The web has been abuzz about games with a focus on depression this year, Depression Quest in particular catching everyone's eye. But this very small subcategory of free games goes beyond just that title, and we can take in a true variety of experiences when exploring this space.
I'm going to discuss four such games, evaluating them both as the idiosyncratic games critic that I am and as a person who is depressed. I want to see what these games can teach us about this ubiquitous mental illness that we might otherwise miss in our daily lives, as well as whether gaming can be an effective means of promoting mental health discussions.
This is a bit of a text adventure, and if you're familiar with Choice Of Games you'll feel right at home with the format. This work of fiction, though, is not fantastical. It’s about a regular 20-something guy with a steady girlfriend who works a shitty job and suffers from severe depression.
What follows the introduction to this character is a series of vignettes in which you must make decisions, either healthy or unhealthy or unhealthier. Though this story will likely not perfectly describe your own specific battle with depression, I found that—following the types of choices I made in my own life as I struggled to deal with my illness—this guy came out pretty much the same way I did, albeit in a seemingly more compressed timeline.
A quirk in the listed choices this game gives you that I'm not entirely comfortable with is the appearance of struck-through choices. For example, our hero comes home from work and wants to make some progress on a personal project, but he's feeling quite moody and mentally exhausted. So you'll have options like:
1. Hunker down and get to work
2. Watch some TV for a bit
3. Go to bed
I'm not a fan of including the “normal people” options, because it makes clear what is in truth a very deceptive situation. I'd prefer that if we're not going to be able to choose an option, we shouldn't even know it is an option, because that is the nature of depression. It's a trickster.
Even so, I found Depression Quest to be a laudable effort, and I think it can be an effective tool for teaching folks who don't have to deal with depression what it feels like.
The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab created a very short game called Elude, which is a metaphorical representation of the depression experience. It begins in a dark forest, which is emblematic of the “default” mood of many depression sufferers: lethargic, cloudy, uninterested in the world. As the player character walks forward (this is a 2D experience), he encounters birds (things he enjoys), and he can “resonate” with them in order be able to jump higher than he could otherwise. The goal, then, is to progress upward by jumping on tree branches until you get above the treeline.
At this juncture, the game is basically Doodle Jump, and you'll keep going and going until you goof up, at which point you fall down to a place below where you started, which is painfully bleak and features sinkholes that drop you even further down. Eventually, though, you can pull yourself back up to the dark forest and begin again.
The second time I fell from the sky, however, I found myself on an incline, where trying to climb upward was slow and not particularly fruitful. I was unable to get back onto level ground. So I let myself slide down the hill until I fell into a pit, and that was game over.
"Falling hard enough can leave you in a hole too deep to climb out of."
The metaphor here is quite clear. A depressed person can pull himself out of the pits sometimes, but the slightest push will drop him down to the emotional depths with which all depressed people are familiar. And falling hard enough can leave you in a hole too deep to climb out of.
This little top-down game looks pretty typical when you first start it up. But about five seconds in you realize it's not at all what it appears to be. In it, you are Evan, a fat guy who hates his life. The present arc of the story has Evan going about his day, but you're constantly shown what's going on inside his mind.
It's all so cleverly written, yes, and creator Will O'Neill is without a doubt an excellent writer with a keen wit. But the text he puts down in the form of story vignettes manages to be self-deprecating to the extreme and features a rather pathetic depiction of a human being.
But in no way is it a far-fetched one. I look at Evan and see a kindred spirit, someone who externally appears pretty normal but inside is full of deep turmoil. And, like me, he tends to be hyper-self-aware without really having any grasp on what's going on around him. He's paranoid. He thinks he has no friends.
"Depression tells you lies, and you believe them."
But he's wrong and we, as outsiders, can view his circumstances more objectively, which is how it always goes. Depression tells you lies, and you believe them. You need external perspectives, and while Evan is getting some in this game, he's not listening. He thinks what's in his head is right and everyone else is wrong. He's been living with his illness so long that's it may be too ingrained for him to overcome it. But you'll have to play the game to find out if that's really the case.
A quick and dirty flash game, Inner Vision is about you talking to some depressed people who are considering suicide. Your goal is to talk them down. The game is not difficult, and my friend Phil Hornshaw over at Game Front, who pointed me to this game, thought it felt slight because of that. And it does make it seem entirely too easy to deal with somebody who is experiencing a major depressive episode, which Phil has done a few times when I've been in my dark moods.
But I don't think this game is for people who don't have depression. Rather, it's for people who do. In my experience, it's hard for me to find a clear solution to my problems when I'm experiencing a crisis, but if somebody else I know is going through the same thing, I have all the right words for them.
And so in this game, when you see somebody feeling the way you've felt, and you say the things that you know need to be said, and you see them react positively to your input, it can reveal how to deal with your own issues. If you don't have real people with whom you can experience this role reversal, I think Inner Vision can be a decent substitute even if it doesn't explore depression super deeply.
These four games are all interesting in their own ways, and they certainly demonstrate the range of art that can be produced within the parameters of a video game. Playing them is indeed a rewarding experience, whether you're depressed or not. But I think those who are can play these and gain greater context for the things happening in their minds. That's the true power of artistic media.
Phil Owen is a freelance entertainment journalist whose work you might have seen at IGN, GameFront, Appolicious and many, many other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @philrowen.