Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight is a dark, troubling, and fascinating game. Through its focus on disenchanted 30-something protagonist Evan Winter, O’Neill’s work chronicles a dramatic descent into utter hopelessness that manages to communicate the deeply personal experience of depression to a wider audience. It’s a strange game, one that paints a grim picture of the intersection of modern capitalism and mental health without coming off as overwrought or pandering. Playing it left me with a lot of thoughts on Actual Sunlight‘s story, its treatment of depression, and what its release means for the–if you’ll excuse the grand terminology–future of videogames.
After finishing the game I talked with Patrick Lindsey, co-creator of Depression Quest and Pixels or Death head honcho, to compare notes on the experience and to hear what a developer behind one interactive take on mental illness thought about another.
Videogames are fond of constructing imaginary versions of real world locales. The Grand Theft Auto series invites open comparisons between its Vice City and the actual Miami; Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation that is Iraq in everything but name; The Banner Saga‘s faux-Scandanavian setting is meant to evoke Viking era Northern Europe. Everyone who plays these games knows that the fictional places they’re exploring are only stand-ins for somewhere that really exists in the world. Because of this, it’s possible to, say, offer a new spin on the Norse sagas by breaking away from what we already know about them. It’s even possible to make commentary about the legitimacy of Coalition forces occupying Iraq and Afghanistan by abstracting elements of these nations into a single imagined one. That being said, an unwillingness to set fiction in real locations isn’t always motivated by a desire to make interesting art. In some games it may serve as nothing more than cultural cowardice.
I shot a gun for the first time about two weeks ago. I mean, I shot a real, physical gun for the first time– I’ve been shooting digital ones for years now. It was an interesting experience: one that has stuck in my head, and has made me think about my relationship with the many, many firearms found in videogames a bit differently.
I was nervous to head to the range, but I was going with a cousin who has been hunting since he was young, has a gun license, and knows how to teach an anxious novice how to shoot. Just the same, I felt like a visitor to an alien world when we bought our day passes from the front office and headed through a shop stacked floor to ceiling with boxes of ammunition. Hearing shotguns blasting at clay pigeons and rifle shots crack in uneven intervals had me stifling flinches as we drove down the path to the firing range. The body’s instinctual reaction to gunfire is probably to hit the ground or run like a maniac, but this is obviously discouraged at a professional shooting venue so I tried to keep as calm as possible. Still, while my cousin unzipped his two rifles from their carrying bags and took off their trigger locks, I was transfixed by the row of people to our left. They seemed so relaxed–maybe a bit excited, but still relaxed–as they unloaded rounds from the sort of high-powered weaponry I’d only seen in movies and games before.
I’ve tried to make sense of Dota 2 before, honest. I’ve worked through the tutorials, spent half an hour browsing the different heroes, and played a handful of games against real people. After putting in an actual effort to figure out its appeal, though, I still find Valve’s take on Massively Online Battles Arenas (MOBAs) almost completely impenetrable. Some people feel the same way I do, but there are many others who click with Dota 2 (and other titles from its genre) to such an extent that they’re willing to invest untold amounts of time and mental energy into the game. MOBAs are a legitimate, honest to goodness Big Deal in videogames and, because of this, are pretty hard to dismiss out of hand for those of us interested in the medium.
I couldn’t let 2014 — henceforth referred to as Year of the Dota — kick off without talking to someone who gets this game. I’ve played Dota 2 with Forbes’/Pixels or Death‘s Ethan Gach when both of us were pretty new to it. Since then I’ve seen it embrace him in the spiderwebs of its meticulous design, changing him from average person to the kind of guy who can use the word “gank” without attaching a sarcastic “LOL” to its end. He seemed like the best person to talk to about the Dota 2 phenomenon.
Here’s our discussion:
Amidst all the excitement of the two new consoles launching this month, there’s a very good chance that an important article detailing some of the more deplorable aspects of the videogame industry will be quickly forgotten. The piece, ‘You Can Sleep Here All Night’: Video Games and Labor by Ian Williams, highlights what many of us who read, write, or care about the medium likely already know, but often choose to put to the backs of our minds: most videogames, in their current state at least, might be awful for the people who create and play them.
Hey Dark Souls, there’s something I need to talk to you about. It’s just . . . Oh man, I don’t know how to say this. Can I sit down? No, no, no. Relax. It’s okay. Aw geez. Okay, no, I’m just going to cut right to the chase here . . . I don’t think things are working between us, Dark Souls. It’s been bothering me for a while.
I think . . . . I think we need to take a break.
Thank you again for the Sony! I had a devil of a time getting it working, but Daniel was so helpful and patient putting all the cords and wires in place. I have to say that it took quite a bit of getting used to. The new television is very big and the hi-fi your father put in is very loud. When Daniel showed me how to play a game the entire apartment shook so much that one of my glass rabbits nearly fell off the shelf! Ha ha. Learning how to use the remote has also been a bit of a trial. I told you how Dr. Singh says “it’s incredible that a woman my age has so little arthritis”, but trying to wrap my fingers around all those buttons hasn’t been easy.