Two games about depression compared and contrasted. Really, what makes this video unique is that it’s the first time I’ve tried to tackle two games that are mostly text. I’m still trying to figure out how to handle that. “Watch these words while I say other words” doesn’t seem to quite work the way “Watch this spacial gameplay while I talk about how it works” does. Which is frustrating, because wordy games can totally be worth discussing. I just need to think of a better format for doing so next time. I could show up on camera again. I could focus more on slides (though that makes editing the video a nightmare as I have to create ~10-15 minutes worth of slides). Or maybe there’s another option I haven’t even considered. We’ll see – I’m open for suggestions.
Anyways, as usual the script is below the jump.
Games are a wonderful source of escapist entertainment. They not only distract us with pretty pictures and sounds, they provide objectives and goals and systems that fill up parts of our mind that can’t be touched by film or music alone. They’re so good at this that it’s been suggested they can help alleviate physical pain. I bring this up not to harp on an oft-imaginged miraculous nature of games, but because a lot of people struggling with emotional pain also end up escaping into games as a way of running away from suffering. And naturally, people who have coped with issues (like, say, depression) by playing games may be interested in eventually producing some games of their own.
Such is the case with Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight. I’m hesitant to link these two games together just because they cover similar thematic goals – I feel it might diminish each by lumping them together as just “those depression games” rather than letting them stand on their own. But I think it’s worthwhile to compare and contrast how they approach their topic. After all this isn’t like comparing Goat Simulator and Escape Goat just because they have a superficial similarity in their protagonist’s species. Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest both deal directly with depression from experience, and how they compliment and clash in equal parts sort of fascinates me.
Just so all the cards are on the table here, I’ve never been depressed. At least, not the sort of deep-rooted chronic and disabling depression explored in these games. I had a few multi-month long bouts of it in my teens and early twenties, but comparing my experiences to those of others taught me enough about depression to know that I know very little of how deep that rabbit hole can go. I also think it’s important to note that everyone experiences depression differently, and just because I or either of these games view what depression is differently from you, that doesn’t invalidate your experiences. The goal here isn’t to define depression for all people, but to talk about how each of these games dissects the idea in their own way.
Depression Quest is decidedly the more mechanically focused of the two – which is a little ironic considering Depression Quest was made in Twine and Actual Sunlight was made in RPG Maker. It systemizes depression by having your level of depression affect your freedom of choice. The more depressed you are the fewer options are available to you. It’s subtle but totally functional as a means of conveying the way depression saps one of energy and motivation. But more important than the raw mechanics of “it removes choices” is its selection of which choices to remove. Being depressed, the most outgoing, optimistic option is almost always disabled unless you’re doing exceptionally well; a near constant reminder that even when things are good, things aren’t great. And as you lose ground to the illness it reduces your options more and more. In time, depression becomes this self-perpetuating thing – opening up and being honest and confronting it takes an emotional toll that you don’t have the energy to expend.
It can be hard not to give into the temptation of picking the option that reads as the most “healthy.” But that playstyle largely misses the point of Depression Quest. It isn’t about getting the “happy” ending or the “sad” ending by maxing out your score; this isn’t Infamous. It’s about role playing more than system mastery; it’s about responding to these prompts as you really feel you would, to explore how depression impacts your character’s abilities and feelings, and to see what options are removed from you by your condition. It conveys through systems how depression can limit your choices and make you behave in ways you wouldn’t normally, but in order to do that the game asks that you respond to the prompts earnestly.
Actual Sunlight limits player choice, too, but not as a means of showing depression’s toll. Instead the game offers you the illusion of choice and then explains the thought process of its protagonist, Evan Winters, as to why the choice isn’t really a choice. For example, there’s a scene where Evan decides to buy a video game – not because he’s excited about a new title or out of any real interest in playing it, but because buying and playing these games is a way of self-medication through retail therapy and escapism. If you decide not to buy the game, Evan goes through a long dialog about how he might end up buying something even worse, or how he’ll go home, find himself with nothing to do through his sleepless nights, and be right back at the store in an hour. There’s no changing your direction here – the game’s awfully fatalistic. Not just about buying games, but about everything in Evan’s arc. Before the end of the first act there’s a statement directly from the author, Will O’Neil, stating that it’s “pretty clear where all of this is headed.” The game is about one man’s inexorable downfall and presents false choice to reinforce the unavoidable nature of its conclusion.
