Depression Quest: a surprisingly fantastic interactive fiction experience

DepressionQuest_021913_toppy2-610x179I cannot be the only writer who’s suspicious of interactive fiction. For twenty years, people have been trumpeting about interactive fiction, and the promised land has never come. That’s because when you strip the ‘gameplay’ out of a game and reduce it to a series of choices, then what you’re basically writing is a hundred stories that all have the same beginning. And that’s not going to be a good story, because good stories ought to contain some coherent logic. The beginning ought to, in some way, resonate with the ending. Thus, the interactive fiction experience is rarely as satisfying as it would’ve been if the writer had sat down and written a single throughline (i.e. one story).

However, the whole Gamergate controversy prompted me to take an hour or two and go through Depression Quest, which is a game created by one of the developers who has been a main target of Gamergate harassment. The game, which is in classic second-person choose-your-own-adventure format, is about a person (the gender is never specified) who is struggling with depression. As fiction, it’s not amazing. The writing is pretty generic. All of the elements of the story–the job, the partner, the family–lurk in archetypical territory. Nothing has much personality of its own. And the text struggled to hold my interest. I sometimes found myself skimming it or clicking through without reading.

But as a gaming experience, it’s really very gripping. Surprisingly gripping. And that’s because there are actually some very simple and clever gameplay mechanics here. As you play, it becomes clear that the choices you make in the game are affecting your mood and your energy levels. And that these choices, in turn, affect which options you’re given. In fact, throughout the game, you’ll be presented with the grim sight of red crossed-out options. These are usually the healthiest and most energetic thing that you could do in any given situation. You don’t get to do those things (mostly). What you do get to do is choose between the options at the bottom that basically amount to ‘try’ or ‘don’t try.’

What makes the game interesting is that you’re never quite sure which one is the best choice. In some cases, it’s obviously better to try. But in other cases, you wonder, “Is trying going to drain me of energy? If I try to scrape myself out of bed and go to work, will I not have the energy to call a therapist later?”

It’s the perfect example of a game where the ludonarrative* is spot on. You understand, intuitively, the things you need to do to combat depression. But when you get down to specifics, things are murkier. You’re never sure what rules you’re playing by.

And what makes things more interesting is the general randomness of life. Sometimes you’ll try to do a healthy thing and it’ll turn out wrong. And sometimes you’ll do a maybe less-healthy thing and it’ll turn out to be perfect. It makes things pretty tense. Like when you finally get up the momentum to call a therapist, then the player is left thinking, “Oh my god, it was so difficult to get to the point where my character had the energy to make this call? If the therapist doesn’t answer, or if there are insurance problems, then what will happen? Will they ever get another chance?”

And, in the end, I was very emotionally engaged. Definitely worth playing around with.

 

*A term I learned from one of the best essay collections I’ve ever read: Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives. It refers to the intersection of the gameplay elements and the story elements of a game. In many cases, the gameplay clashes with the story. For instance, in a first-person shooter, the story is all about life being cheap and survival being very difficult. But the gameplay is the opposite: you’re capable of taking tons of damage, and if you die all you need to do is reload from a saved game. Stories with lackluster writing can often provide better ‘story’ experiences if the gameplay and the narrative align. For instance, the writing in Fallout 3 isn’t as good as in Fallout 2, but the gameplay is much more immersive, because it requires you to actually walk across this vast postapocalyptic landscape, rather than just skimming through it in map-view.

Talking on the phone to desperate people

iStock_000002680448XSmall-300x199Spent a few hours yesterday volunteering at a tenant’s rights clinic. That makes me sound much more political than I am. I am not a huge activist-type. But it’s interesting, and I do have the time. Also, Oakland has such interesting tenant’s rights laws that I do find myself wanting to help people take advantage of them. This is one of the few cities in America where you can actually do something if your landlord tries to raise your rent or get you to leave. In many ways, it’s a really drastic curtailment of property rights.

