Go play Depression Quest and give the devs some money while you are at it.
There has been a lot of debate over the what has been called the “Twine revolution” and if the games being produced in the Twine engine are games. I don’t care about that debate; I have a very laissez-faire attitude toward the concept of game–I would rather extend the concept to basically anything rather than limiting it down to some kind or core concept. I tend to buy the arguments about the large definitions of games, with Anna Anthropy’s definition of games being my prime referent and favorite: “a game is an experience created by rules.”
Most of the Twine games I have played until now take the “rules” to be linearity. There is a single path taken through a text. You follow it, you move outward into descriptions, and then you play through the story. The Twine game that I made, Or, What Is It Like To Be A Thing? works in exactly this way. There is some choice, but that choice is mostly an illusion.
Twine games have been very successful is providing profoundly affective experiences within, and meditating on, those limits. Marras’ mom is home is my immediate go-to for showing how Twine can set up huge systems of choice while also making you painfully aware of the very real boundaries that exist in both the game and the world that the game is modeling, and the fact that most Twine games use the default black background really piles on this effect–I get trapped in all that blackness. A sense of melancholy runs through a huge number of Twine games that I have played, although sample bias might be an issue.  Todd Harper’s Building Blocks is a great example of the kind of dark, linear, emotive Twine game that I’m talking about here.
So Depression Quest.
First, I have nothing but praise for the game. It works. It is as perfect of a simulation of depression as I think we are likely to ever get. It certainly describes my own experience, and judging by the discussion on Twitter about the game, I think it covers an entire range others’ experience too.
Second, its presentation and technological achievement should have a ripple effect through the Twine world. If we’ve had a Twine revolution, this is one of the Great Works of Twine (TM). It is showing us the gamic possibilities of Twine as far as variable management and sound are concerned (from what I understand, there is some real brute forcing of the engine going to to make things as elegant as they are in the game.) However, it isn’t making Twine do anything that Twine isn’t capable of doing already–all of this has been waiting inside of Twine for a game to let it out.
That isn’t very clear; I mean that Depression Quest is very clearly an example of Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey, and Isaac Schankler looking at what Twine does well and decided to do that as hard as possible. There isn’t any awkward shoehorning of new techniques or mechanics from other fields in the game–it is a body made of Twine, wanting nothing else, needing nothing else.
You’ll notice that I’m avoiding the plot of Depression Quest here. This is on purpose; it isn’t that I don’t want to spoil something for you. In fact, I don’t think the word “spoil” makes any sense in relation to Depression Quest. Most of what you do in the game is purely quotidian–spoiling Depression Quest is basically like “spoiling” what you are going to do on your next shitty Wednesday night.
The truth is that I don’t want to prevent you from living it, from suffering it. I’ve thought a lot about the concept of “games that hate you.” These are games that actively drive you from them. They are games that know they are games. They are games that know they are only activated when you are touching them, controlling them, living in their systems. But nonetheless, they want to drive you out. They want to make you feel so much that you can’t help but put them down in confusion and sickness and rage and sadness. Depression Quest, much more than any other game, hits that note for me.
The short of it: Depression Quest is not only good, it is truly revolutionary. It sets standards for relationships with games. It sets standards for relationships with ourselves, with our bodies, with our minds. It shows us what we can do and what we are, like a mirror that gives you the future and the brutal present all at once.
- Rise of the Videogame Zinesters
- I think Porpentine has done some of the better work of taking Twine into pure joyous crystal paradise with Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha and All I want is for all of my friends to become insanely powerful. Also, Merritt Kopas’ Queer Pirate Plane.
- Mammon Machine’s review of Bloody Princess Farmer and Bubblegum Slaughter RE: writing is super important here (I couldn’t figure out how to integrate this into my broad argument up top):
Writing in games sucks because no matter how many writers they hire and how good they are, they still treat writing like a chore instead of letting it express some pure aesthetic joy the way the game art and music tends to, which is probably the reason why musicians and visual artists love making fan stuff out of games but writers are just embarrassed by it. Okay sure I guess IF has done that but who reads IF. More seriously, IF is narratively oriented (which is great) but I like this direction a lot better. I’m going to say it’s a bit more like poetry. Technically, not romantically.
I’m saying that twine games are making writing function like graphics and music and that’s the way it always should have been.
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