Sad on Purpose
Composing Music for a Video Game About Depression Doesn't Sound Like Much Fun
Photo by Josh Steichmann.
Depression Quest is a a text-based role-playing game that, according to its website, is “not meant to be a fun or lighthearted experience.” Its objective is to simulate the misery of clinical depression, which probably qualifies it as the most masochistic video game of all time. But unlike the classic words-only fantasy RPGs from which it was derived, Depression Quest eschews slaying dragons in dungeons and buying elixir at the apothecary shop for actions that include tasks like “Defensively ask what she means by that” and “Don’t burden anyone with your problems. Distract yourself.”
The intent of the game’s creators was to provide a realistic assesment of how depression affects your decision making, whether or not you’ve personally suffered from it. A morose soundtrack drones throughout, making it feel as if you’re lying in the fetal position at the end of a dark tunnel, struggling to hear the delicate notes of a pianist on the other end through a deep, hazy fog. The music was composed by Isaac Schankler, a Los Angeles-based musician whose electroacoustic orchestrations are somewhere in the zone of a toned-down John Cage playing with Brian Eno’s ambient gear. I realized that most of the music I like was probably made by people who were or are depressed. So after playing the game for a while, I started to wonder if music this sad could only be created by someone who’s depressed. And, if so, does making music this sad make you even more depressed? I called Isaac to ask him what he thought.
VICE: What do you think is the key to making depressing music?
Isaac Schankler: A lot of it ends up being about relationships—bad relationships because those are always the most depressing. The Lyric Suite, by Alban Berg, is this early modernist piece, so it’s atonal, mellow, but it’s super harrowing. The third movement is extremely agitated, just devastatingly slow and bleak, and this was something that people wondered about for years: Why is it called the Lyric Suite?
So they figured out what it was about?
They found in his notes that it was all about this affair he had with a married woman named Hannah Fuchs… Threaded throughout the score are their initials, A-B-H-F, and that was the motif for the whole piece. It’s a weirdly intellectual way of writing about this tragic thing, and even if you didn’t know, it’s still harrowing to listen to. I was fascinated by it for a while because it took this weirdly personal thing and coded it in a really impersonal way. Writing about depression is like that because it’s really personal and different for everybody, and, to talk about it, you have to sort of make it impersonal. [Depression Quest] is like that, too. Details are unspecific and vague, because in early testing, they found people could identify with the character when it was vague. [Note: At one point, the game gives you the option of getting a cat, but if you don’t get the cat, it all goes downhill from there, which is very true to real life.]
Were you able to spend some time with the game before you composed the score?
That was the interesting thing. I sort of compared the decisions I made in the game to decisions I made at certain points in my life. The game does a good job of depicting [real-life decisions] to an extent because certain choices will be closed off. Some of the more rational choices you can’t even select, and some of that is dependent on your character’s level of depression. I thought when I first played it that I was going to select the rational choices, but sometimes in real life, you just won’t make the rational choice.
Did you get depressed while composing the music?
I really only get down when I have difficulty on a project, but paradoxically, I didn’t have time to dwell on it too much with Depression Quest, so it came easy to me. The other game I was working on at the time I did struggle with more, and I felt like I wasn’t getting things right. That game is called Hate Plus. It’s a sequel to yet another depressing game, Analogue: A Hate Story. It’s about a space detective reading the logs of a derelict spaceship, but it’s mostly centered around a teenage girl who gets sick and frozen and wakes up in a future where things have regressed to a medieval society. The first game was so depressing, and so many bad things happened to the girl, that the developer said the girl should be eating cake through the whole next game. She said, “I don’t want her to do anything else, just eat cake.”
Get virtually bummed at depressionquest.com. While you can play for free, we encourage you to pay its creators if you find it to be useful. They’ll accept whatever you can afford, and a portion of their proceeds go to the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression.
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