Gris and Depression Quest differ in their representation of how one can recover from trauma over time in that Gris suggests victims can rebuild a stronger, more resilient version of their past self while Depression Quest contends that trauma becomes an immovable tenant in victims’ minds. Firstly, the medium through which each game is played represents the proximity of trauma to the victim. Gris is effectively a platformer, like the original Mario or Donkey Kong games, that features continuous movement to the right or up. Although there are a few situations where one must move a bit backwards, which can loosely be compared to setbacks in the recovery stage, the next stage is typically at the right-most location. Moving continuously right, Gris passes through the stages of grief and ends at acceptance, and in doing so, she develops a set of tools for moving forward. For example, waves of anger, embodied by furious maroon winds, can be met with resilience, in the form of transformation into a rigid block. Each stage brings new abilities to the characters, ultimately extending the distance between trauma and the victim, as with time, the effect of trauma is weakened – the game even ends with a beautiful cutscene of a foul dark serpent creature, overwhelmed by the light, filling the body of the fragmented woman but returning color and prosper to the game’s setting, only to be met with a final tear from the rebuilt stone woman. This suggests trauma develops a symbiotic relationship with the victim, serving as a somber reminder of both their emotional strength and lasting scars.
At this point in the two games, the player’s path diverges: through the passage of time in Gris, one approaches a set goal, while in Depression Quest, the ending of the game brings the player little further in the path to recovery. Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and helplessness have not remained precisely the same – moments of happiness have come and gone – but there has been no definitive trend towards the feeling of peace present at the culmination of Gris. Furthermore, while Gris imbues a sense of organization and control onto its players, who can move left and right as they please and their task at hand, it becomes clear, follows through with movement to the right. Depression Quest makes no such concession. There are no gamely tasks, like figuring out levels or making a difficult jump. Thus, the player, scrambling to satisfy their sense of play, errantly tries to have their game character solve depression and find success. Here, the trap snaps shut as the developers rig the game to avoid any resemblance to the app Episode or The Sims. An example of this lies in the blotted out options: as opposed to just removing paths the player cannot follow, the game keeps them in the mix and crosses them out in a violent shade of red, only furthering one’s struggle to succeed, as these crossed-out options remind the player of a reality they can no longer experience. Moreover, the player must choose one of the other options, which are almost always worse, meaning that each opportunity for improvement is met with eventual regression to square one. While Gris allows you to venture out of the dark place, Depression Quest keeps you eternally at war by its many heads, demonstrating different perspectives of the path to recovery from trauma.
Gris and Depression Quest offer similar representations of the way trauma is confusing. Although Gris provides both a more optimistic and organized, narrative-like perspective of recovery than Depression Quest, both games represent how the process to heal from trauma has plenty of dead ends. In Gris, from the get-go, the player is provided with little instructions from both a strategic perspective and a literal one: the game does not give any tutorial for how to play or even how to use the keyboard to move. Probing plays into this, as the developers cross genres here, injecting an open-world element into a primarily 2-dimensional game. Probing has numerous neurological benefits, but the most crucial benefit here is that it forces the player into the position of throwing their hands in the air and pondering, most likely even considering giving up. Through the medium of probing, the game design forces the player to search carefully, accept a certain degree of frustration, and be ready to fail. These attributes emulate the confusing nature of traumatic events that often leave victims unsure how to move forward.
Depression Quest similarly depicts the path to recovery from trauma as one filled with obstacles that lead to inevitable frustration and inner-questioning. Unlike Gris, Depression Quest has no open-world elements. It provides few opportunities for probing (past the aforementioned desire to ‘eliminate’ depression and be successful, which only can loosely be categorized under probing) since the game is played through the imageless medium of situations where one makes choices. Instead, Depression Quest uses the unsuccessful results of choices the player makes as a testament to the confusing nature of depression. Firstly, the options the player receives only serve to remove the game’s protagonist from a state of languishing; they never actually allow for the player to step into a state of flourishing. In other words, the options simply prevent pain instead of providing happiness, which places a significant strain on the player’s fill-in goal of outrunning their mental illness. Furthermore, any attempts to find some semblance of relaxation or success are quickly extinguished by the dark, damp overhang that is depression. You as the player want to succeed, but the options at hand just don’t allow for much upward mobility, and when they do, the slight improvement is effectively negated by an onslaught of choices that bring you back to the starting point. The end result of these two aspects is that the game is equal parts confusing and frustrating. While at the start skeptics might point to the game structure itself and claim the narrative is rigged to paint an unrealistic portrait of depression (the same perverse logic that suggests those suffering from depression simply try to be happy), the sad truth is that depression operates exactly in this fashion (though, it is important to note that depression affects each person differently). The game developers did not add the overwhelming sense of unfairness and confusion as a narrative-driven obstacle; instead, they demonstrated an actual facet of depression. Although Gris and Depression Quest differ in numerous ways, they both provide their players with an unfiltered representation of how the path to recovery from trauma is rife with ongoing mental battles that reap strong feelings of confusion and frustration.
The process of healing requires consciously taking action: both Gris and Depression games demonstrate that recovery from trauma is confusing and frustrating, but the key difference in the two games is that while Depression Quest’s protagonist’s passive attempts to improve lead to no avail, Gris’s protagonist’s active changes lead to growth. The character in Depression Quest attempts to take on their mental illness by making choices, but this is an intrinsic error. Depression Quest demonstrates that merely making choices that seem right is not enough to start the healing process. Without actively taking a role in one’s mental health, trauma is an immovable aspect of their life, and the proximity of the trauma to their daily routine stays almost exactly the same. While it is true that both Gris and Depression Quest depict the path to recovery as confusing and frustrating, Gris shows the importance of definitive steps toward recovery, demonstrating that with definitive steps, even when they are completely wrong and cause the character to regress, one moves forward and can take on increasingly difficult challenges. Cathy Caruth, an expert on the way trauma overtakes one’s life, describes trauma as sort of an un-ending shell shock, where the victim never fully regains consciousness or a full understanding. Simultaneously, the traumatic event remains outside of memory and outside of the mind’s realm to depict the event as a narrative. This creates something of a hazy reality for victims, where nothing seems to have the same effect as before, and the traumatic event that brought them there seems just out of reach. This reality holds up with the diegesis created by the narratives of both Gris and Depression Quest. But through this hazy reality, it is easy to lose oneself and live a life underscored by pain. The ultimate takeaway is that victims may not be able to overcome trauma’s murky, confusing world like a video game foe, but by taking bold, progressive steps that can lead to spectacular failure or some limited success, they can bring trauma to a place of control and growth. To recover from trauma, one must be bold and decisive, as well as unafraid of judgment and failure, and with enough time and practice dedicated to healing, one may not ‘beat’ trauma into oblivion, but they can create a version of themselves that is strong enough to let it become a strengthening column of their identity.