The second part of an ongoing series about games/interactive experiences that deal with depression and mental illness. First posted 16/07/2014.
Actual Sunlight is not strictly speaking a game about depression, though that certainly runs through the heart of it. Actual Sunlight is instead a game about suicide. There’s no avoiding that fact going in: though there are other themes it deals with it is, ultimately, defined by that one unavoidable thing. With such a heavy shadow cast over it, how could it not be?
You play as Evan Wright in his final few months before the event that he seems so inexorably drawn towards. Knowing that colours everything in the game – every bitter sketch of Evan’s, every awkward exchange, every pixel on those retro sprites are seen through that filter. Dealing with suicide head on is a bold thing to do in any medium – in a videogame, put together in RPG maker, it’s almost lunacy. How can you deal with such a weighty topic with nothing but what amounts to the village sections of your standard top down SNES JRPG in your armory?
Will O’Neill has attempted to do just that with Actual Sunlight, a game he made almost entirely on his own, eventually got onto steam and is now remaking as a 3D version. This is written after playing it’s slightly revamped 2D state. Expect spoilers.
“I know what you’re thinking: Why keep getting up, day in and day out, even though your life is going nowhere?”
Actual Sunlight opens with a scene I found all too familiar: Evan hitting the snooze button on his alarm clock and questioning the point of getting up to face the same hopeless day time and time again. Evan tells himself not to feel bad for himself whilst there are exploited immigrants “shattering their fingers” stacking shelves for, “monolithic retailers.” Or soldiers enduring war in far flung countries to fight for the agendas of corrupt governments. It sounds a reasonable and a potentially helpful reality check. But really he’s shaming himself for feeling so down whilst being so privileged. It’s an attack on himself. “None of them can live the life the life you can, a life of pathetic, dick punching resignation.”
And so we are introduced to Evan’s vicious cycle – feeling terrible, feeling guilty for feeling terrible, attacking himself for feeling terrible and then feeling even more terrible.
The alarm goes again: this time he jumps out of bed. He chastises himself once more, telling himself to feel lucky to be able to spend his time feeling so unlucky. He doesn’t manage to stay up though; when the alarm goes off a third time we find him back in bed. The screen goes black and we’re introduced to a narrative trick repeated throughout the game – transcripts of apparent conversations between Evan and his therapist. He asks Evan why he sets the alarm so early knowing he will fail to get up for it. He says he doesn’t know. He guesses he hopes tomorrow will be the day his life starts.
I know all of this eerily well: I’ve been there. Just about all of my working days start this way. Evan longs for the day when he does get up early, that he does exercise, that everything finally falls into place. He hopes that one day he will change, that there will be an epiphany, a life saving helping hand that reaches down from nowhere and gives him the strength he needs. But that never comes. Whilst writing about Depression Quest in BDG #1 I complained that it didn’t quite mirror my own experiences and, whilst that’s entirely understandable given the whole potential spectrum of experiences of depression, it still jarred with me. Straight off the bat Actual Sunlight seems determined to warn me to be careful what I wish for.
“Why kill yourself today when you could masturbate tomorrow?”
Evan eventually makes it out of bed and the game begins. It’s a fairly typical RPG maker set up; you wander around various locations in a top down view with the interactivity with your surroundings limited to an interaction button. As game mechanics this is a little on the austere side – what we’re left with is more of an interactive short story. However it is a story that couldn’t really be told in any other medium. The way it leads you through his day, guiding you around his world, is something that could only be done with direct control over the protagonist. And there’s a removal of player choice at the end that is very clever, making the inevitability of the final act really hit home.
RPG maker is a bit limited graphically and for this subject matter it feels a little inappropriate – some of the ‘extras’ do look like JRPG archetypes, which is causes a bit of dissonance with the brutal realism of the text. In using such meagre tools Actual Sunlight, much like Depression Quest, has no choice and live or die by it’s writing. Thankfully this is where O’Niell thrives.
