Actual Sunlight is, by all reports, a powerful game about depression. It’s also one I haven’t been comfortable playing.
Content warning: Article contains major spoilers for Actual Sunlight. It also contains discussion of suicide.
Generally, I enjoy playing and writing about games that portray mental health issues. But over at Dork Shelf, Michael McNeely explains why those of us who are coping with depression may be better off avoiding this particular portrayal.
We see an individual shutting down in a thankless corporate job where he is alienated from his co-workers, one of which is another depressed co-worker he is in love with and whom he pushes away. He comes to despise himself and the world at large. Frankly, I hate his world too, and I couldn’t see myself living in it.
Thankfully, I don’t have to. I have a support system comprised of individuals that love me and a job that allows me to talk about what I am passionate about. Evan Winter has no such outlet. The frustration in Actual Sunlight is that O’Neill could have created a support system for Evan, whether it’s a hospital, a counselling office, or even just a friend. Statistics show that one friend can make all the difference. Evan has no friends, and that isolation amplifies the feeling of depression.
That’s what makes the game so unsettling. I wish I had the courage to be Evan’s friend, and I appreciate his perspective. But I have to take care of myself first. I suffer from an anxiety condition and I needed to remind myself that I am not Evan Winter, or responsible to him in any way. However, it does pose a difficult question. Are we responsible to those individuals that are worse off mentally than we are, even if our own mental health is precarious? Does a game like Actual Sunlight have a responsibility to its subject or the people playing it?
McNeely doesn’t answer those questions, but they’re good questions to ask ourselves. Self-care sometimes means paying attention to our own media consumption, and it can also mean reaching out for help when we engage with something we ultimately find harmful. This isn’t a question of censorship — it’s simply a matter of taking your own well-being into consideration when deciding whether or not to play.
McNeely recommends playing the game with a friend and being prepared to stop playing if you find the subject matter too distressing. Creator Will O’Neill, offers a similar warning on the game’s website:
[Actual Sunlight] also deals with extremely mature themes, including depression and thoughts of suicide. Similar to other forms of art that tackle these issues, Actual Sunlight can be an extremely powerful emotional experience – before downloading it, please first consider what your reaction to a book, film or piece of music in a similar vein might be.
Playing games that challenge us is usually well worth the effort, but sometimes stories hit too close to home. There’s no shame in stepping away from the keyboard or putting the controller down in those cases.
No matter the cause, if you find yourself experiencing a mental health crisis, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (it offers support for anyone in emotional distress), or a crisis line in your region.