Anyway, doing intake for this clinic is one of the few experiences in my life that dramatically exceeded my expectations for it. I’d thought, based on all the other times in my life when I’ve done some perfunctory bit of volunteer work, that the whole thing would be a bit dreary. But it was actually very intense and very gripping. What I hadn’t really thought about, until I started calling people, was that these people are in real trouble, and they need real help. For many of them, this is the most stressful thing to have happened to them in years. And, by and large, they are dealing with evictions or rent increases or landlord harassment by themselves, with no legal aid or even any sense of what their rights are.

And when you call them and ask them what’s up, then they immediately start to spill these really long stories which were, in many cases, kind of interesting. There were so many different kinds of people and so many different sorts of living situations. I’d never known how many renters live in situations that are a bit more complicated than “I rent an apartment in an apartment building.”

The biggest challenge, actually, was getting them to stop spilling their stories, and figuring out what exactly their specific problem was. Like, often there’s so much background detail,  many agreements and changes in life plan and broken promises and miscommunications, when, really, the problem is just that the landlord is asking for a rent increase and they’re not allowed to.

I wasn’t allowed to give advice over the phone but, from the limited amount I know about tenant’s law, alot of these peoples’ rights were being violated. In many cases, the landlords clearly didn’t know what the law was (or they’d have gone about things differently). But in some cases, it was obvious that they did. It’s interesting to hear someone describe an action that, to them, is completely mysterious, but makes perfect sense to you, because you know which law it’s attempting to evade.

Really excited to be moving into a new place on Saturday

This was such a serendipitous turn of events. I’d been unsatisfied with my old place almost from the moment I’d moved in, but was so demoralized by the housing search that I’d made up my mind to just stay there for a few months (or maybe even a year?). But then I randomly reconnected with an old friend and invited her to join me on a house-sitting gig and we found that we lived together really well, so we decided to find a new place, and now we’re going to be living together for real! Happenstance. It happens.

I know that this is shocking to all of you, but most people who know me don’t really want to live with me. I think it’s because I have a big personality? I’m not that much messier than other people, I think.  I don’t know. I just don’t give off that “easy to deal with” vibe. I think my main virtue as a housemate is that I am pretty much okay with anything you might do. For instance, the guys at my last house would not-infrequently party until dawn. And I’m not anti-partying, but since I don’t drink or use drugs, I usually want to get to bed at around 2 AM at the latest. I got mad at them once or twice, but then I was like, whatever I’ll just put in my earplugs before I go to bed on Friday and Saturday nights. And after that I never had a problem.

I think that makes me a pretty good roommate, but…only for a certain kind of person.

Have done a shockingly small amount of reading this month

Probably less reading this month than I’ve done in years. I think I’ll only have finished four books: The Annales; The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; that headache memoir All In My Head; and BJ Novak’s Stories And Other Stories.

I did say that I was going to take this month off. But I guess I thought I was just joking; it’s shocking to realize that I actually did take it off. I hope to get back on the horse in November.

Ugh, writing novels is so hard

I can’t believe how many novels there are in the world. I swear to god, I have zero idea how a narrative works.  I mean, I sort of get it, but I also really don’t get it. And I have a novel coming out! I’ve actually done this before!

Berkeley and Oakland’s public libraries look like they belong to different countries

Just went to the West Berkeley library for the first time, and it was amazing. The library was in this sleek brown building that was all glass walls and shiny letters stamped out in chrome and computerized scanning self-checkout and angular white  shelving brackets. There’s a reading room that’s just for teens and there was actually a teen in it (on a Friday afternoon!)

Whereas the Golden Gate branch of the Oakland library, which is only a mile and a half from the West Berkeley library, was just two big dusty rooms inside a large brick building. There was an admirable simplicity to it, I guess. And it was well-utilized. But it didn’t contain nearly the sense of ease and hopefulness that the Berkeley library does.

