Review by Iyamtebist
Reviewed: 01/16/15 | Updated: 06/11/15
The only thing depressing about this game is its sheer lack of quality.
Depression Quest is a game that I honestly cannot see why anyone would say they really liked. It shows something when the reviews of this game were overwhelmingly negative from consumers yet mostly positive from critics, but there is still more to it than that. It is way too easy to dismiss every positive review a game received as being due to the reviewer being bribed. The reason this is the case is because most reviewers actually need to write a review (AKA the part of a review that no one actually reads), and need to put in effort to make it look genuine. As a result, even in cases where the reviewer is paid off, some of the statements made need to have an element of truth for the reviewer to come up with them, even if the reviewer doesnt actually believe them. With Depression Quest however, I dont see how anything in this game could be interpreted as deep or meaningful aside from the fact that it is about depression and meant to be something other than fun.
I do not dislike Depression Quest simply because its not fun or its not a game, and I do not consider those to be valid arguments against it. As someone who has suffered from severe clinical depression; I probably would have loved this game if it was executed properly. If this game really did deliver a profound message about depression or an emotional experience. Hell I would have loved it even if I didnt suffer from depression. Games have been about trying to express emotion and being more than fun for years. Hell we have even had these types of games without gameplay since the eighties with any text games. So it is not about how well Depression Quest succeeds at being fun; it is about how well Depression Quest succeeds at being a work of art, and quite simply put; Depression Quest does not succeed at being a good work of art.
What really gets me on this game is how people can say it is a deep or moving game? Based on what Zoe Quinn has said regarding her motivation for making the game, she has made it out as something that needed to be made and as something that could save lives. I recall that when asked about her decision to release it around the time of Robin Williams death; she said she released it in order to potentially save someone before it is too late and that it was more important than whether or not she was accused of trying to profit off his death. Despite this, the content of the game does not reflect this intention.
Nothing about Depression Quests content seems like anything that could save the life of someone suffering from depression. In fact, the game would be more likely to trigger a depressed person and make things even worse for them if it was not for it being so shallow writing wise. It actually mentions this in game at the start, but that only makes things more confusing. Based on its design, it is obvious that Depression Quest was targeted at people who do not suffer from depression, and is made to educate them about what it is like to have depression.
However, there are several aspects of this game that make me doubt it was really taken seriously. Even the games title gives off this impression. Depression Quest is clearly supposed to be a game that is realistic, but if that is the case, then why is the word quest in the title? Tacking the word quest on to an unfitting word usually indicates a parody of some sorts. However, Depression Quest is a very serious game. Maybe it would work if it was made to be a subversion of the typical gaming formula, but there are already numerous games that have been artistic by subverting traditional gameplay elements; Depression Quest is not an original concept. Despite this, Depression Quest often gives off a rather pretentious feeling to it like it is some type of profound message. In fact, the ending message says thank you for deciding to play a game that may be more than just fun. Games have been more than fun for years, and nearly all of them have far more artistic value than Depression Quest.
Some may say that Depression Quest is an original experience due to games not having explored the aspect of clinical depression before, but that really is not true. The idea of someone feeling like they are unable to go on and that the world is against them? Just take a look at every jrpg that has ever had one of the brooding emo protagonists that critics dumped on despite them being the same people that praised this thing. Hell I would argue that those games did it better because there was actual context to the depression and that the entire game was not based only around one subject matter. Hell the same year, The Cat Lady was released, and Actual Sunlight came out in 2014. Both of those games also dealt heavily with the subject of depression, but the difference was that there was an effort to build up a world around them and to be deep enough to cover multiple themes.
Depression Quest, despite being a game made out to be a very passionate endeavor has very little ambition to it. The key problem it has is that it puts all its eggs in one basket, that basket being the depression message, and there is nothing put into any other aspect. Our characters are as stereotypically flat as they can be, and the story is about an everyday life. Now this may sound like the right approach in order to show what living with depression is like, but it really isnt. The key problem with Depression Quest is the lack of immersion the game provides. Every day, an event goes by in mere seconds and situations are resolved with a mere click of the button. As someone who has suffered from clinical depression, I can say that there is quite a bit left out when the game tells you that you are too depressed to even be motivated to get to work, yet the question is about whether you should stay home or go anyway.
Just about everyone would know that the obvious answer is to go to work anyway. Even depressed people know that it is the right choice to go in. What stops them is the feeling of dread and stressof going through hours with the burden on their shoulder. As a result of the player not feeling the same sense of stress as the character, the experience is lost on anyone who has not already experienced depression. One of the most important rules when it comes to any form of writing is show, dont tell. Unfortunately this concept is lost on Depression Quest because it does nothing other than telling you how your character feels and how the occurrences around him affect him. A more talented developer would have found a way to express this through the games mechanics.