Pressing on assorted items around Evan’s flat provides us with exposition in the form of short sketches, for instance a talk show transcript interview with himself, complete with canned laughter, where every answer is a self deprecating joke, every laugh bitter and hollow. There’s a self help book for over eaters and a manual for botching the putting together of flat pack furniture amongst other dark skits. They fade in and out, white text on black background, the text cleverly ‘printing’ out at different speeds to dictate the pace which it is read, aiding the comic timing. And make no mistake, Actual Sunlight is a very funny game, in it’s jet black, corrosive way. But it’s very thin veil of humour; even the lighter jokes are all on Evan. It’s all part of the brutal, unrelenting assault on Evan himself, every gag filled with bile-drenched self-deprecation and disdain for anything that doesn’t live up to the impossible standards he sets for himself and the world around him. The most glaring example of this comes when we press on a PC and read a review he has written about A>WAKE on the somethingawful forums: a poisonous, vitriolic screed that again reads entirely like another brutal verbal attack on himself. Evan is bitter. Evan is angry. He’s throwing his anger at whatever happens to be in his periphery but there’s only ever one real target. This is the depressive at his lowest ebb, when even the crack that lets the light in seems to have healed up. Every part of his wit, his intelligence is focused like a myopic, solipsistic lazer onto his own soul.
Depression is often a disease of vanity. It exists in the space between the beautiful, impossible fantasy lives we build up for ourselves and the reality of our situation. The depressive tends to secretly (or not so secretly) feel smarter and generally above the world they inhabit – they feel they are destined for greatness in some way that never seems to quite materialise. They feel somehow above a lot of the people they communicate with, as if they’ve seen something truly vital at the heart of everything that others just haven’t, despite in their heart of hearts knowing that’s really not the case. They feel guilty for feeling that way – they’re perfectly aware that it’s all utter nonsense – but that doesn’t stop them feeling it. And they can never quite reconcile this vision of themselves with the person they truly are. And so the way they see themselves is entirely distorted – they think they’re uglier, fatter, more awkward than they actually are because compared to their own vision of the person they believe they ought to be they’re such a crushing disappointment. It’s between those two points, the ideal and the reality, that the shadow falls.
By ‘they’ I really mean ‘we.’ Or maybe just I. But Evan certainly feels the same – or should I say Will? It’s obvious this is an auto-biographical game early on – this disparity and the seething blues it inspires is captured too accurately for it not to be. It’s a pitch perfect representation of the ever present feeling of cloying futility that accompanies every action that couldn’t be captured otherwise. Who’d dream of feeling that way by choice?
“A lie that everyone can pay their mortgage with becomes the truth faster than you would believe.”
Evan gets up and goes to work. We walk with him through his commute and his job, interacting with the cast of his life, over three key days that take place over an unspecified period of time. First is this normal day filled with sketches about Evan’s life and his environment. He works in a generic office doing generic administrative work from which he appears to derive no satisfaction. He’s kind of in love with one co-worker and almost accidentally fostering some sort of relationship with another. On the second day we take control of Even we steer him through a dark day during which he smashes everything he owns and quits his job. The final day takes place sometime later. The humour gradually drains away as it goes along; the jokes start barbed but witty. But then the wit fades. The veil drops. It becomes nothing but attacks on the self without any humour to cushion the blow. It starts early, with a rant on the train to work about dealing with strangers where the humour is lost and what is left is..odd. Unsettling. The mask drops a little and we realise that Evan really is something of a misanthrope. And kind of an asshole.
How he became such an asshole isn’t quite defined. He has weight issues and is obviously lonely. He has a loving family that he feels like a disappointment and a burden to. He’s quite clumsy and short on patience. He’s obsessed with the idea of not being a normal person. And there’s a deep vain of fatalism in his outlook. He ruminates on the idea that life can deal you a shitty hand and there’s not a thing you can do about it incessantly. It feels like this is almost O’Neill’s main point – I don’t know precisely how much of Evan is O’Neill but I get the sensation that the self-loathing and bitterness at his lot in life is too raw to be a mere creation. And through reading O’Neill’s blog you’ll find that he’s living with a similar chronic pain to the one Evan describes.
