Depression Quest

Depression Quest was released earlier in August. I don’t suffer from depression myself, but I know plenty of people that do. A number of friends and my father included. These are my thoughts.  

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Depression Quest is a game structured upon a simple premise that tackles the very complex subject of mental illness. Depression is an affliction that is responsible the breakdown of families and relationships and in the worst case scenarios suicide. Traditionally, depression as with many other mental illnesses is not a subject that people like to talk about at length, let alone admit to. Yet every so often it will hit the headlines as with the recent death of Robin Williams or last year when Stephen Fry admitted to his own attempts to commit suicide in 2012.

From the beginning, Depression Quest is introduced as not being your typical game, it’s not meant to be fun, it’s not a game in the sense that you accumulate a high score or even ‘win’. Instead, it is meant to serve a higher educational purpose for those wanting to understand the nature of depression whether they suffer from it or not. It’s ultimate mission is to help people and to urge people who are or maybe suffering from depression from seeking professional help.

I have a bit of experience into the nature of depression. My father is a long time sufferer of clinical depression. It is something that I have grown to understand, though I am by no means an expert. I’ve always understood depression as a medically diagnosed form of sadness. I once perceived depression as an impenetrable black cloud of sadness, but that allegory is probably wrong, at least in the worse cases. Clouds pass, but depression often doesn’t. In my experience, depression is more like a maelstrom, a downward vortex that slowly cripples permeating every part of a person’s personality, gradually closing everything off until it destroys everything. Professional treatment is the only effective means of remedying depression, in my father’s case it required sessions talking to a psychiatrist and a medication prescription. It can be easy to get frustrated with my dad when depression takes hold, when apathy to everything seems to take hold how can you snap somebody out of it? It’s not always so simple speaking to somebody who is apathetic against… well… speaking amongst everything else.

My dad has reached rock bottom a number of times. I remember how apathetic and closed he became to his family and friends. I remember the arguments between him and my mother. My mother can be very combative against him, sometimes very fiery. I remember his retaliations to her ‘I’m not depressed, you’re depressed’ before he stormed off in his car determined never to come back again. I’ve tried to console my mother many times as she sits crying asking what she’s done to deserve all this.

I remember waking up in that cold January morning in 2005 to hear that he had attempted to take his own life. I remember how unsurprised I was at first. I remember how angry I got at him leaving us all behind, I remember the hopeless sadness I felt at the level of violence he was willing to submit himself to, the sense of hatred he must of had for himself. I’ve experienced the rumour baiting the next day at school, my dad a doctor, all the people around me somehow connected to the hospital in some way through their parents. I’ve watched my dad recover many times before, seen how the medicine brings out his manic side, seen my father genuinely at his best. I’ve watched as many psychiatrists have tried to pinpoint his depression to Freudian illusions of his mother scalding him as a child.

I’ve seen him completely break communications with his parents thinking they were the source of his illness as a consequence. I’ve seen him get to the point where he feels as if he’s cured and withdraws medication. I’ve been their to remind him that closing down all communications with his parents is a bad idea. I’ve witnessed him as he attempts to reach out to his father, I’ve seen how shocked and sad my grandfather has been after being kept in the dark for so long. The worst tragedy of all, those precious few years in which my dad could have spoke to his parents, his mother was consumed by dementia. She now exists in an old people’s home in her own little world, happier than she’s ever been apparently.

I have seen my father relapse, the arguments resurfacing once again. I have seen my mother once again bail him out seeking professional psychiatric help. I have listened while he admitted to contemplating suicide in 2007 whilst I was studying at university. The plans of chowing down on sleeping pills or setting himself on fire in a bathtub in our own back garden and midnight excursions to Beachy Head. All fucked up stuff. Overly dramatic stuff. I’m somewhat warmed by the thought that not once has he ever really succeeded. Something has always stopped him from stepping off the cliff or bleeding out.

Depression is a bitch. And there are plenty of others out there going through the exact same thing.

At times, I’ve wondered whether I myself am depressed or are capable of becoming depressed. I worry sometimes that somehow I may take after my father in this regard, we are both intelligent men after all and sometimes we lack the common sense that rounds and grounds most other people. Those who are intelligent are often prone to depression, sometimes those who are intelligent feel as if only they can solve their own problems. This is the kind of thinking that alienates you or stops you from taking medication. However when you’re left alone with your own thoughts for too long you can become your own worst and most savage critic and this is where depression takes hold.

There are times where I get sad or have a bad day, but I’ve never felt low enough where complete apathy for everything takes over. I have seen it many times in my dad however. I’ve had my fair share of troubles in life, unemployment, redundancy, stress at work, and all of life’s little curveballs. I take solace in the fact that I’ve always able to find some kind of motivation to get myself out of a rut. It maybe through writing, exercise, watching a movie or playing video games (also lego). If I feel like I’m having a bad day today, I generally accept that things will get better the next day when I’ll look back and wonder why I was ever sad to begin with.

It’s like Snake says in Peace Walker, pain get’s the better of us all but there is always something worth fighting for. This is my general outlook in life, and I guess in a way, it has been coloured by my experience with my father.

