My Cognitive Dissonance on Gender in Depression Quest

Bryan Hughes
4 min readMar 9, 2015

First of all, I have to say that Depression Quest is good. Really good. Really really good. Amazingly, heartbreakingly, touchingly, astoundingly, incredibly fucking good. It’s not the “typical” game, and what some would describe as “not a game but interactive fiction”, but I still consider it a game, and it’s one of those indie games that shows us the true power of the medium: to really let us see inside someone else’s head, not just observe from afar as movies, books, etc do. This is why I love games.

I had a somewhat (?) unique experience with the game that I want to focus on. Something that is really tangential and irrelevant for the game as a whole, but interesting to me nonetheless. The gender of the protagonist is never explicitly mentioned, and I ended up suffering some cognitive dissonance over this. I’ve been thinking about this some and I have a number of thoughts on the subject.

There is somewhat of an elephant in the room regarding Depression Quest at this point in time. This game is the product of a team of people, and I have no doubt that everyone’s contributions were vital to this game. That said, Depression Quest is very much viewed as Zoe Quinn’s game. I suspect that I hold this view largely in part to gamer gate, which the hash tag/movement was initially spawned due to this game. The maleficence behind gamer gate has been around for a long time, and it certainly wasn’t this game that caused it, but the “movement” known as gamer gate did start with Depression Quest. So, for better or worse, I still view this as “Zoe Quinn’s game.” This is one of the reasons that I first assumed the gender of the protagonist to be a woman.

That’s not the only reason though. For me personally, any time there is the ability to choose gender in a game, or the gender is unspecified but still human such that there is some gender to be represented, I default to female. For example, I have never once played a single Bioware game as a male protagonist, and I doubt I ever will. This despite the fact that I have played the Dragon Age series twice, and the Mass Effect series three times, in addition to some of their other games. It’s just not going to happen. I could go on and on about why, but the tl;dr is that gaming is so protagonist male-heavy that I leap at the chance for something different. So for Depression Quest, given a gender-neutral presentation, I just assumed the protagonist was a woman, as I tend to do.

Shortly into the game, it is revealed that the protagonist is in a relationship with someone named “Alex,” although this person’s gender is not revealed right away. Alex is a gender neutral name, but with male connotations, so I just assumed Alex was male at that point. This despite the fact that I actually know more women named Alex than men, go figure.

Then, it was revealed that Alex was a woman.

I was not expecting that, it made me re-evaluate my position. Was the protagonist male? Was it a queer woman? I still don’t have an answer to that, and I find my uncertainty so fascinating.

I think the game is designed to be such that the protagonist is what you bring to them. So the fact that I’m still unsure probably says far more about me than it does the game itself. I stated my reasons above for taking the protagonist to be a woman, but I have to wonder if those are the only reasons.

Yes you can read into this uncertainty as a reflection on me being bi, which is probably a pretty significant part of this uncertainty. But I also wonder, is this still residual sexism in my own thinking? Am I falling prey to the assumption that women are more susceptible to depression than men, even though that isn’t actually true? I suspect so. Being a cis neurotypical male, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to truly escape my viewpoint as such, including all the social biases inherent.

So what is my main point? I’m not really even sure, to be honest. I suppose my point is that these issues are intersectional. Discussions of mental illness unfortunately can’t fully be separated from issues of gender equality, and even LGBTQ equality. The view that men “aren’t susceptible to emotions like women” is a) completely false and b) still an entrenched part of gender inequality. Such that even I still fall prey to them, despite there being other reasons for me to have taken the viewpoint I did.

Ultimately, no matter what the true source of my cognitive dissonance is, assuming there even is a “true source,” it’s fascinating and telling of the society we live in.



Bryan Hughes

Software is written for people, by people. Without people, software would not exist, nor would it have a reason to exist.