The following post contains spoilers for Actual Sunlight.
Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight is not a fun game, nor is it supposed to be. Originally released in 2013 for the PC – and currently available for free as one of the PS Plus games for October – Actual Sunlight was one of the first in a recent trend of indie games that attempt to capture specific life experiences in an interactive format. Titles such as That Dragon, Cancer, The Town of Light, and Fragments of Him aren’t necessarily fun, but the main objective is to allow you to learn from and understand the perspectives of (respectively) parents who lost their child to cancer, an institutional sexual abuse survivor, and key people in the life of a deceased gay man.
With Actual Sunlight, Will O’Neill gave players the opportunity to empathize with someone struggling with mental health. The game’s protagonist is Evan Winter, a man suffering from serious depression. You play through a few days in his life and hopefully come away with an appreciation that your life is not as bad as Evan’s.
The danger, of course – and I fear that there is a danger – is that if your life is as bad as Evan’s, his solution will be yours as well. Evan ultimately decides to end his life (and the game) by jumping off the roof of his apartment building. Nothing you do will change that outcome.
What’s telling is that for an interactive experience, Actual Sunlight places strict limits on the interactivity. The beginning of the game sums it up aptly. Wake up, masturbate, go to work, go back to bed. Wake up, masturbate, go to work, go back to bed. Wake up, masturbate … you get the idea. We don’t play the masturbation aspect, but we do witness everything else. We see an individual shutting down in a thankless corporate job where he is alienated from his co-workers, one of which is another depressed co-worker he is in love with and whom he pushes away. He comes to despise himself and the world at large. Frankly, I hate his world too, and I couldn’t see myself living in it.
Thankfully, I don’t have to. I have a support system comprised of individuals that love me and a job that allows me to talk about what I am passionate about. Evan Winter has no such outlet. The frustration in Actual Sunlight is that O’Neill could have created a support system for Evan, whether it’s a hospital, a counselling office, or even just a friend. Statistics show that one friend can make all the difference. Evan has no friends, and that isolation amplifies the feeling of depression.
That’s what makes the game so unsettling. I wish I had the courage to be Evan’s friend, and I appreciate his perspective. But I have to take care of myself first. I suffer from an anxiety condition and I needed to remind myself that I am not Evan Winter, or responsible to him in any way. However, it does pose a difficult question. Are we responsible to those individuals that are worse off mentally than we are, even if our own mental health is precarious? Does a game like Actual Sunlight have a responsibility to its subject or the people playing it?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answers. I do believe we can do more to decrease the stigma around mental health, and to start having more conversations about the subject. For example, I think the Toronto Transit Commission should erect guardrails to prevent individuals from jumping on the subway tracks (or falling accidentally). I feel that suicide is often a hasty decision that the individual (if possible) often comes to regret. A suicidal ideation is usually temporary or fleeting. Many people in my life have survived these urges, and I’m grateful to them that they have persisted in living.
Actual Sunlight is actual darkness. I fear the limited interactivity – the lack of in-game opportunities to change Evan’s path or to even reflect on what the fuck is happening – will give players the wrong message about how to live (or not live) their lives. I wonder if there should be more interactive elements or links to suicide prevention resources, especially since the game has gained renown as a well-known and frequently talked about exploration of mental illness in a medium that rarely engages with such topics.
Approximately a quarter of the way through the game, O’Neill offers his own experience as a counterpoint to Evan’s. He sends a series of text messages to you, the player, in which he basically says that HE was like Evan at one point, but things got better for him. O’Neill says that we can probably guess where the game is going (and I dreaded where it was going), but what Evan does is far, far, far from the only solution to the predicament he faced, as O’Neill himself demonstrates. I’m curious why O’Neill didn’t allow for a choice in which Evan could have lived.
My fear is that O’Neill offers too little, too late in the way of support for those at high-risk of suicide, even if it is an accurate representation of what it feels like in the moment. We need to talk about mental health, not isolate people in fear. There are many ways to look at depression, and it is my hope that this game will be known as just one of the ways in which depression can be understood, and one of the many games that has the courage to tackle the subject.
If you play Actual Sunlight, don’t play it alone. Play it with someone you care about. Laugh at the funny things Evan says and writes about, witness his crushed dreams, and when you can’t play anymore, stop.
When you see that all options are to go to the top of the building, turn the game off. You can save him. Stop the game. Stop the interactive experience.