However, both libraries are, to me, exactly the same. I don’t spend time in the library. I don’t work in the library. I don’t read in the library. I just go online, place books on hold, and collect them from the library, so all that matters to me is how many books they have. In terms of their collections, Oakland probably has more books, since it’s a bigger system. But even that’s not that big of a deal, since both libraries belong to the Link Plus system, which is a consortium of municipal and university libraries that stretches across California and Nevada. If a library doesn’t have a book in its own catalogue, I can log into Link Plus and use a very user-friendly system to arrange an interlibrary loan. And using Link Plus, it is possible to get literally every book published in the last fifty years. I mean that. Like, maybe there’s some book out there that no Link PLus library has, but I’ve never yet searched for a book and been unable to find it.

Knee problems

For twenty-seven years, I didn’t do a lick of exercise. Then, about nine months ago, I started lifting weights on occasion. It was good, I suppose. I got a little bit swole. But my body was having none of it. Almost immediately, I started having knee trouble. I thought that maybe my knees would be strengthened if I kept doing it, but no, that was a foolish thought. Instead they got worse. Now it’s not just exercise. They sometimes ache even from just walking around (although exercise is, by far, the worst for them).

I went to my doctor recently and he sent me a list of knee exercises. I suppose I’ll do them and I suppose I’ll get better. But I am such a pessimist about everything health-related. Everytime something happens, I just assume that it’s going to be a permanent fixture in my life. For instance, for maybe 2-4 years, I had horrible insomnia. I did everything I could think of to stop it. I stopped drinking coffee, stopped looking at light sources before going to bed, stopped smoking, started waking up at the same time every day. And…it got better. I don’t know what did it. Probably a combination of things. But it got better. Nowadays, I almost never lie awake for hours. I actually look forward to going to bed.

I’ve had all kinds of other health things like that. For instance, there was the winter when my entire body itched. And the year when I kept waking up in the middle of the night with the need to urinate, only to find that when I went to the bathroom, I actually didn’t need to urinate. And there’ve been several periods in my life, usually 2-4 weeks long, when I’ve had horrible lower back pain.

Everything’s always gone away. So I imagine that I’ll do some exercises and the knee thing will go away too. It’d be nice if it went. It’s not that I particularly want to run and stuff. But now that I’m normal-weight, it’d be nice to know that I can do physical activity type things if I want to.

I assume that everybody has health blips like these (well, everybody who’s lucky enough to not have serious health problems). But no one talks about them. Somehow I’d figured that there was just a day when you’re like fifty years old when suddenly your body starts breaking down. But nope, it’s a gradual process: a steady accumulation of wear and tear. I imagine it’s a bit like a car. My car is seven years old. It has many dings and dents. The windshield wipers have become curiously ineffective. The acceleration is not particularly responsive. There’s something funky going on with the bumper. At one point, the cruise control randomly crapped out. But it’s all pretty minor. The car runs. It almost never breaks down. It gets me where I want to go with a minimum of fuss. But it’s still noticeably worse than when I got it.

Obviously none of this should be a surprise to me, but it still was. The steady degradation of things. It’s so easy, when you’re a kid, to take your body for granted. But when you’re forced to think about the reality of it–the idea that my body is an extremely complicated system that we don’t really understand–then it’s a little frightening. But oh well. It’s still (mostly) running fine.

Thoughts occasioned by watching the first season of Scandal

  • When you think about it, being the President is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. I mean, four out 44 presidents were assassinated. That’s nine percent. If you figure that each president serves, on average, about five years, then that’s an annualized death rate of around 1.7%? Whereas when I quickly googled the most dangerous jobs in America, it looked like they all had annualized death rates of well under 1%. (Also, two Presidents were injured in assassination attempts, so there’s a chance of that as well.)
  • The president in this show, Fitz Grant, looks simultaneously really weathered and really young. There’s something about the strange smoothness around his eyes.
  • I really like how everyone in this show is a Republican. I feel like Republicans are underrepresented on TV dramas.
  • This show’s emphasis on personal melodrama is absurd. Like, there’s an entire episode that boils down to, “If you can prove that you really love your wife, then you’ll be elected President.” And not only that, but this seems so intuitively obvious to everyone that it doesn’t even need to be debated. Ummmmmm…I don’t think it’s that big a deal. Actually, lots of the scandals don’t seem like that big a deal. Like, the President had an affair with an intern? Who cares? That actually happened. And it came out. And it was a scandal, but it passed. The current president admitted that he’d once snorted cocaine! And no one really cared. In order for a scandal to be a scandal nowadays, there’s gotta be an extra twist. It either has to be illegal (Eliot Spitzer) or it has to be hypocritical (Larry Craig) or it needs to be really absurd (Anthony Weiner; Mark Sanford). Just cheating on your wife isn’t enough.