In Depression Quest, you assume the role of a 20 something male who suffers from depression. You are generally antisocial, unproductive at work and in your extracurricular activities, you have a girlfriend, but you’re not sure why, you also have a supportive bunch of friends even if you do administer a profound lack of confidence. From there, the game puts you in a series of everyday scenarios, which challenge you on an emotional level, where you are forced to make a choice between several different options which are all limited by your mental state.

Depression Quest, takes the form of an old school text adventure game with RPG styled multi-choice/decisions that determine your overall progression and direction throughout the game’s narrative. Depending on what decisions you make, constructive or destructive, your depression gets better or worse. Dilemmas you face will include normal everyday interactions in which you try to socialise at a party or open up about your turmoil in front of your mother, who isn’t the easiest person to understand your condition. All normal relatable thoughts swirl around amidst the elegantly written prose. You worry about being alone, you worry about not achieving everything you could be achieving, you are aware that you have a problem. The prose is written in a particular way that conveys the normal day to day circumstances made abnormal and irrational by the illness. In itself it is a great insight into the illness.

If you make positive steps to handling your disease, for example – you open up to talk to somebody or seek treatment, you will gradually see your overall circumstances change and you open up more choices over how you handle situations. However if you get worse, by choosing an apathetic stance and not actively seeking help, your depression gets worse and things become more limited. More options will become striked out until eventually, well… you hit rock bottom.

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Your mental state is summed up at the bottom of the page. The worse it gets the more limited your actions.

It reminded me bizarrely of some of the dialogue choices in fallout, providing your character statistics were high enough in areas like repair and intelligence, you could open up new ways of completing quests. For example if your explosives and repair skills were high enough, you could disarm the nuclear bomb at Megaton, saving the entire town.

In Depression Quest, it suddenly gave me great insight when faced with the proposition of staying in or going out on a Friday evening, I couldn’t even select the option to take a chance and go out into town. The option was striked out in red. This is the most obvious decision for somebody free of depression, but a decision that is completely out of the question to the victims of serious depression. It was a quietly powerful moment, ‘I could do this but for some reason I just can’t’.

You read what you should do, but you don’t even have the option to select it and enforce it. Due to the nature of your illness you just can’t muster the energy and drive to go ahead and do it. It’s just not that easy.

The first time I completed Depression Quest I got the good ending. Or at least the ending which indicates a level of recovery and future maintenace. I sought to talk to others, I gained council and accepted a steady stream of medication. It ends wisely, you don’t beat depression, but you get to a level where you are successfully managing it. I felt it was an articulate ending to the game, there is no miracle cure to the disease, it is always looming.

For that first playthrough, I guess I was on autopilot. I knew based on my experiences with my dad, what was needed and I acted accordingly. Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain which requires medication, and it always helps to talk about problems and hear what others have to say rather keeping them bottled up and left to denature. I suppose due to the game’s story, it’s melancholy soundtrack and all those scored out actions, I did feel motivated for finding some resolution for the character also.

I remembered auto piloting through my first playthrough of Mass Effect, always selecting paragon options. It was relatively easy to become Space Jesus, usually it meant choosing the blue text over the red text. This was all you had to do to make the universe a better place and undergo the ego trip of becoming Space Jesus of your own personal space opera. It was the same with Knights of the Old Republic and the Fallout games.

I guess playing through Depression Quest, I was wondering whether I was playing it right? But then, am I playing any RPG right? Do I just want the escapism and power trip of doing good in virtual worlds or should I really be selecting the kinds of options that were more honest to me. In the end, I suppose what I really need to do is get my dad to play this game. In addition, I felt there could be room for this style of game to evolve, for instance why not tell the story of a mother with post natal depression, or somebody a lot older (like my dad) in the throes of depression.

I did wonder for someone who is depressed whether they would do the same thing? Would they be truthful or would they role play? There is the divide between reality and the game, and I wondered whether a depressed player would diligently type in the ‘right answers’ maybe even knowing the right answers in the first place despite in real life not taking any proactive means to counter their disease.

For the moment however, Depression Quest did help in renewing my sense of purpose to my friends and family who are suffering from the illness. I do find it easy to get frustrated with those who suffer from depression, sometimes it feels like a constant uphill battle. I think of all the energy I’ve put into my father, I have seen him go from his lowest to his highest, but I have seen him relapse, I remember how angry I get when he stops taking his medication. Why am I putting so much effort into this person when he constantly lets you down? The conclusion to that is apathy of course and self pity. The detestable nihilistic results of depression.

It is worth remembering whatever the incline it is for me, it is probably steeper for those actually facing it dead on. Those slopes are slippery as well.

In the end, I guess Depression Quest reinforced my purpose to be there for others, to be patient, open and available whenever they need to talk and always vigilant and non judgemental. Why do I do this? Because I can.

Depression Quest is available for free on Steam, they are also taking donations on their official website.

This comic comes from Akimbo Comics, and I feel adequately sums up my feelings after playing Depression Quest.

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