After this weekend’s post on whether video games can be art (and/or good art), I thought I’d check out Depression Quest. The game is somewhat infamous because designer Zoe Quinn’s ex publicly attacked her on some message board or other, and then other folks joined in because (as far as I can tell) they hate women and possibly because the idea of a video game in which you don’t shoot people frightens them? I am unafraid of video games in which you don’t shoot people, though, so I went ahead and played it.
Depression Quest has an ambitious concept, especially for a video game; it’s intended to give you a sense of what it’s like to live with depression. It’s a text adventure, which positions you as a middle-class, college-educated alterna-sort, of indeterminate gender, working a minimum-wage job and struggling to get through the day. You have a more outgoing girlfriend, a loving if not especially sympathetic mom, a more successful and friendly brother, some online friends and some actual physical friends. The game wends along, describing your anxiety, neurosis, and general inability to cope. This is a typical passage.
“A couple hours later the two of you find yourselves in a familiar position: on the couch, watching comedy shows on Netflix, a box of pizza open on the coffee table in front of you. As you look across the couch at her, you start to feel anxious. You feel bad about effectively forcing the two of you to stay in tonight, again. While you are always appreciative of your partner’s efforts to take your feelings into account and help make sure you’re socially comfortable, you sincerely worry that you’re holding her back from enjoying a more fulfilling relationship.
So…is it art?
I would say that yes, absolutely, Depression Quest is art. It’s true that its goals are more social and educational than purely aesthetic — but lots of art works towards social and educational goals (The Jungle; The Handmaid’s Tale; James Baldwin’s essays, and on and on.) The game works to create empathy and understanding, and to create and examine emotional states. Those are all recognizable aesthetic goals. It’s definitely art. The question, though, is whether it’s good art.
Here the answer is a lot less certain. Again, I’m impressed by the concept; the idea of using a game to explore mental illness is exciting, and using interactive fiction seems like an intuitively promising way to do so. Mental illness is difficult for people to sympathize with because for folks who aren’t mentally ill it’s hard to put yourself in the brain of somebody who is. Using a game to force that identification, to put you in the place of someone making those choices, seems like it has the potential to create empathy and understanding in a way that less immersive art forms, from novels to film, do not.
Again, that’s the theory. The practice doesn’t exactly hold up though. In part this is because, as it turns out, games are not as immersive as fiction — or at least this one isn’t. Quinn deliberately leaves a lot of the game details open-ended. Your minimum wage job isn’t specified; the project you’re working pursuing on your own time isn’t specified; even your girlfriend is vague around the edges — she offers sympathy, or retreats, or wants sex, but there’s never a descriptive passage which makes her come to life as a separate, individual character, the way there would be in a good novel. This lack of detail is undoubtedly deliberate, it’s meant (like your own non-specified gender) to make the story resonate as widely as possible.
For me, at least, though, it just made the scenario seem schematic and uninvolving. Why do I care what my girlfriend thinks when she isn’t a person? How can I feel how numbing my job is if I don’t even know what I’m doing for a living? The world is too indistinct for me to care about engaging with it. The character I’m supposed to be simply isn’t vivid enough for me to care about him or her, even if he or she is supposed to be me. (The moody anonymous Somber Piano Music is perhaps meant to bridge this gap. It does not.)
The problems only get worse when you have to make choices. At each turning point, Quinn gives you a number of alternatives, as in Choose-Your-Own Adventure books — but in some cases, the choices are crossed out, because, when you’re depressed, you often can’t do the thing you know you should, whether it’s loosening up and sleeping with your girlfriend or telling your mom you’re really sad and need help.
It’s a clever conceit…but again, not clever enough. The limited choices are supposed to give you a sense of what it is to be depressed — but the problem is,you still have choices, and it’s easy to figure out what your best remaining options are. Adopt the cat, see the therapist, take your meds, try to be as outgoing and honest and open as you can. Pick the right options, and things turn out more or less okay. That isn’t what it feels like to be depressed, I’m pretty sure — and it’s also misleading, insofar as (from everything I’ve heard from friends with mental illness) not all therapists are good thereapists and getting a bad one can be miserable, and meds are unpredictable and can make things worse in various ways if you’re just a little bit unlucky with your body chemistry. Despite those crossed-out choices, Depression Quest makes depression seem like something you can choose your way out of. It makes depression look easy.
The very things that seem like they might make Depression Quest especially effective — the open-endedness, the interactivity — instead make it banal and emotionally unaffecting. In contrast, art which is more specific and more controlled — like, say, Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” or the brutal suicide scene in Sooyeon Won’s Korean comic “Let Dai” — are a lot more engaging, and a lot more harrowing. Even the infamous depression sequence in Twilight, where Bella just mopes and mopes and mopes, seems like it works better — it feels tedious and frustrating and you just want her to get over it and she doesn’t and it goes on and you want her to get over it and it goes on — you’re trapped with her, this person you don’t really like who is behaving irrationally and won’t stop and there’s nothing you can do. You can’t make the best choice, or the second best choice, or any choice. You’re in a particular consciousness that isn’t working right, and there’s no way out. In Kafka, say, time slows down and expands, till you’re dragging on interminably, pulling an ugly insect body behind you. The specificity of the experience and the lack of options are precisely the point; as a reader, you’re nailed to this particular self and its decisions, or lack of decisions — your own interaction with the story can be seen or read as a metaphor for the experience of mental illness.
This makes it sound like books, or comics, have an innate formal advantage over games in the depiction of, or examination of, depression. I doubt that’s really the case; there are plenty of crappy depictions of mental illness in non-games, after all. I do think that Depression Quest’s aesthetic goals and its formal choices end up being at odds with one another. The game is a good idea, and it points in some interesting directions, but on its own terms, as art, I think it’s mostly a failure.
Edit: Please note that this thread is not an invitation to talk about Quinn personally, or Gamergate, or etc. The post is about Depression Quest and video games as art; comments that are off topic will be deleted.