And that is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two games: their tone and disposition. Depression Quest, as sombre as it is, feels hopeful. Things can change. It’s tough, it sucks, and if you don’t get on it fast you can find yourself spiraling out of control. But there’s therapy. There are drugs. There are day-to-day decisions you can make to help lessen its impact. The deeper you get into depression the harder it is to climb back out, but you can climb back out. And while it may take more emotional energy than you might think you could possibly muster, it also does a great job of showing why that struggle matters as your relationships, job, and family fray apart if you don’t fight for them. Even the simple fact that it doesn’t treat depression as a binary disease reinforces this idea that things can get better. There’s not just “depressed” and “not depressed.” There are many layers, and even within depression you can fight your way back to more options, more sociability, and more energy.
Actual Sunlight takes a decidedly less optimistic tone. It doesn’t offer alternatives or solutions. Evan doesn’t go to therapy, he doesn’t get on medication, he doesn’t even attempt to work through his problems. His story is one only of descent, a warning to others about what depression does to an individual when left to fester untreated. The game starts with Evan suffering from moderate-to-severe depression and ends, years later, with his suicide. Consequently it’s easy to view the game as a bitter take on depression that ends without a glimmer of hope and sends the message that the natural conclusion of clinical depression is suicide. But Actual Sunlight isn’t a distanced, nuanced take on its subject matter the way Depression Quest is. It’s raw and intimate with the sort of blunt honesty and emotional forwardness that can just as easily be seen as either powerfully profound or naively awkward. It’s not suicide apologia but a confessional pseudo-autobiography that wonders how much further things could have gone for the author in the direction they were once headed. Instead of a nameless character that is heavily influenced by your personal preferences, Actual Sunlight tells Evan’s very specific story. The game even openly confesses a desire to be portrait of a person. It wants to show how untreated depression ruins lives the way Requiem for a Dream showed how untreated drug addiction hurt its victims. This character study approach invites us to look at Evan the person rather than depression the disease. It grounds the game in a strong emotional core that Depression Quest lacks, but in doing so it becomes less about depression in the abstract and more about this one man’s particular journey down a dark path. It doesn’t say “This is what depression is and here’s how to deal with it,” it says “Don’t let depression turn you into this guy.” Actual Sunlight lacks optimism not because it believes there is no way out but because it wants to show how deep depression can drag you; how far down you can fall even if things start with just a little insomnia and self-loathing.
With its more optimistic tone, Depression Quest makes a point of highlighting your support networks, even the ones you might not realize you have. Siblings, parents, significant others, online friends and even pets can all help you push through and come out the other side. Depression Quest’s perspective is that people, by and large, want to help you. But two things get in the way. First, your feelings of insecurity and lethargy prevent you from reaching out and receiving that help. The embarrassment of dealing with depression can silence you from reaching out to your brother; self-doubt about whether you’re even meaningfully sick can cause you to skip out on going to therapy. Depression robs you of your ability to ask for help. Second, a lack of understanding of depression in general causes people to act in ways that can hurt you without intent. A great example of this telling your mom early in the game about these feelings you’ve been having, and she shrugs them off with a “cheer up, buddy! Being sad isn’t productive!” speech. The game makes a point of saying there’s no malice or anger in her voice – it’s just genuine advice from someone who fundamentally doesn’t understand what your character is going through. In Depression Quest people want to help – it’s communicating and understanding that you need it that’s hard.
Evan, on the other hand, sees his support networks as a burden. There’s a scene where Evan takes a shower and a voice tells him to jump off the roof of his building. On the way out the door, however, his parents call and ask to go to dinner with him that weekend. The same anonymous voice then whispers – “Don’t go to the roof.” But it’s framed as an obligation. “Can’t kill myself today if I have to meet the parents on Saturday!” His parents aren’t something he can lean on, but obligations to be pencilled in to a schedule. He has no friends, and harbors mostly either contempt or envy for those he works with. While he pines for someone who doesn’t have reciprocal feelings for him, he settles into a relationship with someone else. Both leave him unsatisfied, and he never realizes it’s his creeper nature and self-loathing that ruin both relationships. Evan falls not just because he has no one to reach out to, but because he pushes everyone who might care away. Again, where Depression Quest asks you to reach out no matter what, Actual Sunlight wants to bluntly show you what happens when you don’t even try.
