The Unity of Form & Content in Vidya

A while back, when I started this thing, I wrote an introduction to a series of articles under the title Marxcraft. Any1 that reads the blog regularly (you poor fuckers) will have realised that I haven’t followed this up. Like, not at all. Honestly, this is down to 2 reasons: 1) laziness/lack of time (if you were kind); 2) I set about doing Marxcraft wrong, we have to cover some basics 1st. Marxcraft will return once we’ve covered the basic of “traditional” video-game design/philosophy/whatever-term-you-fancy-this-stuff-isn’t-set-in-stone-yet. Today, we’re going to discuss the unity of form & content in video games. 

Any attempt to discuss this abstractly is going to be fairly pointless. In fact, it wouldn’t get beyond the general theory I’ve outlined before – here, here & here. We need to consider video-game mechanics, aesthetics etc concretely. Equally, it would be inappropriate to jump in & attempt to analyse a game with multiple mechanics, without having set a basic framework. To this end, we are going to consider a game with a relatively simple design & a single mechanic. We are going to consider the unity of form & content in Depression Quest.

Get sad! Do it now!

Before for we into this any further, let’s lay down a couple of points about Depression Quest itself. The game is a text-based, web-browser video game. It was released on Steam Greenlight in December, 2013. Following the game’s release its creator, Zoe Quinn, received a slew of abuse from various anonymous sources. This Edge article goes into a great deal more detail about the whole affair. However, I want to quote Quinn, briefly, to give context to what I’m about to say:

‘We were putting a nontraditional game directly in the line of sight of very traditional gamers. And some traditional gamers have huge issues with women, and huge issues with games being anything that aren’t space marines or plumbers! People were saying things like, “This isn’t a game. This is terrible. You should go kill yourself,” “Depression isn’t real,” or “You’re just pushing pills.” And then it started intensifying offsite, the threats started rolling in by emails, and then somebody sent this really detailed letter to my house about how they wanted to rape me.’ (Quinn, cited in Edge.)

This should need no explanation; these views are extremely reactionary & disgusting. The way in which people have treated Quinn is misogyny. The rejection of depression is ableism. The rejection of her game on the basis of its mechanics is a ridiculous attempt to limit the sphere of video games as expression. If you agree with the threats issued to Quinn, the rejection of depression, or the rejection of her game, get the fuck off my blog. Now.

2ndly, let’s get this out of the way. Depression Quest affected me quite a lot. I would advise that anybody who has suffered from depression in the past play this game very carefully. The game states this much at its opening. It also makes another point very clearly: ‘It goes without saying that because of the very nature of depression, it is experienced differently by every person who suffers from it. We aren’t trying to say that this is the “best” or “most accurate” representation, merely that this is an amalgamation of the experiences of the developers and several people close to them.’ (Depression Quest, opening page.) You may not experience Depression Quest as I have, or as the developers have. However, in all honesty, Depression Quest hit a very poignant nerve for me. I have suffered depression extensively throughout my life. I experience it, in 1 manner, exactly as Depression Quest describes it. Essentially, I experience depression as a dislocation from choice: the forcible & violent dislocation of agency from the self, by emotion. This is even echoed in the game’s epigraph:

‘Its emotional character is probably most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency – sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying – are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.’ (David Foster Wallace, cited in Depression Quest.)

I highlight this as, obviously, the game had an emotional resonance with me. To this end, whilst I am attempting to remain objective in my criticism, this will obviously present difficulties. However, we aren’t concerned with value judgements & the game is free to play. Check it out & make your own mind up on whether or not its any good.

To the point, then: the game’s mechanics, aesthetics & subject matter. We have already outlined the game’s subject matter & aesthetics to an extent – the game is about depression, in the manner depicted above; the game is a text-based game. For the most part, I wish to end our discussion of aesthetics & content (subject matter) here for the present. However, I will point out a literary trope utilised which adds to the game’s aesthetic immersion. All of the text in the game is written in the 2nd person, replacing ‘I’ or a character name with the word ‘you’:  ‘You are a mid-twenties human being.’ (Depression Quest) This adds a certain immediacy to everything that follows &, equally, adds to the game’s aesthetic illusion that you (yes, you) are the character suffering from depression. Implicit in this is the suggestion that you will adhere to the game’s mechanics in an honest manner. I highlight this as the manner in which the game is written is done so in order to instruct you as to how it is to be played. An honest, up front, play through of the game is the only way to approach it if you expect to get anything out of it. Other than this, the text maintains a fairly functional role. It uses direct lexis, blunt description & clear grammar to give immediacy & accuracy to the world represented. This is not Joyce – any attempts to think of it in such a manner are incorrect & a confusion of mediums; the game is functional & clear.

Depression Quest‘s mechanics are extremely, yet deceptively, simple. At the bottom of the screen, at any point in the game, you have 3 “status bar”, to use a game-friendly term: 1 to tell you your state of mind (a “health bar”), 1 to tell you if you are in therapy & 1 to tell you if you are taking medication. The purpose of the latter bars is to impact upon your “health bar”, like a medkit in Doom. The purpose of the “health bar” itself is to determine how the game’s primary mechanic works (you can’t die in Depression Quest). This is to do with how the game will progress & the story will unfold. Essentially, it is a choice-making system.

The best comparison I can give for Depression Quest‘s choice-making system is the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. At the end of each screen of text (roughly 2-3 paragraphs of text on average), the game will present you with a choice. To take an example from the game itself, the 1st choice presented to you has 4 answers. This is where the “health bar” mechanic comes into play. Based upon the status of your mental health, you will not be able to make certain choices. You can still read all possible choices, however, you are limited in your decision-making ability by how depressed your character is. See the screen shot  below for an example, the 1st choice.

dpqchoice

All of the choices still available to you will advance the plot. However, all of these choices will impact upon your “status bars” & future choices differently. This is the entirety of Depression Quest‘s mechanics.

The unity of form & content here is exact. The game’s mechanics reflect its theme, its story & even its aesthetic design. The manner in which this mechanic works is made even more pertinent & important by the fact that all possible choices are still left on display: you can see everything that is possible (within the game’s aesthetic framework & plot), but are unable to complete the action’s presented. This communicates depression in a way which other mediums cannot capture. Take the 1st choice, shown above. You will notice that a choice is blotted out. This implies, from the very start of the game, that your agency is curtailed. It has a different resonance to that which it would in a book: you can see the choice, implying it is possible, but you can never make it, no matter how many times you attempt to do so. The emotion received from this is in complete unity with the game’s thematic presentation & interpretation of depression. It adds to the feeling of hopelessness generated by the game’s mechanics, essentially asking the player to undergo what it is like to be depressed (in this way) as a part of the game’s mechanics. This is the unity of form & content in Depression Quest. A further discussion could be had on what Depression Quest says about aesthetics & agency within video games would undoubtedly be useful, but is beyond our scope here.

To conclude, an examination of Depression Quest highlights the difference of the unity of form & content within video games to other, more traditional, mediums. Not only are the traditional tropes of aesthetics & content in play, so too are mechanics – that which conditions player-agency within the digital world.

For a further examination/alternative opinion on Depression Quest, see the video below:

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