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.
Reid McCarter: So, first off, what did you think of it in a general sense?
Patrick Lindsey: I was surprised by just how raw it was. Every single thing about it was just so open and laid out.
Reid: Yeah, that’s the first thing that struck me, too.
Patrick: I mean, the opening line is very deliberate I feel.
Reid: That’s what I was just about to say. That first line (“Why kill yourself today when you could masturbate tomorrow?”) establishes the tone immediately. And, maybe I’m sick, but it also made me laugh even though it’s such a horribly desperate and dark statement. There were a few times the game did that.
Patrick: I think that’s kind of . . . I don’t want to say the point, but it’s definitely something I noticed. So much about it centers around how much absurdity is wrapped up in hopelessness.
Reid: There’s a lot of attention paid to the idea that first world depression is inherently absurd.
Patrick: Yeah, that’s . . . ugh . . . that’s a common thing with depression. It’s not enough that you feel shitty, but you then feel shitty about feeling shitty because you’re not starving or sick. Or you feel like your problems are so trivial that nobody cares or wants to hear about them. And then that sort of compounds and you make yourself feel worse because of it.
Reid: O’Neill does this really interesting thing with conflating that with modern capitalism, too.
Patrick: I think there’s a very strong connection there. I mean, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many millennials are openly wrestling with depression.
Reid: I liked the scene where the main character Evan actually gets into that idea. The closest that he comes to explaining it is that stereotypically “millennial” jobs—copywriting, marketing, etc.—feel like pushing around other people’s money. The “real” work is happening somewhere else.
Patrick: The notion that capitalism and consumerism are sources of unhappiness? Oh god, yes.
Reid: Yeah, and the distance we have from production. There’s probably a deep Marxist reading you could go into with that.
Patrick: [There’s] this tremendous sense of “what the fuck am I even doing?” I’ve frequently thought, like, almost daily, that my job could evaporate forever and the world would be no different. It’s why I left my job in Toronto working in advertising and moved to San Francisco.
Reid: I mean, if I don’t work on writing something I find meaningful in some way at least once every few days I get really bummed out. Because a lot of the time I’m writing copy or doing work that otherwise feels fluffy.
Patrick: Or worse, sinister or nefarious. I don’t know, I could go on about how much capitalism has emotionally fucked us up as a culture for literally days. But I think we’ve just sort of collectively as a generation reached a point where we’ve realized that all the traditional trappings of success—the job, the salary, whatever—don’t really add up to much because there’s no connection there.
Reid: But it still lingers. That thought that your income tax statement dictates your worth to society.
Patrick: When you work a job for years and years that constantly disconnects you from real people and things and replaces your language with corporate jargon then you wake up one day and realize you’re suddenly miserable. That’s exactly what happened to me. Which is why I almost had to take a break from playing Will [O’Neill]’s game. It was like hitting that “too real” point.
Reid: Which is sort of a testament to how well he captured a certain thought process.
Patrick: Oh my god, yes.
Reid: What hit me was the part at the beginning when Evan is first going to work and there’s a note written by Will O’Neill himself+.
Patrick: Yup. That knocked me on my ass because it was so out of character, both in terms of the protagonist, but also in terms of what the tone of the game seemed to be.
Reid: And it pretty much says that the decisions you make will pile up and will inform how you enter your 30s.
Patrick: But there was a message of hope there.
Reid: It was hard for me to see it too clearly.
Patrick: Well, it’s still very hard-edged.
Reid: I kept thinking, “Shit, I’m almost 28.”
Patrick: Yup, that was my thought. Like, I’m 27. Have I, like, loaded my last save game?
Reid: But I do see what you mean about the hope of it. The age stuff almost seems arbitrary. Because the note is basically a call to action and that’s a positive thing.
Patrick: Yeah. I was struck by [the ages] being arbitrary, too. But I can understand it.
Reid: Evan doesn’t “wake up” until the very end and then things go to the worst place possible. Which made the game feel kind of allegorical.
Patrick: Well yeah, all the constant tie-ins to the fantasy segments really helped that along, too. I mean, for the first half of the game almost all of your time is spent in these fantasy black screen segments++.
Reid: I was really struck by how different Evan was when he was talking to co-workers instead of living inside his head. I thought that was very, very well done.