But whilst the background to his depression isn’t well covered the environment that helps it thrive is. The issues he has with his work are interesting – a lot of Evan’s problems are if not his own fault then continually reinforced by him, but Actual Sunlight has interesting points to make about the lack of value in modern day working scenarios, the lack of a feeling of worth to what we do. ‘Pushing money round in circles.’ is how Evan describes it. Being paid poorly by western standards but enough to live better than the vast majority of people on Earth to do close to nothing – how can that be beneficial to anyone’s ego? And then there’s the kind of people who thrive in these scenarios, portrayed a little one dimensionally by one particularly odious character. His naked careerism and general lack of any kind of moral compass make the place even more unbearable for Evan. It all adds to up to a hothouse for depression – the shit you get lumbered with on a day to day basis acts as fertiliser, making rich ground for sadness to grow and flourish. As time goes on the possibility for change feels more and more remote, you feel trapped in this lifestyle, this grind that feels endless, a tunnel with no light at the end of it. Can this environment cause depression? Perhaps. It certainly exacerbates it for those prone to it and who don’t have the required mindset to function within it.
In his private life Evan doesn’t help himself. He continually makes the mistake of being too precious about the fun he has. He routinely refuses to go to things he views as, ‘hipster,’ regardless of how much he would enjoy them, to preserve the aloof image he has of himself. It’s that vicious paradox again – he sees himself one way, as too aloof and cool to take part in these things, whilst simultaneously seeing himself as a complete joke and a failure. He holds these two contradictory ideas in his head simultaneously, which is untenable but, to begin with, stable. It’s when his perception of himself tilts irrevocably towards the latter image that things start to go wrong.
Then there’s the games big act of violence – the moment Evan trashes all his things to make a new start – an all too familiar urge. The idea of cleansing yourself of everything, as if the external stimulus you have come to crave is in itself the problem and without it you will somehow magically be better. He has accumulated all these things in an effort to better himself – a tablet to write his ideas on, a set of drawers to maintain a tidy flat, etc. He’s tied to the idea that, “I just need to buy x, then I’ll be happy.” When of course the route for a possible solution for him would be a long term investment of time and effort, in changing his habits for the better. There’s an old Chinese proverb I’ve been keeping in mind for my own battles, “The best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago; the second best is today.” Evan, however, would probably counter, “I didn’t plant a tree 50 years ago, so what’s the point?”
Actually he’d probably point out that the second best time would be 49 years ago. He’s that kind of smartarse.
“I guess it just all feels the same, day in day out, except you know that in some way you’re falling apart.”
I recognise a lot of the thought processes Evan goes through during Actual Sunlight. Uncomfortably so. When it becomes clear that the therapist in the ‘patient transcripts’ we’re shown is in fact a creation of Evans, and that this is just his internal conversations he has with himself, I wasn’t surprised. A lot of the back and forths mirror conversations I have with myself. I’ve never appointed myself a therapist for the other person in the exchange; I just talk to myself about how useless I am and how I’ve failed and I’ve missed the boat and how nothing will ever get better even as it’s getting better. The black dog has a voice – it’s not the same as having actual psychosis, delusions or hearing the voice of god, but there is a second internal monologue in there that seems almost independent sometimes. And it does not like us. It tells us that we’re worthless and that there’s no point to any of it. It’s the part of us that uses such a negative, twisted logic – it doesn’t ask why we should consider getting completely hammered alone on a Tuesday night, it asks us why not? And it ensures we don’t have any good reasons to offer.
You have to remember – that second voice lies. Where it comes from, I don’t know. But no good ever comes from listening to it. When suicidal thoughts cross my mind I repeat the mantra: that’s not how my story ends. That’s not how my story ends.
Evan doesn’t just listen to that other voice – he’s consumed by it. He doesn’t have any such mantra. He doesn’t have any form of defence at all.
It is how his story ends.
“Don’t you fucking dare.”
