Warning: This review contains several spoilers.
I am a Bipolar 1 sufferer. As such I have gone through several deep depressions, and have tried to take my own life on occasions. After the last one I sought help, and I am now medicated. As someone who has dealt with depression, Depression Quest appealed to me. I absolutely devour books, and really believe in their immersive nature. You know that feeling as you read, where you pass the final chapter and you realise that nothing will ever be the same, I was looking for that.
The first time I played Depression Quest alone in the dark, in my bed, I was willing it to suck me straight in. It started off well. The piano playing really works to sink you into a low mood, and the plain grey textures and palate are reminiscent of so many nights staring at computer screens looking for answers. As a dyslexic the font was easy to read, if a little too “fun” looking for my taste. The photography works well however, but the constant reference to weather, again distanced myself from the narrative, especially if for example it was hot when I felt cold. I tried to role play as if I was in the middle of a depressive episode.
However, once the story began I started to encounter problems. You straight away meet your partner Alex. How shrewd of the developers I thought to give them a genderless name, only for her to be pointed out as female a few lines later. While I am aware of the existence of lesbians, I am not one, and so I immediately pictured the protagonist as “not me”. He was a tall, white, guy with messy brown hair that I mentally named “Alix”. When he was in his apartment, it was not my apartment, when he walked to work, it was not my work, and the city was not even in the country in which I live. There are several disconnects which further distance yourself from Alix. His internet friend “attic”, is labeled as male, then female, then male again. He is told to go home from his job early as “the place is dead” suggesting retail, but later he is working on a project for work suggesting an office job. To me Alix worked in a video rental store, somewhere I have no experience working.
While I understand, as the developers describe at the start, that everyone’s depression is different, I found it hard to relate to several aspects of Alix’s personality. While I understood his desire to not want to go out, the exhaustion, the self loathing, the comfort in animals and the sleepless nights looking at the internet, there were several symptoms which didn’t fit. He never slept, where I would regularly sleep 16 hours a day, he refused, and the game did not allow you, to talk to anyone about your depression or suicidal thoughts, where as I told everyone and felt completely numb to their awkward reactions, and I guess most damning of all, he refused to seek help, not because like me, he thought he was better than it and could beat it on his own, but because he hated himself.
I enjoyed the fact that several productive options were crossed out. It helped to remind me that when you are depressed you often can’t do the things that you know are the best for you. However, as the story goes on, almost all options are crossed out forcing you to pick the one remaining. I felt that this was supposed to leave you frustrated at yourself for how impotent you are in your depression, however, I only felt frustrated at Alix for not doing what I want, and mostly frustrated at the developers for what I felt was lazy story telling. Without being given options to drive the story, you feel even further from the protagonist and it sucks you out of the story completely.
In the end Alix remained depressed. While I understood that the developers wanted to show that depression never ends, I felt the game could have been more powerful if it showed the power of medication. Becoming medicated it the best thing that ever happened for my depression. I take part in an online course which reminds me how important my medication is and encourages me to keep taking it. If Alix had finally medicated, his thoughts become clearer, and he started to pick his life back up then I feel the game would have been a much stronger tool in helping people cope with depression rather than just trying to make people feel depressed.
On my second play through, where I tried to help Alix by doing everything from the position of a sane person, I found I could medicate him, get him into therapy and even move in with Alex. This to me made me feel that if someone without depression played, they would find it easy to get help, where as someone with depression would only have the idea that they are worthless compounded into them.
This made me feel a bit of a failure at Depression Quest as I made all the wrong decisions, and if it had been more immersive might have been extremely problematic for a depression sufferer. Basically, if you role play as someone with depression, it ends with Alix pretty much suicidal, where as, if you act as productively as possible, you can end up in therapy and medicated. This idea was problematic for me, as if I had only played through once, and I was currently depressed, I would have seen no way out. There is no win or fail state in depression and there should not be in a depiction of it.
Mainly, I just feel the game had many good ideas, and is a good starting point, but faltered in completely immersing me, and so when it ended I was just glad to say goodbye to Alix and his choiceless life. I felt it was problematic for those suffering from depression, but I know not everyone would feel the same. I would be interested in seeing it developed into a series of different people, with different experiences of depression, but also to offer solutions for those suffering from depression; a way out, even if they make all the wrong decisions.
I applaud the idea, but the execution is poor. Sane people will find it easy to recover, while sufferers will see no way out.