For example, a key mechanic in the game is that, with some choices, any action that involves being social or having self confidence will be crossed out. At first this seems like a good idea as it demonstrates feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness by being unable to pick the positive option. However, the idea behind this mechanic falls apart under close scrutiny. First of all, people who suffer from depression are not unable to pick positive outcomes or act social. Depressives are perfectly capable of doing these things, but doing so simply puts a huge load on them that most of them prefer to avoid. This ends up giving across the implication that depressives are unable to be happy, which is something that is more likely to offend depressives. In the games defense, there are some instances where the options will unlock depending on your current level of depression, but even then it still misses the point. This implies that if someone is in a deep state of depression, then they cannot be happy.
The proper way to handle this mechanic would have been to allow each option to be selected, but change the result depending on the current level of depression. For example, instead of telling you that you have the entire weight of the world on your shoulder and that you cant go into work, just give the option to go to work from the get go and have the result change depending on your current state. If your current depression level is below what would have unlocked it, then have selecting it result in a negative consequence. Or better yet, have a meter of emotional strain that the player can take, and if the meter depletes all the way, you see the darkest impact that depression can have on a human being; suicide.
That brings up another area where Depression Quest phones it in; there is not so much as even an acknowledgment that depression can, and in a lot of cases does, lead to suicide. Technically some may say that including suicide in a game could just be a desperate attempt to be edgy and would only serve as shock value; and that would be a valid complaint if this were any other game. Unfortunately, the purpose of Depression Quest IS to shock someone. If you are trying to show someone what living with depression is like, then there is no excuse to leave anything out, especially not the part that would make more people interested in the first place. If you are really trying to make an impact on the player, then you should not pull any punches or spare any details, and doing so only diminishes the games credibility even further.
The entire purpose of Depression Quest is to make a statement about depression and its sole innovatory concept is based on subverting the typical idea behind what a game is. Typically, a game is made with the intent of building a virtual world that the player can immerse himself in. Depression Quest, however, is made to contrast with that intent in that it is supposed to be depressing and unfun. However, it does not even succeed in this department. Despite me being a depressive myself, I was not even close to being triggered by Depression Quest. For comparison, I did end up getting triggered by the town of Shoalhaven in Tales of Hearts R.
In that game, the people were cursed to feel intense sadness and depression over just about everything. People looked at mere aspects of life with a very hopeless and depressed view of everyday things. Someone mentioned how they could not even eat fish because they knew that it was once a living creature. Another person was an armor shop owner who realized that the more people are buying his stuff, the more people are dying. Every NPC in that town was hopefully depressed about themselves and others, yet the typical pleasant town music still played. Despite the fact that these aspects are overly exaggerated and that it may have been just a gimmick, it still managed to trigger me to the point of breaking down and crying. It did so because it reminded me exactly what I have felt during my worst periods of depression. It also may have just done so because it was ultimately such an insignificant part of the overall game and most people will overlook it. In fact, I dont even know if the developers of that game intended that effect seeing as how nothing else in the game had any similar themes.
The reason I felt the need to mention that part of Tales of Hearts R is simple; because it shows that it is not hard to trigger someone who suffers from depression. I have made the point that this town was an insignificant part of the game and I do not even know if there was much focus on it. However, it managed to trigger me far more than Depression Quest ever did. The NPC dialogue in a very irrelevant town in a 40 hour game managed to trigger me, a former depressive, far more than a game whose sole purpose is to educate people about depression. That is simply astonishing!
What Could Have Been
There are so many missed details of depression in Depression Quest that I legitimately wonder if Zoe Quinn or anyone else on the team actually dealt with it. All I can say is that if they did, then they clearly have very little artistic writing ability or they were not all that passionate about this game. Just saying that Depression Quest isnt deep enough is not enough for me. Instead, I want to go into every aspect of this game and dissect exactly how much more could have been done. From here on out, I am going to be looking at stuff that most people would not even notice, and I am leaving no stone unturned.
First of all, let us look at our character or lack thereof. Our main character does not have a name and we are given basically nothing about his personality or back story. However, we apparently need to know specifically that our character has a girlfriend, therefore we know that our main character is either a straight male or a lesbian (and I have a hard time believing the latter was even considered). If our main character was not supposed to have an established personality and was just supposed to be a player self insert, then why have limited options? Are straight women or gay men incapable of being depressed? Okay yes if the option was included then it would only change the text slightly, but that could at least give off the implication that depression is the same for everyone. I suppose that one could argue that the decision to have a male character was due to Zoe Quinns feminist views, and that it was meant to say that even those of a more privileged social status (note that this is not my own belief here, just what the typical beliefs of this ideology are) will still suffer from depression. However, I still find it hard to believe that it was intentional considering the approach of the rest of the game.
