Monday, 9 December 2013
On Depression Quest
It's hard to find people who understand your depression. I don't mean that in a "we're all beautiful damaged roses, and the world just won't get it" kind of way. When you're ill with depression, reaching out can be hard. You don't want to tell your friends, or your partner, because you're scared you might alienate them. And you don't want to call a doctor because your illness is telling you that you don't deserve attention - you're a middle-class, white, heterosexual Westerner, so who are you to complain? And who should care about a screw-up like you anyway?
It's hard to even admit it to yourself. Coming to terms with the fact you have depression can make you scared that it's somehow going to be taken away from you. The thing I struggled with most about my own diagnosis was in realising that depression was an illness and that as such, it could be cured. You come to rely on and live with your depression. There's this weird Stockholm-syndrome phenomenon where you come to depend on your illness as the basis of your personality: "Once my depression is cured," I used to think "who will I be?" Allowing yourself to be treated is a threat to a lifestyle that, although deeply unhappy, is at least familiar to you.
Talking about this illness is hard. It's why I wish that Depression Quest, developed by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler was available seven years ago. Since 2006, when I was diagnosed, I've read books, watched films and listened to music which all claimed to "deal" with my illness, but nothing has gotten right to the core like this game: It's eye-opening, comforting and therapeutic all at once. If you've never suffered from mental health problems, Depression Quest will help you understand what it's like. If you're currently struggling or have struggled, this game will help you - it will reassure you that you're not alone.
I'm in an interesting place at the moment where, although I still have problems and am still in therapy, I'm able to look on my illness with a sense of clarity. Depression, and the medications and counselling used to cure it, are all familiar to me now, and so playing a game about a young man who so far has been unable to ask for help is at once enlightening and disturbing.
It enables me to see how I got to where I am. Like the game's protagonist, my depression began mildly, with awkwardness at parties, never having motivation to work and feeling inadequate compared to my older sister. It then spiralled into self-harm, alcoholism and broken relationships with family and friends. "It gets a lot, lot worse before it gets even slightly better", is what I used to tell people about this illness. In Depression Quest, the same is true.
A missed day at work becomes a full blown anxiety attack. A few stilted social functions cause you and your girlfriend to break up. Depression in the game, as in reality, destroys everything in your life except itself and as much as you want to change it, some errant thought or crippling neurosis will always prevent you from being proactive. This is why some of the choices in Depression Quest are blocked out. At the end of a week at work, some friends might call and ask you to come out drinking. You can see the option to go join them - it's listed at the bottom of the game screen along with all the others - but it's scrawled through with a red line. You just can't do it. Depression is an illness like the flu. You can't just will yourself to get better, to buck up and go out. Your mind makes it impossible. So does Depression Quest.
It's why it works best as a videogame. When we're gaming, we're used to freedom of choice and freedom of expression - within the confines of the game's rules, we can do virtually what we like. To have that dynamic interfered with, in the way it is in Depression Quest, represents just how powerful the illness is. It affects the very core fabric of our experiences. It destroys our ability to behave the way we want to. Choice, as in life, is everything in videogames. But depression, and the way it's depicted in Depression Quest, takes that choice away from us. The option is there to leave your bed, shower and go outside, but you just can't do it. You want to click "go out with the guys" but your character's illness won't let you. Life and gaming, as we know them, are ruined by depression.
I used to visualise my illness this way, with "gameplay options" like meet a girlfriend or go to work crossed out for me.
It's why Depression Quest was hard for me to play. The creators have gotten the nuances of being depressed - the sensation - down to a fine point. There was a moment (in the game) where, having lost my girlfriend, screwed up my job and refused therapy, I was alone in my flat, about to get drunk. But I fucked up opening the wine - the cork went into the bottle and spoiled it. These small defeats are soul-destroying. It feels as if the world is conspiring to destroy you, as if you, you fuck-up, can't get anything right.
It mirrored an occasion in my own life where, having been in the pits for around six months, I was desperate for the delivery of a videogame I'd pre-ordered. I was so excited for it. It was all I had to cling onto. The night before it was set to arrive, I switched my PS3 off at the back, corrupting the hard-drive and bricking the console. I broke down. The next day I woke up still drunk, covered in self-inflicted cuts and unable to leave my bed. To some people, that might sound absurd. But the makers of Depression Quest understand. Clearly this has happened to them as well.
Another reason I found the game difficult, emotionally I mean, was because I tried to play it honestly. There are no trite solutions when you're ill like this, no get outs. When someone asks how you are, you're not going to open up to them. If you have friends before you get depression, in all likelihood, by the time you're feeling "better", a lot of them won't know you any more. The game broke my heart because, with every honest decision I made, every helping hand I turned away or person I scared off, I could see myself, over the past seven years, doing the exact same things. It brought me face-to-face with my own, not mistakes, I guess, but miscalculations. Even that's not the right word. At the time, I couldn't help what I did.This game made me realise how much the illness fucked up my life.
It cost me a good relationship with a woman. It prevented me from having fun at university. And although they don't know it, it alienated me from pretty much everybody in my family, partly because counselling led me to blame them for some things and partly because, like Depression Quest's central character, I came to feel like we had nothing in common. I answered Depression Quest truthfully, based on my own experiences, and with every new text prompt, my character's life got worse. I ended the game jobless, single and unable to find anyone even willing to talk to me, let alone someone who I could explain everything to. And still, I wasn't in therapy and I wasn't taking medication. This is where my own life was in 2010. Although it might upset the writers to hear this, I have to admit that Depression Quest made me guilty and angry at myself. But then, at the same time, it reminded me that it wasn't me - or a clean-thinking version of me - that made all those misjudgements. It was the bug in my head, gnawing away, driving me mad.
I've never played a game that affected me so personally. Once I'd finished Depression Quest, I sat and cried, and then double-checked to make sure my appointment with the doctor was still set for next month.
It will help you feel understood and help you realise that it's not you that's the problem in your life, it's this wretched illness.
But above all else, it'll help those around you to see that this is not a small matter - not something you're affecting because you want their attention. Depression Quest shows depression for what it is, a slow, encompassing destroyer of the patient's life, an impossible to explain on paper, debilitating illness. Play it and then pass it around. It has the power to do good.
Depression Quest is available to play here for free: http://www.depressionquest.com/dqfinal.html
But please, contribute some money to the three developers: http://www.depressionquest.com/