The two games are also heavily influenced by the age of their creators in ways that shape the experience of depression presented, but it sort of manifests in different ways. Depression Quest is about someone in their mid-ish twenties; unmarried, childless, and despite being employed still uncertain about their long term goals in life. The more autobiographical approach by the authors allows them to sculpt a wholly believable series of encounters and relationships. Alex’s exasperated patience as she tries to stand by you, your mother’s genuine concern that manifests as accidental judgement, the cat that gives you company on quiet nights where every other person you can reach out to is busy – they feel like characters and events designed to deliver lived experiences; reflections of moments that particularly hurt or helped given a clearness of form through writing. It’s a game about people in their mid twenties suffering from depression because it’s by people who were in their mid twenties suffering from depression.
In contrast, Actual Sunlight takes the same young-ish, childless, and unmarried professional angle, but carries with an almost ageist bent. Reading from Will O’Neil’s statement from early in the game: “The fact that you are young means in and of itself that you still have a lot of time to change things… It’s when you get into your late twenties and early thirties – like the protagonist in this game, and like me – that a lot of the choices you made earlier can start to come seriously into play. A lot of doors begin to close. A lot of things start to go on without you… and I’m seeing more and more how things will only get more difficult over even more time… [This game] is about a 30-something corporate dead-ender with no youthful energy, no people his own age who haven’t moved on in life that he can turn to, and no time or money left to change or undo any of those things. If you aren’t at least 25, that ain’t you.” The intent is to tell young players that they still have time to get the help and make the changes Evan refuses to, that despite how they feel hope isn’t lost yet. But that yet is important. It implies that suicidal depression at 35 or 40 is justified because those people are out of options. Depression Quest may paint a picture of depression in only one phase of a person’s life, but it never presupposes to say that other phases are any more or less bleak. Actual Sunlight is very explicit about what age it’s okay and not okay to be suicidal, and that’s deeply troubling.
But while suggesting at what age it’s “appropriate” to be fully depressed is sketchy, the broader concept of age contributing to depression does tie into Actual Sunlight’s greater themes. The game frames depression as a symptom of white collar labor and desk jobs that value the young, dumb, and drunk more than it values the mature, settled, and more expensive older workers. You see this in Depression Quest, too, where a menial day-job leaves you unfulfilled but also financially trapped. There your day job is an obstacle. But in Actual Sunlight the argument that vapid middle-class careerism contributes to depression is front and center. It ties self-loathing to jobs that have no immediate service or benefit and hopelessness to positions where short-term profits are valued over customers and the work being done. You can buy into the careerism like Russel; but doing so means buying into its shallow values. Or you can try to ignore the bigger picture and make whatever progress you can until you hit a glass ceiling or get kicked out, like Troy. Or you can, like Evan, see the flaws and hypocrisy in environment you’re trapped in and and reject them. Give up trying. Give up caring. Wonder every day why you bother, and what it’s all for. Which, you know, is a great environment for someone with depressive tendencies. Middle class ennui is a concept explored by both games, but it’s Actual Sunlight that points fingers at corporate disfunction as a genuinely contributing factor to depression.
All told, I think these two games compliment each other nicely – Depression Quest’s mechanical focus and dispassionate approach against Actual Sunlight’s inescapable but intensely personal freefall, the hopeful game about the struggle of living with depression and the dour game that serves as a warning of its dangers if untreated. At the same time, though, the strengths of each highlight the weakness of the other. Actual Sunlight has a gravitas, an emotional heft that Depression Quest seems to sorely miss in its quiet contemplation of everyday events. And Depression Quest manages to capture both the beauty and melancholy of day to day life – the small emotions, little fears, and passing thoughts – that Actual Sunlight avoids for fear of detracting from the operatic power of its punches. I wouldn’t say that the two are stronger together; and I certainly still hesitate to lump them into one bin. They’re both games that demand to be looked at on their own terms. But I will say that I think having played each gives me a stronger understanding of the other.