Though I related to Evan even in those final moments, as he resigned himself to his fate and somehow found a slither of hope in his own end, I managed to make myself feel detached from it. My story won’t end the way Evan’s does. But despite the way Actual Sunlight nails all those thought processes, those bitter self-deprecating moments, the way the veil of humour drops on your internal thoughts and the negativity it held like a dam eventually spills outwards, my final thoughts were – I wish you didn’t write that disclaimer. Much of the media around the games released focused in on the moment in the game O’Neill interjects to give a stern warning to the under 28s not to follow Evan down his path. I understand his logic for doing so, that at a young age there is still time to alter your life’s course and that this gets much harder as the years drift by. And maybe my disdain for this message comes from a selfish place – I hit 30 recently myself, and I also sometimes give myself over to dark visions of my future that bear no relation to what is left for me to possibly accomplish. But does that mean I should take this whole ‘endgame’ seriously? That being a little older I don’t deserve a warning to distance myself from what is obviously a very personal piece of writing? I’d like to give him the doubt and assume that he is assuming people over that age don’t need any hand-holding. That we’re experienced enough to sort out what’s real ourselves. In which case I hope he’s right, and that the wrong person at the same age as himself doesn’t play this at the wrong time. Maybe they would be beyond a simple disclaimer. But then, maybe not.
I can’t help but feel that it should have either been extended to everyone, or everyone should have been trusted to take the game how they will. By putting a cut off point on when suicide suddenly becomes acceptable I feel the game is tacitly endorsing the decision to kill yourself. And whilst I know that was not the intention I can’t help but find the way this is handled deeply problematic.
But here’s a disclaimer of my own – someone truly dear to me took their own life not that long back. He was over Actual Sunlight’s acceptable suicide age. So I’m perhaps still feeling too raw to judge this objectively. But it feels like a dramatic misstep in what is otherwise an impressively assured attempt at tightrope walking over such a difficult subject. It’s sad that O’Neill seems to be sure that there is no other way out for Evan even though he himself, by creating Actual Sunlight, has shown himself that there is always hope, even if it comes in the form of sticking your fingers down your throat and vomiting up the worst parts of you to display to the world – what F Scott Fitzgerald called ‘the price of admission‘ for a writer. I worried after reading about the 3D version of this that he was going to trap himself in a rut of writing and rewriting Actual Sunlight, trawling through the same darkness forever, but he has since announced his next work, The Highwayman, on his blog. And he says his next game promises to at least be bittersweet – which after the raw bitterness of Actual Sunlight will come as something of a relief. Although it is about that aforementioned chronic pain he suffers, so it doesn’t promise to be much more of a cheery journey.
After spending time struggling not to relate to Evan and failing all I can think about now are his final words; “I was right about everything.” Well…no, Evan, you were not. It’s important to realise that at the end – Actual Sunlight is played entirely from Evan’s perspective which means we’re locked within his own solipsistic view of the world with him. There’s no one to contradict him. This is important to the story – it’s part of the reason Evan is able to slide so low. There’s nothing to stop him. But because we’re reading the writings of a witty man with a way with pith and succinct insight we get dragged through his thought processes and start to think he may have a point. Depression is seductive that way. It’s hard to express to people who’ve never been blighted by depression how oddly comforting that black, hateful misery can be.
In his disclaimer O’Neill states that he wanted to create, “something human, beautiful and real.” I can’t honestly say he succeeded as I’m not sure Actual Sunlight can be considered in any way beautiful. It is, however painfully human and devastatingly true –it shines light onto the writhing black heart of self obsessed depression in all it’s ugliness. Which makes it a dark and trying story for anyone. Given the subject matter it wasn’t exactly going to be a laugh riot, sure – but even given the bleak places it deals with it’s uncomfortably brutal. Admirably so – it takes a lot to commit to not pull any punches when dealing with something so raw. It shows the real face of depression without flinching, something Depression Quest seemed unwilling to do. In doing so it lacks the universal appeal of Depression Quest but is a stronger experience and more real in it’s insight into the depressive mindset. O’Neill has been disappointed that the amount of words written about it hasn’t translated into sales, but this is hardly a surprise – it’s a hard sell. But it’s a game that deserves to be played by anyone who wants to gain an understanding of how the lost live or by anyone looking to find something that chimes with them and makes them feel less alone.
But if it does feel a little too close to home please, whatever you do, be sure to remember: this is not how your story ends.
Actual Sunlight is available on Steam and via the official website
(One other thing, this quote: “I went to a therapist and he told me to come back when I had some real problems.” No, you didn’t. That’s not what therapists do. I hope no one ever reads that and has their fears reaffirmed by it. It’s easier than you think. And it saves seemingly hopeless lives like Evan’s every day).