Patrick: Yeah, it captures just how on-rails our “social interactions” are.
Reid: O’Neill portrays one of the worst parts of mental illness—seeming like you’re completely fine on the outside when it feels like you’re dying on the inside—perfectly.
Patrick: Nobody actually wants to talk to anybody. That’s the burden of the depressed person. Like, that’s your fucking onus. You have to make yourself at least ostensibly “OK” because, well, that’s just where we’re at right now. It’s kind of comical.
One of my favorite things about the game was the undertone of anger that sort of back lit everything. Not just anger at yourself or, like, what I’ll problematically call “standard depressed person” stuff, but anger at everything else. [It’s] externally directed because you don’t fit in the world you’re living in and you can’t do anything about it and it’s infuriating.
Reid: What did you think about how Evan goes off the rails at the end in regards to that kind of anger? When he smashes up everything he owns?
Patrick: To be honest that part kind of lost me. Like, in my mind that is definitely a very active course of action to take, where when depression gets really bad for me it’s really a process of, like, emotional and motivational entropy. And that’s one of the hardest things about depression. It’s so incredibly phenomenological by nature that different people have drastically different experiences and it’s impossible to convey that properly to another person. Like, everybody knows what it feels like to have your arm broken or when you stub your toe, but how do you explain What Depression Feels Like?
Reid: It kind of read to me like a purposeful exaggeration of all that frustration.
Patrick: It’s incredibly frustrating!
Reid: Evan’s eventual suicide also seemed like it was meant to be the big dramatic encapsulation of his feelings. It had to end like that to make the point in the grandest possible way.
Patrick: This may be just me, but I was choosing to read it as a metaphorical suicide.
Patrick: Well that’s a lot of my own baggage admittedly. I was wary when I heard about the game’s ending because depression so obviously gets lumped in with suicide to the point where the two get sort of conflated and melt together. Which, yeah, a lot of depressed people ultimately do turn to suicide or at least attempt it, but they’re really two separate issues.
Reid: So when you see it as metaphorical I wonder if you got something similar from it as I did: the dramatization of these really hard to quantify feelings in order to show how big it is to someone who maybe has no reference point to actual depression
Patrick: Yeah, I really like your reading. The ending as a culmination of all those feelings. That is kind of what it feels like. Sort of like those old “this is your brain on drugs” ads with the egg and the frying pan.
Reid: Like, ending it with Evan quietly quitting his job and then staying in bed for a week isn’t much of a conclusion to the story O’Neill is telling.
Patrick: Well, yeah, and that’s the thing is it’s such a quiet and meek thing, but in your head you’re just roiling. I’m hugely appreciative that he didn’t flinch.
Reid: Which you can get across in a novel or an album, maybe, but games are so visual and immediate in a lot of cases that it seems like there’s maybe more of a need to exaggerate to make sure the ideas land effectively.
Patrick: Yeah, it’s one thing to read an account of what somebody feels, but it’s a whole other thing to experience their thought process.
Reid: So, can you indulge me if I bring up Depression Quest in relation to Actual Sunlight? Because it was a huge reference point to me in playing this, but the tact taken by the two games is often really different.
Patrick: Yeah, sure.
Reid: O’Neill’s story follows a more traditional dramatic arc (like what we were talking about before with the anger/suicide) whereas Depression Quest is much more mundane in its depiction of depression.
Patrick: Yeah, which is weird because I’m pretty sure they both came from pretty much the exact same place.
Reid: And they both get the same basic point across, I think.
Patrick: I think the biggest thread that ties them together is the fact that they both start from the point that depression is like 100% experiential. And that’s been the biggest hurdle in bringing discussion to the public consciousness.
Reid: Absolutely. Part of why I really want attention to be brought to Actual Sunlight is to show the diversity of experience. We now have two games specifically about depression that feel completely different and that seems incredibly valuable.
Patrick: Yeah, I was admittedly a little uncomfortable at parts because of how incredibly honest Actual Sunlight is. At certain parts I was acutely aware that I was seeing was a very literal window into Will [O’Neill]’s brain.
Reid: That’s pretty common to a lot of really effective art, allowing you to see how raw one of the creator’s feelings or thoughts actually is.
Patrick: True. Again, I think it goes back to games being so . . . ahem . . . visceral.
