I don’t remember quite how I stumbled across Depression Quest that morning.
(TW: Depression, anxiety, panic)
I first heard about it during the introductions for the Queering Your Games panel at this year’s GDC. I barely knew anything about the presenters. Cris was excited at so many cool people at the table. But hey. I’m queer, and I was frustrated by no dearth of doom in my experience at GDC up to that point, and I couldn’t help peeking my head in, even though every other thing I’d “peeked my head in” at up until that point was pretty merciless with its passive affronts on my identities (but that’s a story for another day). The name of the game provoked a chuckle, of course; I have something of a morbid sense of humor, and also, indie games tend to have rather cleverer titles than many others. But after that — and Zoe Quinn’s harrowingly conspiratorial banter about Jeff Goldblum at Lost Levels later that day — I largely put it from my mind. Work was to be busy when I returned to the East Coast, so I had, as They say, bigger fish to fry.
Until one day about two weeks later, that is, when I was procrastinating on going in to that very job. I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, and at its worst, it manifests in a crippling social anxiety that prevents me from being a good friend and fulfilling social commitments, or going first to school as a young child and then to work as a young adult (which, naturally, tends to exacerbate the problem). It was one of those familiar 9 o’clocks. It was a familiar shortness of breath followed by a longness of surfing the Internet to find that breath again. I don’t quite remember how I stumbled across Depression Quest that morning.
The game’s description, on the Depression Quest website, says that “This game aims to show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.” It’s a way for people who aren’t living with depression to understand those other humans who do; it’s also a mirror with which to understand ourselves. I clicked the link.
Some part of me was intending to be triggered that morning, I think. When I’m upset, I want to make it worse. It feels as though life is uncontrolled, unfettered, and so I figure wryly to myself that I might as well have the say in how sad I am rather than have other circumstances dictate it for me. Depression and anxiety are, for me, largely about that control. And hence, some part of me was intending to make my situation worse. But then the screen opened up to a staticky Twine game — Twine, which gives you that agency to choose from an assorted list of dialogue trees and in this case up to 150 potential outcomes.
I wanted to play it wrong.
As I clicked through, grumbling to myself about how accurate this felt (as everyone’s been saying since its 2013 release), grumbling to myself that my brain is terrible and wrong, I really wanted to click all the things I knew I shouldn’t do. I wanted to click to stay in bed rather than go to work; I wanted to click to not go to the therapist; I wanted to click to go off my meds. I wanted to click because I knew those were the things I probably would do, and are things I have done in the past and will probably do again in the future, because depression tells you what’s right and then takes away your ability to choose to do it, and so, seemingly inevitably, you make the wrong decisions. You forget that you don’t have to do what the crotchety little voice in your head or in your heart is telling you.
Yet as the game progressed, instead I picked the options that seemed “correct,” the options that I knew would lead me into a recovery of stasis (as in depression, like with so many other things like it, you never fully get better; you merely learn to fight better). Having these choices laid out before me with a certain distance from them, being able to empathize with the nameless, genderless main character’s plight while not necessarily being trapped within it beyond caring about the game’s outcome, I was able to make the better decisions for both of us, as our fates were bound up together in these words on the screen. With no name or gender, I was able to place myself squarely in the protagonist’s position. I was questing for improvement, for a way to discover text-based happiness, for both of us.
The fact that it was a Twine game, which gives you as much time as you need to click on predetermined choices and not have to type in a solution or have an antsy main character waiting for your direction, helped me see other options in my own life, too. You can see everything spread before you, read it out loud, read it in your head, think for a while, turn off the background music if necessary, and ponder: which of these seems best for me? For the story we’re writing together? For the goal I have in mind? And then you choose, the consequences become clear, and you can remove yourself again to think of your next move. If only life had such an option! — One could argue that it does, but it’s so hard to remember that sometimes, isn’t it? With the ability to turn off the game and go drink some water if it got overwhelming, I was able to see the choices objectively, as one may find difficult caught in the middle of her or his own story.
There was an end point in the game that I was fighting towards, an end point which gave me a lens to understand my own situation from, and I found myself choosing the options that led to recovery rather than the options I knew would lead to failure and convince myself further into thinking there was no way out, as that part of me that wanted to be triggered was so desperately seeking. And I felt better, at least for a little while — not because I needed to know other people understood, but because I finally had the ability to make choices within depression. I finally had agency again.
(It’s so hard to write about these things and feel like you’re doing it any justice.)