Playing with Self-Narrative: The Interactive (Non)Fiction of Depression Quest

Adan Jerreat-Poole reflects on how select game designers are coding their life experiences into games, while players are actively playing their personal stories into existence. She focuses on Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest as both an expression of the creator’s subjective experience of mental illness and an interactive medium that allows mad players to choose-their-own-life-narrative about depression.

“This is an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them,” announces the introductory page to Depression Quest (2013) a text-based empathy role-playing game (RPG) that uses interactive (non)fiction to introduce players to the lived realities of mental illness. This game is widely accessible to a public with internet access; it is free to play online and available on Steam. Depression Quest is part of an emerging genre of self-narrative which I refer to as “life-gaming”: a set of practices that includes both the process of creating games with autobiographical elements, and gamers performing self-narrative through play. Playing with self-narrative is reminiscent of what Julie Rak calls “automedia” or “automediality” and identifies as an autobiographical practice in her discussion of The Sims 3 (2015).

Scholars have coined the term “memoir boom” to describe the rise in popularity of self-narrative in the 21st century (Yagoda 2009; Couser 2012; Rak 2013). The popularity of print memoir has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in online life-writing, which Laurie McNeill (2014) and others refer to as the “memoir boom 2.0.” In Identity Technologies (Ed. Poletti and Rak 2014), McNeill and other scholars discuss a range of memoir 2.0 forms, including social media platforms such as Facebook, The Six Word Memoir, PostSecret and PatientsLikeMe. As another emerging digital genre of auto/biography, life-gaming could be understood as an integral part of this trend. Sarah Gibbons (2015) writes that disability empathy RPGs function as “educational and experiential tools designed to help non-disabled individuals understand disability” (26), and, according to Ian Bogost (2011), these games “foster empathy for…real-world situations” (19). Because of the interactive nature of the medium, the game places an onus of responsibility on the player, who becomes partially accountable for the narrative outcomes through the choices s/he makes. In Depression Quest, which explores the subjective experience of depression, the ethics of decision-making and the affective grammar of the game create an experience of what Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman refer to as “meaningful play” (2003) and Mary Flanagan terms “critical play” (2009).

In an interview with The Guardian, Zoe Quinn, one of the creators of Depression Quest, describes her entrance into indie game development: “’It was like coming home,’ she says. ‘My brain breaks everything down into systems – and I realised, ah, these are game mechanics! I can communicate now!’” Quinn creates games as a form of communication, not merely as entertainment. This communication extends beyond the text-based narrative to the structure of play itself. Ian Bogost (2007) argues that videogames communicate through “procedural rhetoric, the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (ix). Depression Quest performs this type of rhetoric by subverting conventional choose-your-own-adventure norms: choices are often presented to the player only to be crossed out with a red line, much like the subjective experience of depression in which taking certain actions are impossible or unimaginable. The ending(s) offered by the game are also unconventional: there is no “win” scenario in which depression is cured or overcome; instead, mental illness is represented as something that the player will continue to experience and struggle with throughout his or her life.

Quinn also states that her game-making “tends to be autobiographical.” It is this tendency to code life-writing into games that blurs the boundary between game as fictional narrative and game as non-fictional self-narrative. If the dinner conversations and character names within the game are not true to its creators’ lived experience, the feeling of depression may be. As an amalgamation of experiences, the game offers up a collaborative representation of mental illness. This collaborative authorship points to the “community project of the autobiography” (322) that Margaret Rose Torrell calls for in her paper on plural singularities. Torrell argues that the genre of autobiography privileges the individual over the group in a way that can be devastating to disability community building and enacting change. As a composite of the experiences of several individuals with depression, Depression Quest indexes a “communal identity” (324) that refuses to limit disability under a singular identity, instead gesturing towards multiplicity and diversity.

The collaborative process between designer and player in constructing the narrative strengthens this communal identity. Within the domain of play, the choices gamers make in the game structure their own self-narrative. Life-games are significantly more interactive than traditional forms of life-writing (autobiography, memoir, journals, etc.), and the medium has the potential to allow gamers to “play” their own stories to life: a choose-your-own-adventure memoir is therefore both a form of self-narrative and a medium for self-narrative. While the choices in Depression Quest are limited, a gamer with depression has the option of writing some of their own life choices into the game by choosing or refusing therapy, by talking with friends and family, and by going on or off medication. This process recalls Julie Rak’s discussion of The Sims 3 as a “life lab,” in which players of the sandbox series experiment with identities through play. Games offer a unique space in which to “play” with identity and to represent the self online. Mary Flanagan writes that “Play can also function as a tool to understand the self” (5), and I would extend this argument to claim that play can also function as a tool to narrate the self.

As a form of self-narrative, games, like all media, have limits. In “Facebook and Coaxed Affordances,” Aimee Morrison forays into the field of social media and affect, asking “What social pressures are at play in determining what is written on the site and who can see it?” (113). Morrison explores “the input prompts that coax and restrict user action by turns” (13); unlike physical archives, from photo albums to collections of letters to personal journals, Facebook and other social media sites are curated by the site itself, and the identity archive produced is a result of a collaboration between user content and the specific archival structure of the website. Autobiographical play includes similar constraints; players of Depression Quest can only choose between the limited options afforded by the game creators. These options may not fully express or articulate their individual experiences. However, they do have choice, and gameplay depends on players making choices in the game world. The narrative process and product is a collaboration between the game designer and the player. This resonates with Torrell’s call for community building; digital gaming offers an opportunity to express individuality that is situated within a larger group/community and a broader set of experiences.

The limitations of Depression Quest are, however, worthy of attention. By structuring the gameplay around therapy and medication, it normalizes depression by only allowing players to accept or reject conventional medical treatments, and does not offer more radical ways of re-imaging and/or re-valuing disability. However, the choices offered by the narrative do admit players a certain degree of autonomy in shaping their story as a mode of self-expression. Ultimately, empathy RPGs like Depression Quest have the potential to not only communicate events or experiences from the game designers’ personal lives to a broad online audience, but also function as a medium for collaborative life-writing.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games. MIT P, 2007. 

Couser, Thomas G. Memoir: An Introduction. Oxford UP, 2012.

McNeill, Laurie. “Life Bytes: Six-Word Memoir and the Exigencies of Auto/tweetographies.” Identity Technologies. Edited by Anna Poletti and Julie Rak, U of Wisconsin P, 2014, pp. 144-164. 

Poletti, Anna, and Julie Rak, editors. Identity Technologies. U of Wisconsin P, 2014. 

Quinn, Zoe. Depression Quest. 2013. 

Rak, Julie. BOOM! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market.  Wilfred Laurier UP, 2013. 

—. “Life Writing Versus Automedia: The Sims 3 Game as Life Lab.” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2, 2015, pp. 155-180. Accessed 5 March 2016.

Stuart, Keith. “Zoe Quin: ‘All Gamergate has done is ruin people’s lives.’” The Guardian, 3 December 2014. Accessed 16 August 2016.

Torrell, Margaret Rose. “Plural Singularities: The Disability Community in Life-Writing Texts.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, 2011, pp. 321-337. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: A History. Riverhead Books, 2009.

*Feature image is borrowed from the Depression Quest website: (Screen Shots page)

Adan Jerreat-Poole

Adan Jerreat-Poole is a PhD student at McMaster University in the Department of English and Cultural Studies. Her research lies at the intersection of life writing, videogames, and disability. She can often be found in her office playing indie games about depression and anxiety with a cup of tea.

Post editor: Meredith Snyder


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