Reading Suetonius’ LIVES OF THE TWELVE CAESARS

Getting to the end of Augustus. After reading the Annales, I’d kind of assumed that all the Caesars were either weaklings or terrible degenerates or both. But both Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar seemed kind of okay (at least insofar as powerhungry despots go). I’m still not entirely sure why Julius Caesar basically dismantled the Roman Republic, except that he really wanted to be in charge (and maybe didn’t feel like the Republic was working anymore). But at least when he ruled, he did so in a relatively just and merciful fashion. And although Augustus was slightly less just and merciful than Julius, he too also seems like a relatively okay guy. Or…well…at least he didn’t go around willy-nilly executing people on trumped up charges. Which seems like a bit of a low bar, but I don’t think most of the Caesars managed to clear it.

My new mantra is “Yep, that could happen.”

41hQR5KGUGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve been feeling a bit anxious and insecure recently, so a writer friend, Dominica Phetteplace, recommended that I read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom Of Insecurity. And, unlike every single other time someone has recommended that I read a work of pop philosophy, I actually went ahead and did it, and I found it to be really helpful. I don’t know, maybe Watts is some kind of genius and is really able to make me see the world in a new light. Or maybe it just brought to my attention some things that I was finally ready to start thinking about. Probably a little of both.

The book is about how human beings are constantly haunted by the idea that things could go wrong. That even in the moments when we’re most happy (especially in those moments?) we think about the ways that our happiness could be taken away from us. But anxiety over losing something isn’t the bad thing necessarily. Or, rather, it’s not the worst thing. Rather, the real destroyer of happiness are the things that we do in order to alleviate that anxiety. Because each time we think about losing our happiness, the idea is so repulsive that we instinctively move towards familiar sources of comfort: we pursue cheap pleasures or we convince ourselves that it won’t happen or we ruminate endlessly in order to tease out every single detail of the imagined scenario and account for each contingency.

And that rang true to me. Because every time I feel anxious or depressed, it’s so unsettling that I’m like, “I need to feel better immediately!” and then I do one or more things that sometimes makes me happy. And if it does make me happy, then it’s only for a second. And if it doesn’t make me happy, then I feel even worse than before. And I’m not talking about drinking or binge-eating or watching mindless television. Writing and reading are the two things in my life that are the least guilty of pleasures. But I think that sometimes writing and reading can be the wrong thing to do. When I am writing out of anxiety and out of a compulsive desire to chase the high that accompanies creation, then that doesn’t feel good and that’s not a good use of my time or inspiration. And some of my most hopeless and desperate times have been the hours I’ve spent picking up and putting down books and sifting through them relentlessly in order to find the one book that maybe might make me feel better.

Watts’ book is about avoiding these easy fall-backs and attempting, in some way, to make peace with your insecurity.

Anyway, long story short, reading this book has given me a new mantra. For the past few weeks, whenever I think about something bad that might possibly happen, I just say, “Yep, that could happen.” And whenever I try and think about what I’d do if the bad thing actually came to pass, I just say, “I dunno.”

And that’s it.

I’ve been saying these things to myself maybe twenty or thirty times per day. And they help. It’s not that I’ve lost my insecurity. I still find myself needing to say “Yep, that could happen” just as many times now as I did a month ago. But at least the mantras allow me to cut off that cycle in which I seek pleasure and then become even more bereft when I can’t find it. Instead, I’m just like, “Yep, nothing I can do about this insecurity. This anxiety is real. It’s about a real thing that could happen. And there’s nothing I can do to change or ignore that reality.”

And just being able to accept that is, somehow, enough.

 

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