This article is part of the “Critical Exemplars” features series. For the previous series, “Better Game Culture,” click here.
Whenever I’m defining what games are with new students, usually, someone mentions that games must be fun. I love it when this happens because it’s the perfect entryway into getting students to start thinking critically and reflectively about games and gaming. The discussion requires clarification on what “fun” means and whether games really have to be it. I usually argue that if we treat games as an expressive medium like film, we can apply the same standards of criticism on them. Not all films must be fun (think Schindler’s List), so why should all games be fun? In the last year or so, my go-to example to challenge this existing definition of games is Depression Quest (DQ) (before that it was usually Hush).
Depression Quest is an amazing game.
Depression Quest is an exemplar of a new wave of text-based games that includes interactive fiction (Lost Pig), game-books (Sorcery!), and visual novels (Analogue: A Hate Story). Unlike many mainstream games, DQ is about a serious topic that is a deeply personal issue for many people. Players make life decisions for the protagonist, reading vignettes from daily life and choosing different options, just like in old school 80’s Choose Your Own Adventure books. The genius is that the designers (Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler) show players a list of choices–some good, some bad–but don’t actually allow players to choose certain ones based on the protagonist’s current depression level, which itself is based on players’ previous choices and experiences.
As a metaphor for what it’s actually like to suffer from depression, it works wonderfully.
And I don’t mean just a depressed mood. Sure, as Jim Gee said at last year’s GLS, we’d be stupid and uncritical of life if we never suffered from depression sometimes. What I mean is different. The actual debilitating disease that affects *a ton* of people and that’s often misidentified and mis-treated.
My partner suffers from depression, and it’s an issue we’ve been dealing with off and on for nearly two decades. Luckily, she’s extremely self-aware and educated and continually seeks progress and improvement and adapts to changing conditions. This past week, however, has been particularly horrible, we think because of a change in medication. She has about thirty to sixty minutes of energy every day and spends most of her time in bed. Over the years, her depression has been variously exacerbated by fibromyalgia, a slipped disc, sciatica, and bursitis on her hips. Yeah. Fun. Some years she’ll be well enough to work part time, but mostly we live off my parents since my semi-stalled academic “career” isn’t really that lucrative (ha!).
Over the years, I’ve gone through phases of understanding and patience. Sometimes I saw myself as this great stoic guy, other times I got really angry, and yet other times I found myself exhilarated by conferences and going out, meeting new people, being social, and wishing for things to be different. What’s frustrating for many people with loved ones who suffer from depression, myself included, is that there’s not really much we can do about it other than just being supportive and understanding.
But before Depression Quest, I don’t think I really knew what it meant to be understanding. The game was extremely enlightening, and then reading discussion boards about the game really solidified my thinking and feeling about depression. These experiences with the game and the ecology around the game helped me move into new levels of understanding. The game helped me experience what it’s like to suffer from depression, and the online forums helped me reflect on that experience in a way I’ve never done with a game before. Seriously, I’ve been an avid gamer for thirty years. Depression Quest is the most important game I’ve played. More important than the game I studied for my Ph.D.
The game really does a good job of building understanding… and getting people depressed. Really. Another player, writing about the game, commented on how the options that could be seen but not chosen is exactly what it feels like to know what you’re supposed to do but just can’t. It’s like literally having your hands tied behind your back and unable to do anything. The feeling of disempowerment is pretty overwhelming from the perspective of a loved one who can’t do much except be there. For people who actually suffer from depression, the game can be empowering (but also has a massive trigger potential, so… careful).
And, to be sure, I spent quite a bit of time reading DQ’s Tumblr tag (before it disappeared) and also found a couple of other online discussion threads that talked about the game, including one in a web support community for depression and anxiety. I’m not including any quotes since so many of the posters were so frank and naked in their discussions, but, suffice to say, there is a place for all the feels on the Internet, and I have found it. (And Steam forums IS NOT it.)
So. Depression Quest is my go-to game to highlight what games can be (and that they don’t have to be fun). It’s also the perfect exemplar of when the gameplay matches exactly well the learning intent in a serious game.
By the end of the game, players get a nice wrap-up epilogue that lets them know how they did in the game, and if they chose well gives hope for the future. That hope exists on multiple layers of meaning, extending far outside the bounds of the game.
 Depression Quest, created in Twine, is a great example, also, of a low-fi game that doesn’t require much programming to make. Like with tabletop game design, Twine and other text adventure game making tools (e.g., Inform, Inklewriter, Ren’py) mostly require logical thinking and dedication. They also require good writing and therefore make perfect games to incorporate into an English or humanities classroom.
 The Choose Your Own Adventure and visual novel medium, when crafted well, really packs a lot of meaning in a small filesize. Meaning per bit… maybe that should be our new standard? If you could only pack one thumb drive with you on a deserted island, which games would you include? Going with text-based adventure games would get you the highest potential meaning-making moments to experience before you die of starvation.