Depression Quest is a game about a serious disorder. Rather than making light of the issue (as the name might suggest), it uses the powerful potential of role-playing to help the player understand a mental condition that’s easily dismissed and derided.
My father suffers from a chemical imbalance in his brain. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, mostly by choice: he doesn’t get out much and has trouble making meaningful connections with others and doesn’t seem to mind. His actions often seem bizarre or lacking in pattern. The transition from child-like wonder and admiration for your hero to one of embarrassment is a difficult one. I remember making a secret vow in bitterness never to be like my father, a promise that has eroded our relationship over time.
But playing Depression Quest has led me to break that promise. I spent 30 minutes in a depressed person’s shoes. I have become, for a brief period of time, my father.
Our culture doesn’t have much patience with those who suffer from depression. It sees their illness and expects them to get over it and get on with their lives. Games often reflect this expectation by being competitive and skill based, offering up “chosen one” savior fantasies and critical thinking puzzles. These games expect players to overcome challenges by digging deep within themselves and finding the tools and strength to succeed.
But you don’t have what it takes to succeed in Depression Quest. You don’t succeed by your own skill or cunning. You can’t save the world when you can’t bear to get out of bed.
You are not the chosen one.
The titular quest of Depression Quest isn’t to prove you have what it takes to save the world, but to understand an illness that by its own nature robs you of the power to help yourself. I found myself frustrated when the “best” dialogue options were crossed out. I knew that the best way to defeat depression was by telling someone about it and seeking help, but the option wasn’t a possibility, at least not yet.
I suspect that most people who don’t suffer from mental illness are most frustrated by those who do when they can’t just “snap out of it,” as if it’s just a matter of having the right attitude and hunkering down. Recently I spoke with the director of an Alzheimer society who pointed out to me that you wouldn’t tell a woman with a broken arm to “just get over it” and start swinging a tennis racket again. Like a bone or tendon physically severed or disconnected from itself, they explained, it takes time to heal. Why, then, do we heap unrealistic expectations on a person with a mental illness?
The player “beats” Depression Quest in the same way that many work to heal mental illness in real life: by admitting that they cannot help themselves and seeking out the help of others. It’s a frightening proposition, an admittance of dependence and frailty, and the reality that it can’t be done on our own.
There are steps the injured must take to regain mobility and strength, and none of those steps come without pain. Playing the game, it becomes obvious that “winning” is a matter of baby steps, the meager actions of admitting your illness, and taking the next step. Some fights can’t be won with a knockout punch, but by keeping your fists up, day after day, hour after hour.
In many ways, I am beginning to view my father through the prism of grace and understanding, and in turn my embarrassment has transitioned into compassion. When he fails to meet my expectations, I no longer feel angry and confused. Instead, I imagine that some of his options were grayed out; he knew what a perfect father would do, but simply couldn’t, not yet.