Also, what exactly qualifies novelists (and aspiring novelists) to spout off about stuff? This whole form--the literary essay--seems rather odd. It's a bunch of people who are using the literary skills acquired as fiction writers in order to write non-fiction. The result, presumably, justifies itself through its high prose quality.

It would kind of have to, right? Because if it doesn't, there doesn't seem to be any reason for the literary essay to exist. None of these essayists seem to have done much research on their topics. None of them seem to have any journalistic training. They don't pretend to have much more information (or even expertise) on the topics that they write about. But the implication is that their novelistic training allows them some kind of insight that ordinary journalists don't have.

I like that. It's a kind of talismanic faith in the power of a writer. A novel is measured against other novels. It's either better than other novels or worse than other novels. Literary essays, though, are measured against our own insight and our own experience. If an essay exceeds the quality of our own thinking on a topic, then it's sublime. If not, it's pointless. It's like philosophy, but not quite as ambitious.

Anyways, after Batuman's book, I am thinking of going on to Bissell's Extra Lives or Franzen's How To Be Alone. Anyone have any other good essay collection recommendations? I considered Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence, but it was way too long for me.