Depression Quest, The Novelist, and Choice

About a month and a half ago, right around the release of The Fault in Our Stars and the start of yet another round of the Young Adult fiction discussion – a debate that, in many ways, mirrors the discussion surrounding video games as a mature cultural pursuit – The New Yorker featured this article on Henry James, the novel, and the subject of YA fiction. It was the concluding paragraph that hooked me:

Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us. Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.

Leaving aside the last sentence (which, like the conclusion to their article on video games, “Painkiller Deathstreak,” from the summer of 2010, is frustrating in its condescension), Christopher Beha has a delicious point: as we grow older, we are rewarded with the refinement of our tastes, or the development of an ability to explore and appreciate new, nuanced ones.

It’s a point that is especially salient right now as the subculture is troubled by the fiasco known as Gamergate. Though it is ostensibly a grassroots movement committed to the promotion of ethical journalism in video games (aside: I am reminded of the following joke, “Why are the fights so bitter in academia? Because the stakes are so small) there’s more to it than that. As this fantastic Foldable Ideas video argues, one side of the strife is founded on the idea that the current state of gaming (which is a nebulous concept itself, given the sheer explosion of games available) is fine the way it is – and is even justified by the idea that it is some sort of natural ecosystem, the gestalt combination of user preferences, cultural trends, and so on. I like to frame the debate between those who are content with a relative lack of complexity, and those who want to throw open the doors to new voices and new vantage points – particularly those that have occupied marginalized positions in the past.

There are a host of reasons to be opposed to Gamergate – such as the fact that its catalyst was a scurrilous screed by a bitter ex, or the fact that its initial confrontation was over a conflict of interest that simply did not exist, or the rampant outbursts of furious misogyny – but, personally speaking, it is this point that I find most evocative: that the debate on outsider perspectives in games be quashed. Foldable Ideas expertly outlines this reductionism by rewriting 4Chan’s “Everyone is Anonymous” creed as “Everyone is Default.” Put another way, one side of the debate tacitly accepts that there is a conventional mould in video games that must express a conventional perspective, or a general perspective, or some equally vague yet eroded and common outlook.

Unfortunately, the opposing side in the controversy will argue that its opponents are the ones who are really reducing the medium by demanding that games absorb and present a leftist agenda. Granted, there is nothing new about two sides of a controversy employing the same mechanisms to promote their viewpoint (example: the pro-Gamergate side’s talking point vis-à-vis the slew of death threats directed towards Quinn, Sarkesian, and other women is the fact that actors on both sides are receiving death threats). But context is everything: the fact that the debate, presumably about journalistic ethics, began with a spiteful post by a bitter ex-boyfriend while also giving momentum to a latent misogyny sadly inherent to our culture means one side is irrevocably tainted. The marrow is rotten, and its crutches (journalistic ethics!) are so comparatively small in relation to the furor as to be ridiculous.

But not all proponents of Gamergate are vitriolic anti-feminists, nor are they concerned with maintaining a point of view that solely supports a dumbing-down of video game criticism. Hulk Smash Film Critic has dealt with this point with more nuance, thought, and compassion than I would ever be able to express. But amid all the fury, I thought it would be interesting to actually play the game that started all of this noise and see what it was all about.

Depression Quest is a game centred around the choices the player makes for a personal stand-in who suffers from depression. Much has already been made of the way in which these choices are – depending on the severity of your depression – unavailable for the player, while the first choice remains permanently unavailable as an expression of the character’s inability to just “shake it off” and act with reflexive enthusiasm or passion.

We make much of player agency in video games, though often without recognizing that this freedom is restricted by the bounds of the game’s character; good games offer choices that reflect meaningfully on its thematic imperative, as in the case of Spec Ops: The Line. There, each choice is something like Sophie’s Choice: there are no good options, merely bad ones. Do you kill the refugee or the soldier? Do you let Riggs, the CIA operative, die a slow death or offer him a quick out? The unjust confines of each binary decision are meant to feed into your growing anger at Konrad, who, because he is the villain, is the one responsible for your being forced to make the choice in the first place. You have to shoot either the soldier or the refugee because Conrad is literally telling you to chose – even if you take the unspoken third option of shooting the snipers (in which case the prisoners die regardless). The thematic payoff for these choices comes at the end, when you realize that there was no hand forcing you into position, that it was always Walker’s choice to begin with.

