“Literally Horrible”: Depression Quest’s illusion of choice

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Depression Quest is a choose-your-own adventure story with a twist, and an important message.

Length: Approx. 10 minutes per playthrough
Devices: Browser-Based
Technology: Twine
Price: Free, with suggested donation

Depression Quest is an award-winning browser-based work that puts you in the position of someone suffering from depression. While at heart a conventional “choose-your-own-adventure” story, this piece is powerful in how it emulates the disorder; by hindering your ability to make certain choices, it illustrates how a depressed person’s mental state can fluctuate, moving towards hope or despair.

The piece’s interface consists primarily of paragraphs that tell the main narrative. Above the text, images, presented as Polaroid pictures, serve as visual shorthand for each page’s content. The soundtrack, pegged to how the main character feels, becomes distorted and glitchy as his/her mental state declines. At the bottom of the screen, three blocks of grey static summarize the protagonist’s condition and state whether he/she is seeing a therapist or taking medication.

An opening quote from author David Foster Wallace opens the piece.

A quote from author David Foster Wallace, who suffered from depression, sets the tone for the piece.

Depression Quest lays bare a paradox faced by many sufferers of depression: it takes effort to go out and get treatment, but the depression itself hinders all attempts at making that effort. To show this, when faced with a decision, you’re given several choices, presented as clickable links below the text; however, The protagonist’s mental state renders some of these links as inaccessible.

The fact that the prohibited options are still readable teases you with unobtainable possibilities. There is another world out there beyond the dull gray of depression, but it can only be glimpsed: the condition itself forbids any further access.

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The Polaroids are obscured by a veil of visual snow that intensifies as the protagonist’s mental state declines.

This mechanic – hinting at possibilities beyond the user’s reach – is introduced at the very beginning of the piece. The first option of four is always inaccessible; qs you get farther in, more and more options can become blocked off based on how badly the protagonist’s mental state has deteriorated.

In some playthroughs, there comes a point at which there are no meaningful choices anymore, no way to get help and no way to reach out to anyone. The options are always there in theory, but the piece prevents you from making any such positive choices.

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Even though the first option cannot be selected, it is still important: it establishes what the protagonist is unable to choose based on his/her condition.

If the user can get the protagonist to reach out to other characters, the narrative slowly becomes less crushing; it reveals the option to see a therapist and go on medication, actions that can have a profound effect on the protagonist’s mental state, as well as open up more options for the user. By being able to select choices that would have otherwise been blocked off, the player can guide the protagonist towards a better ending.

The piece doesn’t suddenly become sunshine and rainbows – the music is still somber and the images are still hidden behind a veil of visual snow – but things become manageable, maybe even not bad. And, for many people, not bad is something to hope for.

Editor’s note: This piece was created in part by game developer Zoë Quinn, who faced harassment after releasing the game and was at the center of the GamerGate controversy.

About the author

Roman Kalinovski

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