Depression Quest was created in 2013 by Zoë Quinn and Patrick Lindsey as an attempt to simulate the mind of someone suffering from depression. It’s Gonna Be Okay! was created by Dina Abou Karam and JJ_XIII for Game Zanga 2016. Abou Karam has said that It’s Gonna Be Okay! was inspired by Depression Quest, but that inspiration did not take the form of another game of interactive fiction. Instead, she and JJ_XIII have carried over the core theme of Depression Quest into a completely different genre. That theme is the cycle of lethargy and regret many suffering from depression go through, where even simple tasks are perceived as major burdens. This is successfully represented the same way in both games, by giving the player options common to their respective genres but not letting the player actually utilize them in the most ideal way.
The sparse photos and static aesthetic paint a somber scene when combined with Isaac Schankler’s music.
Even in a very short game, building the entire experience around what the player cannot do is an impressive feat. Depression Quest deprives us by showing unavailable choices that are often the ideal “normal” way to handle the situations players run into throughout the game. It embraces one of video gaming’s oldest structures – a choose-your-own adventure – but creates a scenario that has no clear victory at the end. The game takes a genre built around strict branches of story triggered by the player’s choices, but instead uses those (both available and visible but unavailable) choices to emotionally restrict the player.
We’ve seen this conflict of a person struggling against their inner self in countless products of pop culture. And just like with video games, it’s not one beholden to any particular genre, appearing in horror films like Jacob’s Ladder or Shadowzone, over hyped star vehicles like The Cell, and even in more than one episode of G.I. Joe. In all of them, the survivor of these torments realizes it’s all in their head. After which they summon up the willpower to stop feeling hopeless and become a god both in and of their own mind. The reason Depression Quest and It’s Gonna Be Okay! are both successful games is because their creators know that the endgame pop culture has taught us to expect is false. Just as Depression Quest brings that to light by making it impossible for the player to choose “just do what a not depressed person would do” selections while still making them visible to the player, It’s Gonna Be Okay!‘s RPG-like battle system is also a deception.
Overthinking leading to inaction is harshly portrayed throughout Depression Quest via crossed out choices.
It’s Gonna Be Okay! takes this a little further by letting the player experience the expected options of its own genre directly despite them not effecting the game’s outcome. Besides the colorful overhead view of Portia’s situation and the airy soundtrack, It’s Gonna Be Okay! also gives her some numbered attributes (again formatted to evoke old Japanese RPGs). As one would expect from that genre, when players confront Portia’s troubles a turn based battle ensues, where they take the form of fantastical beings.
These battles are also where It’s Gonna Be Okay!‘s RPG trappings are wrenched away from the player. The apparitions of Portia’s depression are indestructible. This is a great way of having the player experience depression as something that for many is only rarely beaten. Combined with the strictly timed mazesplayers must delve into to seek out each enemy, It’s Gonna Be Okay! creates a hopeless world. The game is educational in its callousness towards the player’s success, and easily evokes the sentiment that Portia would be better off leaving her room than spending so much time reflecting these things while – very importantly – not allowing her the luxury of simply deciding to feel better and leave. Instead we see her reenter the maze each time she encounters what “should” be a simple situation to handle, but that instead leaves her emotionally incapacitated by a series of relatively minor failures.
All of Portia’s abilities are useless here.
The strictness is what gives the game its impact. Players are given a genre and a character design that by definition should end with a clear victory for Portia. She appears powerful, even beginning the game with a gauge representing her magical might along with some other menu choices built around frequent combat. But as the combat plays out we realize it’s impossible for her to magic her depression away. Each maze and battle results in things getting worse for her, but players are forced to dwell on Portia’s minor mistakes instead of leaving. We’re given the first half of an equation, that it’s all in her head, but not the agency to walk away from it. Despite that, and despite the terse Game Over screen players receive if they fail to quickly navigate its mazes, It’s Gonna Be Okay! has an uplifting ending. Portia and the player are informed that they’re not horrible people for being depressed.
The harsh time limits are fitting.
It’s Gonna Be Okay! and Depression Quest end up being perfect complements to each other despite being so different on the surface. The former gives us a very direct impression of being in a depressed person’s mind, and makes the reality of its ending bittersweet just from the potential frustration one may feel by failing to navigate its mazes a few times. But this effect is also a perfect reflection of Portia’s depression. Likewise, Depression Quest‘s inconclusive endings also set it up the beginning of a struggle rather than an ending. We see its protagonist spiral a bit before the conclusion no matter what they choose, and come away from the game knowing that they’re not fully recovered and may never be. There’s a difficulty to playing both games that comes from these situations being unavoidable due to the player’s inability to perform the actions that would typically be standard for each type of game, making both educational in their own way.