As for the idea of having the main character represent the player themselves, it still does not work. It does not work not only because the nature of the game does not allow the player to feel what the main character is feeling, but also because the main character is not the player. In games like Mass Effect where you become your own character and determine his or her choice, or even in games like The Legend of Zelda or Chrono Trigger where you only see the main character express themselves through their animations; this approach works because they are in different settings and you project yourself onto an empty slate, which helps you get drawn into the games world. Depression Quest, however, tries to be the real world and it tries to emulate your life. However, given the fact that it is a game, it cannot take every detail of your personal life and make it so that this game provides the authentic depression experience.
Of course, unless games get to the point where they are able to perfectly understand every mannerism or function of their player and change themselves depending on who they are, such a feat would be impossible. So the best way that anyone could get this to work is to focus on building the character themselves. You make the player get an emotional connection to this character and his or her troubles, and make it so that you feel what he or she feels. This has been common knowledge in fiction for literal millennia, and it certainly has yet to change. Even in games where you tear up at your silent protagonist dying, you are doing so because of the connection that he or she formed with the rest of the cast and because they are sad.
In addition to that, you also end up connecting to these characters due to unique circumstances that one would typically never be involved in. In Depression Quest, your life is made to try and appear as mundane and tedious as possible. The obvious idea is that this is what depressed people feel life, but there is a simple problem with this; depressives do not always feel depressed. Depressed people still feel other emotions occasionally and there is far more to their lives than just depression. Yes depression is a major obstacle that these people face, but it is not the only obstacle. In Depression Quest, however, it IS the only obstacle, and everything starts to get better once your depression is managed.
To give credit where credit is due, there is one aspect of depression that Depression Quest got right. This aspect was that deep states of depression are often a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain that convinces people that their problems are worse on them than they are. To most people, the concept of taking medicine that will suddenly make you feel better sounds absurd due to the fact that it does not make your problems go away. However the common misconception is that depressives are depressed only due to their current obstacles, which is not entirely true. Most skeptics of anti depressants do not realize that medication does not solve all of the patients problems, but it merely helps them solve their problems.
This is expressed properly in game by making it so that seeing a therapist and taking medication is the one true way of managing depression and getting the best ending. Oftentimes, people deciding to not take anti depressants when suffering from profound depression is a self destructive behavior due to the misconception that people can manage depression on their own. Considering that depressives are battling against what theyre own minds are telling them, it really is not a wise choice to try and manage it on your own. So in that aspect I will give Zoe Quinn some credit. Unfortunately, this one correct aspect means nothing to the overall game due to the game failing in a much more important aspect.
A lot of critics of this game have made complaints about the main protagonists depression coming across as emo or whiny. While I have established why this is the case in real life, it still does not mean much when people find it difficult to sympathize with such a person. While it has already been established due to the games approach of telling you how your characters feel, this flaw is still specifically notable because it could give people the impression that it either is not real depression, or that depression in general is just a myth. If this game was made to educate someone about depression, then this should have been anticipated. As a result, you end up with a game whose only purpose is to educate people who do not look deeply at what is put in front of them.
I have not even gotten to the games laughable attempt at presentation yet. First of all, there are no visuals. The entire game uses the same dull beige background that never changes, nor is there any art of any kind. The closest you will get are pictures of stock images that do not even relate to the current story. You have no character art, backgrounds, or anything. There is nothing to give off any sense of atmosphere or immersion. Even the blank black backgrounds of 80s text adventure games were more effective than this. The reason why was because they at least controlled differently than the web page that you probably have in another tab. Depression Quest does not even try to make itself look like a game. Chances are if I were to show you a screenshot of Depression Quest without saying where it was from, no one would believe it was even from a game.
Some may argue that this is more because of the Twine engine rather than because of the game itself. The problem with this argument is that there are ways that Twine could be properly utilized. Twine is an engine that is clearly designed with the purpose of writing a choose your own adventure book rather than a game. If there was a straightforward narrative with characters and actual attempts at quality writing, then I could buy that argument. However, with a game based on atmosphere, the Renpy engine would have been far more appropriate.
The only music in this game is a generic ten second piano loop. The game is described as something that is heavily affected by its audio, which already shows incompetence on the part of the writer when the writing is not enough to make an impact. While it is true that music can be a large part of what impacts a games emotion, it should not be the only thing to drive it. With any type of novel, the writing alone should be enough for the reader to imagine what type of music would be playing in this scene. By saying that you need to rely on a 10 second piano loop, this game is effectively telling you how you need to feel, which only confirms the lack of writing ability this game possesses.
