Many years ago, as a rather geeky teenager, I was given a homework project to do for computing class. I was told I could either buddy up with the girl who sat next to me in class – one of the hottest girls in the school, as it happened – or do my own solo project.
Naturally, like all good awkward spotty teenagers faced with a choice between spending lots of time close to the pretty girl or spending lots of time alone at my computer, I chose to do my own solo project: a quiz game written in HyperCard. A quiz game based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
That was 20 years ago, so I was surprised to find the spirit of amateur HyperCard applications alive in one of the most talked-about games of 2014: “Depression Quest”, free on Steam.
Though calling Depression Quest a game is stretching the definition of the word somewhat. It’s more of a series of text descriptions tied together with hypertext links. A bit like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, but without the adventure.
Entertainment, however, is not the purpose of Depression Quest.
To be fair to the game, it is honest about its intentions. The first page tells you that “This game is not meant to be a fun or a lighthearted experience”, and explains that its goals are to illustrate the nature of depression to non-sufferers and to present “as real a simulation of depression as possible” to hopefully comfort people afflicted by depression.
Unfortunately for Depression Quest, fun or lighthearted experiences are what most people are looking for in their games. But they’re not the only things most gamers look for: interesting graphics, immersive sound, novel or challenging gameplay, and a compelling story can also make a game worth your time. Depression Quest fails on all of these criteria.
The graphics are limited to a small stock photo mounted above a wall of text, set against a grey background.
The effect is similar to a mid 1990’s website, but without the “Under Construction” or dancing baby gifs.
The sound is limited to a few dull piano keys plinking mournfully in the background.
Gameplay is nonexistent. You get to click on a meagre choice of hyperlinks that take you to the next text card, and… that’s it. Depending on which options you choose, your character will either become more depressed or less depressed.
And the story is thin gruel indeed. You play a Depressed Person. You have a job and a girlfriend. You might get a cat. You will either get the “happy” ending of being slightly less depressed after choosing to go to therapy and take antidepressants, or you’ll get the “bad” ending where you don’t.
The Last of Us, this is not.
Playing this game is like going to a restaurant where they warn you at the door that their food is both bland and disgusting: at least they warned you, but the question would remain – why would anybody intentionally run a terrible restaurant in the first place? And why would you go in?
The game wants to be judged on its own terms, which is understandable, because by any objective measure it is a terrible game. And yet, admitting to its own lack of gaming value doesn’t mean it is exempt from criticism on that point. An awful singer doesn’t become any less objectionable just because he cheerfully lets you know he can’t hold a tune, right before blasting your eardrums with a rendition of Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’.
But even when we judge the game on the terms it wants to be judged by, it fails.
The story presented in Depression Quest reads more like a moody goth kid’s facile understanding of depression than it does a serious description of the problem. And as someone who has suffered from clinically diagnosed depression his entire adult life, take it from me: this game is the last thing I’d recommend to anyone to “comfort” them. It would almost certainly make them feel worse.
Text-based games have been around for more than 30 years, but Depression Quest manages to be less interactive, less entertaining, and less skilfully made than 1982’s The Hobbit (which you can play for free, here.)
This isn’t a game, it’s an anti-game. It’s the antithesis of everything games strive to be. The very act of calling it a “game” and putting it on Steam brings to mind the chutzpah of postmodernist shysters who present a blank canvas or recorded silence as art.
If Depression Quest is a game worthy of being on Steam, so is my 1990’s HyperCard Star Trek Quiz – which at least had a scoring mechanism. Hey everyone, I’m a game developer! Where’s my Kotaku review?
Summary of Depression Quest:
- Easy to delete
- Supports gamepads(!)
- Zero artistic or entertainment value
- Teaches you nothing about depression
- You could make something better yourself in a spare half hour
Steve’s rating: DEPRESSING.