Content warning: discussion of suicide
The last time I dealt with as-yet untreated depression, Depression Quest resonated with me to the point that I forced myself to get out of the house and get help. That’s not an exaggeration. I was playing the game, clicking through to get the protagonist to the healthiest possible ending, when I asked myself why I couldn’t do the same in reality.
I didn’t have a good answer, so I went to talk to a professional.
But the questions these intensely empathetic games raise aren’t always as positive. As FemHype’s Lindsay Goto writes, both Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight explore the idea of isolation, and isolation can be an incredibly damaging experience. In Actual Sunlight’s case, this leads to questions like why does suicide make sense to some people? – questions with answers that can be hard to contemplate.
Depression Quest nails this feeling of isolation. Actual Sunlight is another game that captures the feeling well. When it gets bad enough and the isolation is complete, I end up isolated even when I’m surrounded by people, and that’s how Evan from Actual Sunlight feels. Evan has people in his life and there are people all around who populate the world, but it still feels empty and hollow. As he ends up isolated more and more, his attachment to the world is lessened.
The terrifying thing about depression and isolation is that it isolates you from everything. Depression makes it very easy to ask yourself why you keep breathing even as it lessens your ability to find the joy that would help you want to live.
In Polygon’s brutally honest profile from 2013, Actual Sunlight creator Will O’Neill explains that he set out to create a game that wasn’t buoyed by false optimism.
It was the unlikely, unprecedented combination of subject matter and medium that convinced O’Neill it was not only a story he needed to tell, but that it had to take the form of a game. “Our stories are always sadly aspirational,” he says. “I felt that a character like Evan Winter in our culture, his story would usually be that one day he decides to start jogging, and everything in his life would suddenly fall into place. I wanted to tell a story about depression and how your viewpoint narrows through that mental state. I wanted to tell a realistic story about someone like that.”
He really means someone like himself. Actual Sunlight is fearlessly autobiographical. As O’Neill puts it, “It’s not made up: It’s me.”
But that’s not to say that it’s hopeless. Now, O’Neill believes his game is for a lot of people who may not be willing to admit that they could benefit from its perspective.
‘Neill says that in the past he has worried whether or not the game is accessible. Today however, he’s less apologetic. Even and especially considering the hardcore gamer crowd, Actual Sunlight, he says, is for everybody.
“I want everyone to play my game, and I don’t think the writing that I do is inaccessible,” O’Neill explains. “I think the vast majority of people, certainly the people you think of as stereotypical ‘gamerdudebro’ types, they could get a lot out of Actual Sunlight. Whenever I see a review on Steam that’s like, ‘I don’t know what the f*ck this game’s talking about,’ and they’ve got something like 7,000 products registered to their account, they know what this game is about—they know exactly what it’s about.”
Goto comes to similar conclusions in her piece for FemHype, noting that these stories are powerful because they aren’t anomalies. They communicate difficult ideas that a lot of people grapple with, but that few of us know how to talk about.
Whether the people that play them feel more empathetic about depression or not might be beside the point. Maybe the real benefit is that they let us ask our own questions when we need to find answers for ourselves.