This care with regards to the meaning of player choice is different from the mechanics in, say the saint-or-sinner binary of Mass Effect or Fable. The one limits your options in favour of making a point; the other offers you similarly limited options while saying, somewhat disingenuously, “Go ahead and express yourself within these confines!” Depression Quest falls into the former category. It creates an organic framework that feeds off of your decisions, making the resulting experience the whole point of the game. Unlike in Mass Effect, where, regardless of the choices you make, you have to be thrust forward to the next segment of a carefully scripted plot, these choices can drastically alter the game’s narrative. Yes, you follow the same series of narrative vignettes, but the increasing number of crossed-off options effectively carries across the sense of falling into a pit of despair, and the tone of the responses to your choices steadily gets darker and more desperate.

Indeed, the flavour of Depression Quest’s choice system reminds me of the 2013 game The Novelist, as in both games the thrust of the choice system lies in its emotional impact. The narrative result of your decisions in The Novelist are almost an afterthought, brought to the player’s attention in short, written segments at the end of every game month. The game’s main point is to merely ask how you should prioritize each character’s desires, ambitions, and needs: do you let Linda, the wife, go to her grandmother’s funeral by herself? Do you take time out to give Tommy, the son, the encouragement and attention a young child needs? How do you mesh this with Dan’s need to finish his book? Who gets what they desire, and who gets left out in the cold?

The level of variation this kind of choice allows for lets the player bring more to the game than the binary system of Mass Effect. On my first time through the game, I sacrificed much to Tommy because I have certain ideas about the moral duty of parents. I can foresee other players who, more moved by Dan’s desire to write a brilliant novel, prioritized the writer over the other two characters. And, of course, there are many other overarching approaches to the game’s questions. But the particularization of each choice makes it difficult to find any easy answer. The resonance of each decision – both in terms of itself and the way they knit together over the whole narrative – give you more room to express yourself, to plumb your own emotions and values.

At first I viewed the fact that The Novelist and Depression Quest have similar kinds of choices as a point against the latter: I thought The Novelist does a better job in drawing out emotional complexity with its demands on the player. Balancing the needs of a marriage, a career, and a child was more harrowing than the comparatively simple needs of working my way towards some semblance of emotional stability. But, I realized, that’s an unfair comparison: the weight of each game’s mechanisms of choice are sui generis. Depression Quest’s decisions reflect the game’s more personal concern, as it is merely trying to help the player understand one single facet of living with depression. It does not try to do more than this, and should not be judged by another standard.

The game does not necessarily depict this struggle as a solitary venture – one of the ways you can pull yourself out of the hole is to rely on your network of support (girlfriend, brother, online friend, cat) that you build within the game – but at the same time, the choices ask you to do everything for yourself. There is, often, a loneliness present in Depression Quest that is absent from The Novelist, which is appropriate: the latter, regardless of the decisions made, is concerned with a family unit – three in one – while the former is just one person’s struggle. We must not mistake solitariness for simplicity, and each work deserves to be judged by the criteria it assigns itself.

Of course, the systems of choice present in Mass Effect, Fable, The Novelist, and Depression Quest are not necessarily representative of two different species, but rather two ends of a spectrum. The first two games allow the player to bring themselves into the game in a manner similar to that of the last two – but the player’s space is so much smaller when the only choice is between black and white, as opposed to the various shades that the latter two games allow for. Simply put, there is more room for nuance in Depression Quest and The Novelist than there is in Fable.

That being said, it’s no electronic titan. Kyle Wagner is halfway correct when he writes “that Depression Quest was not a good game so much as a critic-proof gesture at one,” in that the game’s personal nature (the way in which it represents only one person’s struggle with depression) insulates it from the discussion of whether or not it is representative of the broader issue of depression, whether it is useful, or what-have-you. But it is aware of what it does, and the way in which its system of choices reflect the game’s overall concern with the difficulty of dragging yourself out of a depressive hole.

Overall, Depression Quest is an interesting, somewhat novel use of the medium to transmit a sense of just what it feels like to suffer from depression. Again, I do not think that it will go down in the gaming canon as some sort of masterpiece – it strikes me as something of a ‘safe’ game, one that treats a subject with care, poise, sincerity, and respect, but only that. It has none of the profound depth of the discussions of depression in, say, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

But it should not be chastised for its smallness. It merely tries to take one life, one facet, and make that singularity understandable. But in its careful smallness, it has a nuance that is becoming more and more frequent in games: in The Novelist, Papers, Please, and, perhaps, the upcoming This War of Mine. It is a part of the movement from adolescent power-fantasies towards a more mature pensiveness and deliberation. In the end, I wonder whether that is what the whole Gamergate debacle is about in the first place: an unwillingness to let go of that adolescence, first on the part of Quinn’s ex, and then on the part of a segment of the gaming population.