By John Walker on November 14th, 2013 at 2:00 pm.
I was uncomfortable about posting Actual Sunlight back in February, and I’m just as uncomfortable about it now, now there’s a free 3D version of it. It’s a game about depression and suicide. A morbid, tragic, and ultimately hopeless game. And that’s why it scares me. Because the game’s honesty about those feelings perpetuates a greater lie. Because there is always hope. There is always a better solution than suicide. I’ve seen friends go from terrifying suicide attempts to beautiful lives where they transform the hope of others. I live with a relatively minor anxiety depression that once controlled me, but now I control it. So sharing Actual Sunlight terrifies me. And yet I believe its brutal honesty about depression is something important, something that doesn’t dismiss the overwhelming cruelty of the condition as “feeling a bit down”. I think that matters.
Evan Winter is an overweight man in his late 20s, stuck in a dead-end job that is attempting to have him carry on working for them for no salary. He lives with his parents, is generally masturbating or thinking about masturbating, and hates himself. In fact, he hates almost everything. He’s that most difficult to like of people – overly clever misanthropes. His smartness, and indeed his smart-ass-ness, is portrayed in a volley of extremely well-written missives delivered in white text on a black background. They’re notes, short stories, imagined transcripts, or apparently genuine transcripts from talking to a therapist. Each is witty, but ultimately cruel. And most of all, they’re self-pitying – that place where all of someone’s intelligence seems to be being used to feel sorry for themselves in increasingly imaginative ways.
You play him through his daily routine, struggling to get up in the morning, his miserable idling through work, and then repeating, all the way plagued with thoughts of going to the roof of his building to jump. And what makes this game so tough, and so well crafted, is that Evan is a prick. As I said about it earlier this year, “His is a depression formed of the despising of others’ success, rather than his own failure.” The further you get, the more his wit, talent and way with words begins to grate. You can start to really dislike the guy. And that’s damned good writing, and a painfully good exploration of depression – it’s easy to dislike a depressed person, to write them off as just a piece of crap, and forget how that most spiteful of conditions creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The game was originally presented as a top-down 2D JRPG via RPG Maker, and it’s still available for $5 in this form. There’s now a free beta of a 3D version, built in Unity, with exactly the same script, but a very different visual style. It’s been stripped of its colour, give a noir feel, and much more vividly realises the central character’s size and tiredness. As a result, the presentation is far less incongruous with the tone, and yet I think I’d still advocate the original version. The 3D-ness of it adds a clumsiness that is a little too frustrating. Controlled with the arrow keys, Evan rotates on the spot and stumbles about, meaning you have to line him up with highlighted objects in order to interact with Z. It’s fiddly, and is currently a touch crude. However, this is a beta, current in the queue on Greenlight, and creator Will O’Neill is looking for feedback to improve it. And of course it’s free.
At one point the author interrupts his own game with a message. A message that speaks from inside depression, and so is itself twisted and pained. It appeals to any young people playing who think they identify with the story that they must recognise they’re young enough to change. The author’s fear that someone might kill themselves in response to the game is starkly realised, as he utters, “Don’t you fucking dare.” But it’s wrapped up in a self-pitying belief that it’s only if you’re under 25 that this counts – if you’re older, then… Which is such utter nonsense. It’s depression speaking. There is no age where those words don’t count, no point in life where change becomes hopeless. There’s never a time when things can’t begin to slowly, carefully improve. There’s never a point where those words ever become irrelevant: don’t you fucking dare.
There’s always hope. There is, no matter what a depressed mind will shout, always a way for things to get better, for life to offer more hope than death. This game honestly captures the deception that there’s not for this one fat, 30-something man, but it is a deception, and there always is hope. And I say this as a fat, 30-something man with anxiety depression. I appeal to anyone who finds their own feelings echoed in Actual Sunlight to recognise the catharsis of being understood, certainly, but to hear another voice, one saying that hope always exists. If you’re in the UK, the Samaritans can be called, anonymously, at any time on 08457 909090, or emailed at email@example.com. If you’re in the US, the NSPL are at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re anywhere else, this page has links to every nation’s own line.