As for the song itself, some could argue that the repetitive nature of it symbolizes the repetitive nature of day to day life and the feelings of helplessness. However, as stated earlier, depressive do not only feel depression and they will still feel happy, angry, calm, etc. Reducing a person down to one emotion is essentially dehumanizing them and playing them up as a stereotype, and quite frankly, not even putting the effort to come up with a song that lasts more than 10 seconds is insulting. This song is also the same song that plays when things start to get better for your protagonist, but the song is so bland that it fits both situations. Some could say that is more of a sense of versatility, but that would only imply that there was no change in the protagonists mood.
I honestly have a hard time believing there was any sense of vision or creativity with this title. I am willing to bet that the creation process behind this game occurred like this. I dont know how to write a story or characters and I dont know how to design a virtual world. Ah I got an idea, how about I make a game about an issue that isnt controversial in the slightest but people will consider progressive. Even better is that if people bash it, I can just say that they dont understand true art. If there was any passion that went into creation, then Zoe must be a very untalented writer to say the least.
It amazes me how any critic, IE someone who is supposed to look deeply at what is put in front of them and look at its inner workings, can say that this is a true work of art. Plenty of games that have been dismissed as being horribly written yet were light years ahead of Depression Quest in terms of writing. Those games also had a sense of atmosphere, immersion, and tried to tackle more than one subject. Depression Quest does not have any significant trait other than it is about depression. It touches upon no other themes, it does not properly show the player what depression is really like, and it does not even inform the player about any significant aspects of depression.
Depression Quest is completely and utterly soulless. I cannot see any legitimate reason that people may have legitimately enjoyed this game other than that it supposedly being for a good cause. The only real things I can give Depression Quest are that it works properly, doesnt last long, and it is not frustrating to play. Seeing as how it is free, there would be nothing lost from playing it. However, saying that Depression Quest deserves praise because it isnt frustrating is like saying someone is a good boyfriend/girlfriend because they dont beat you. Depression Quest has failed at everything it has tried to accomplish, and there is really no reason to play it.
I will admit that I likely would not be writing this if it were not for the fact that this game got as much attention as it did. Admittedly, most people would not have even heard of this game without the amount of controversy its creator was involved in. Despite this though, people have claimed that games like this and Gone Home are causing the industry to become more progressive and that gamers are immature for wanting games to stay the way they are. These people ignore that games have always had the ability to invoke human emotions. We have had that with games like Sweet Home, Earthbound, Final Fantasy 4, 6, and 7 Chrono Trigger, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, Shadow of the Colossus, Lunar the Silver Star, Okami, The Legend of Dragoon, Rhapsody, Secret of Mana, Xenogears, Phantasy Star and more. Even fairly recently we have had games like The Last of Us, Nier, Corpse Party, Ni No Kuni, Xenoblade Chronicles, Persona 4, Portal, To the Moon, Amnesia, The Cat Lady, Actual Sunlight, Time and Eternity, Eversion, Braid, Limbo, Fragile Dreams, Serena, My Name Is Addiction, and plenty more. If anyone honestly thinks that after those games, that we still are incapable of being an artistic medium, then I have to wonder if they even played that many games to begin with. I have already said this when I reviewed Gone Home, but I will say this again here. Games have been capable of being art for years, and they have certainly been capable of being good art. Depression Quest acts as if it is the first game that has tried to be something other than fun, yet it ignores the last thirty years of gaming. It forgets almost every proper writing tool and is amateurish at best. If this were released in any other medium, it would be panned and promptly forgotten.
Honestly, I cant say that I really hate Depression Quest as a game as there is too little substance for me to even muster enough to really feel anything about it. If no one mentioned it after it was released, I probably would not have even bothered to look into how much it fails. However upon looking deeper and deeper, it is possible to tell just how little effort went into this game. It fails in its one an only objective and does not have anything else to stand on. It is more so what it represents that angers me. It baffles me that this game got any attention at all and how people seem to legitimately enjoy it. If it was just someones high school project that got posted on the internet afterwards, I wouldnt be as angry as it as I was. However, it seems as if this game was knowingly made to take advantage of how easily manipulated people are when it comes to these types of games and how they can easily slip low quality by critics simply by pretending to be progressive.
Admittedly, if I really wanted to keep people from playing the game then I probably would have just said nothing instead of drawing attention to it. I fully admit that the only reason that I have made this review is just to express why I cant stand this game, and why I do not think it is a good game. If someone does enjoy it, I have nothing against them despite my large disposition against the game itself. I just, for the life of me, would not be able to see why. This type of review is, admittedly, based a lot more on personal emotion than by objectivity. While there is still an element of the latter, I feel that I needed to get my feelings of this game off my chest. At this point it is rather redundant to say not to play the game, especially seeing as how it is free. However, this review is more so a suggestion to take a deeper look at what is put in front of you and to think more about what you play, read or watch, and to not let other decided for you.
Rating: 1.5 - Bad
Product Release: Depression Quest (US, 08/11/14)
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