Reid: That’s unprintable
Patrick: You just got a genuine lol.
Reid: The one thing I thought was an interesting through line for Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight was the limiting of choices as time went on. And, as someone who feels this stuff firsthand, too, that’s maybe the most effective means of explaining what issues like depression or anxiety are about.
Patrick: Yes! I was really . . . I don’t want to say happy, but you get the idea . . . when I came to that segment in Actual Sunlight. The number one thing people will tell those who are experiencing a depressive episode is, “Just keep your chin up, change your outlook, [the] glass is half-full, etc. etc.” And it’s so incredibly frustrating because when you’re at that point it’s like, “Yes, I know all of this. I just can’t do it.” It’s like a physical roadblock. And it’s so fucking hard to get that across to people who don’t experience it.
Reid: I really liked how that was represented in Depression Quest with the struck out lines that couldn’t be picked as dialogue or progression options.
Patrick: Yeah, that was developed almost from the get go—that feeling of frustration, the tension between knowing what you “should” do and not being able to do it, was like the thing we wanted to represent.
Reid: It seems like the central . . . mechanic? . . . of Depression Quest. It works really well.
Patrick: It was definitely the primary conflict we wanted to convey. It was important not only that players had fewer options, but that they could see the options they didn’t have. We wanted them to feel that frustration.
Reid: Actual Sunlight has an interesting take on the same idea of a gradually worsening situation by introducing “the roof” where Evan plans to commit suicide as an option on the elevator buttons. At the end it’s the only choice left.
Patrick: Yeah! I like that it is present from the start, and it constantly worms its way into your thoughts.
Reid: I’m waiting for someone to make a full-fledged RPG that incorporates these kind of ideas.
Patrick: I’m honestly not even sure what that would look like. [But,] I’d welcome that, even if it’s just because it would mean people are talking about it.
Reid: That’s the main thing that made me really happy about this super depressing game. I know it’s been around for a little while, but getting it on Steam and having more eyeballs on it is a really good thing.
Patrick: Yeah! I really hope that it gets in front of lots of people. Drop it in a Steam sale, job done.
Reid: I like the idea that it will encourage more developers to play around with showing how issues like mental illness work to those who may not understand it. Or those who do, but maybe just want some catharsis.
Patrick: Well, that’s one of the strengths of the medium. To use a horribly pretentious term.
Reid: Don’t worry, I’m horribly pretentious, too.
Patrick: Reid, we’re game critics. It’s like a prerequisite
Reid: I liked it a lot when Anna Anthropy made personal psychology experiential in Dys4ia, when you guys showed how depression actually feels in Depression Quest, and seeing it again here in Actual Sunlight.
Patrick: It’s funny because Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest came out at almost the exact same time independently of each other.
Reid: That’s the makings of a goshdarn zeitgeist.
Reid: Well, it seems like a lot of game criticism exploded a few years before that, too. Like, everyone started thinking outside the box with the possibilities of videogames around the same time.
Patrick: Yeah, I think a lot of that builds on itself. And then developers see, hey, there are people who care about what games can say, and then they’re maybe more willing to be super honest. I think devs and critics can benefit each other hugely. I just wish we could breach this huge chasm that separates us
Reid: I think it’s happening bit by bit. You see more people—like yourself even—who are both critics and developers.
Patrick: I think that’s the future. We’re all working toward the same thing.
Reid: Yeah, the goal is the same on both sides: better, more interesting games.
Patrick: So confession time, that’s actually been like my goal from day one: bringing critics and developers together. It’s funny: all the press I’ve talked to about it have been like, “Why would you want to do that?’ and all the devs I’ve talked to have been like, “That’s awesome!”
Reid: I didn’t expect a conversation about Actual Sunlight to end on such a positive note!
Patrick: Yeah, right?
+ This note is a lengthy warning that after turning 30 all of the mistakes a person has made in their life to date suddenly reach a kind of terminal point. O’Neill speaks directly to the player, warning her/him not to let themselves make the same kind of bad choices that have made Evan feel so hopeless.
++ Actual Sunlight frequently cuts away to a black screen where white text details Evan’s thought processes and fantasies.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer-type person. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor, and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen and The Escapist. He is also editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. He tweets tweets @reidmccarter.