Actual Sunlight is a text-based autobiographic story game by game-developer Will O’Neill which was released back in 2013. It is marketed as ‘a game about love, depression and the corporation’.
Evan Winter is in his mid- to late-thirties. He has a job that he does not like and that feels pointless to him, he lives alone, he doesn’t have a girlfriend nor does he seem to ever have had one which to him is due to the fact that he’s an overweight ‘loser’, and aside from his colleagues at work and ‘the same old friends, saying the same old things’ (who the player never gets to see) he doesn’t seem to be meeting any people. Instead, he spends his days by going to work and his evenings and nights by drinking and playing video games, on which he spends way too much money as his debit card protocol shows.
He is in love with his co-worker Tori, who is engaged and going to get married soon.
Evan’s life seems depressing, and it is.
However, this is at least partly due to his depressing thoughts and feelings and the choices that result from them.
In an interview on YouTube the creator of Actual Sunlight, Will O’Neill, said that what he wanted to show in the game was how depression is a mixture of environment and thought patterns but also how the two of them influence each other and ultimately, help perpetuate and maintain depression.
“I mean, it’s about being depressed. But it’s also about the life you live that is depressing. And the extent to which, I think, depression compounds and perpetuates itself. Because to have that outlook on life maybe makes you make choices or go in directions that then make your depression sink you in further.“ (Will O’Neill on Actual Sunlight)
By interacting with his environment and frequent injections of his own thoughts and daydreams Evan shares his perception of himself and the world around him with the player.
The story is linear and (spoiler) its outcome is unavoidable, as it is not supposed to be a game about the hero’s quest through his suffering that has him eventually emerge victorious over his sickness and start leading the life he’d always dreamt about living, but a game about the reality of depression: what it feels like and does to the people who suffer from it.
As O’Neill put it:
“I wanted to explore it [depression] as more than just an emotional state that makes someone morose or gloomy. (…) A lot of people have said: ‘You know, it makes a very compelling case for depression. You really feel like you are being pulled into this guy’s world even if it’s not a viewpoint you necessarily share. You absolutely understand why he feels the way he does because of the way he explains [it]’ (…) I find it [depression] is too often depicted as a sort of state of emotional being but there’s rationals behind it, there’s a perspective.“
In my opinion, the game definitely suceeds in pulling the player in and having the player – to some degree at least – adopt and thus understand Evan Winter’s perspective. More so, the player is completely restricted to Evan’s perception of the world: just like Evan, the player is held captive by Evan’s own thoughts, which includes the (self-)destructive thoughts that his depression is feeding him, and is thus very limited in his choices.
A good example for this is one scene in which Evan, after work, finds himself in a store browsing through the latest video games. They are too expensive and he doesn’t care much for the genres on offer, however he makes it clear that he wants to buy one of the games. The player at first seemingly gets to choose between buying and not buying the video game, but upon trying to leave the store Evan will tell the player that they’re right, he shouldn’t buy the game but that even if he left the store now, he’d be back within an hour or so, restless, desperate for something to do. So no matter what, he will buy the video game. And the only way in which the player can progress at this point, is by buying it – there is no other option. The player gets to share Evan’s thoughts, daily life and the restrictions he faces due to his depression. In many ways, I personally felt that it is even more than that – that as a player you do not simply get to witness Evan struggling through life but that you inhabit a part of his consciousness, a part of his thoughts as well. As you, the player, are the force that tries to keep Evan alive, you represent, you play the part of his brain that fights the depression. However, even the most optimistic person will arrive at a point in the game where they ask themselves: Maybe Evan is right. Maybe his life is as horrible and pointless as he thinks. Maybe it doesn’t get better. Maybe Evan would indeed better be off dead?
And as horrible as that sounds, this is exactly the point of the game: to make people understand depression by pulling them in through the same structures and patterns of thoughts that pull people into depression.
And as much as I like how they were able to recreate these thought patterns (in Evan and in the player) this is exactly what I would like to criticise at this point:
Because in the end, Evan Winter takes his own life. He snaps and jumps off the roof of his apartment building and he dies.
And there is nothing the player can do to prevent that. Actual Sunlight is not a choice-based story game that allows the player to influence the outcome of the game through a series of – hopefully – smart choices and gain some feeling of accomplishment from that. Rather, it the game’s aim is to educate people about the very real danger that is depression: that it is not simply being episodically grumpy and gloomy, but that it is, as mentioned above, a network of destructive thoughts working against the person suffering from it. That depression is the brain literally working against itself and that suicide is an actual threat to people suffering from it.
But what is the message for those for whom depression already is a reality, who do not need to be educated about it? That suicide is a legitimate way out? That it is maybe the only way out?
Especially since Evan’s last words seem to say: this makes it better. He feels lighter, freer, happier than ever before.
As mentioned above, Will O’Neill’s game is an autobiographical one. In many ways, it narrates his own history of depression, which he has had to deal with since he was a teenager, and his thoughts and feelings about it.
“(…) my biggest motivation was wanting to represent, you know, the kind of things that I’d been through in a kind of way that I felt was raw and realistic.“
And I could imagine, though I can’t be sure, of course, that the death of his protagonist was in a way his own, metaphorically, of course; that Evan Winter’s suicide was cathartic for O’Neill, which seems proven by how Evan describes it as being freeing. And I can understand how that to would be important to someone suffering from depression, that it would, in a way feel a bit like closure, the end of a chapter, one way to work yourself through and out of your illness and to distance yourself from it while doing so. To understand it as something that is but a part of yourself, not the whole you.
But it might not feel like that to everyone.
And even though I do understand why the creator would choose this ending and even though the game does come with the warning that it might not be suitable for people who find themselves triggered by or very receptive of this kind of content, I would still have liked at least an alternate ending.
Because suicide is not the only way out, there is an alternate ending for everyone suffering from depression. It can get better and it many cases with the help of therapists and medication it actually does. You are as much deserving of a happy and fulfilled life and you are as much capable of acquiring it as everyone else. And as my flatmate would say: However old you are, you always have the power to turn things around. To meet new people, who – though unable to magic away your depression -, might definitely help ease it by small remarks, by just being there.
And even though at this very moment, maybe reading this very article, your life might not seem worth living to you – it is. You are important, you are here, you are loved and you can feel better.
In conclusion, Actual Sunlight is a thought-provoking, touching approach to a topic which unfortunately still lacks accurate representation in our society and that is still not being treated with the respect, attention and compassion it deserves. Furthermore, to choose the medium of video games for this approach is, in my opinion, a good way of exploring the issue and educating people about it.
However, due to the fact that it is a video game and a very immersive one at that, it tends to feel very real to the people playing it. Which is of course the point, but which might render it unsuitable to play for some people.
In any case, if you feel triggered by the content of this game, or if you’re suffering from depression or depressive thoughts yourself, seek help! You are not alone and you don’t have to go through this all by yourself.
If you live in the Hamburg area, the following options, among others, are available to you:
http://www.deutsche-depressionshilfe.de/stiftung/rat-fuer-angehoerige.php?r=p (if you have friends or relatives who suffer from depression)
(Note: the quotes in this article were taken from the game itself as well as from a Youtube interview with Will O’Neill from the channel Blackman ‘N Robin. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pshjivEky04 last-checked: 11/29/15 7:40pm)
Sara was listening to “Jet Pack Blues” by Fallout Boy while writing this article.