Simulating Depression: Actual Sunlight

January 21, 2016 – Culture, Game Dev, People

Stephen Totterdell Do you think it’s possible to simulate the experience of depression, and do you think Actual Sunlight achieves this?

Will O’Neill The precise feeling of it is probably impossible to simulate – simulations as we think of them tend to focus on sensory experiences, whereas a huge part of depression is a frame of mind – but I think it’s possible to undertake a recitation of the thoughts that depression produces, and I think Actual Sunlight does this pretty well. The linearity and removal of agency throughout the game is also intentional, and is done with an eye towards depicting the myopia that depression produces.

ST: Yeah, I felt that by reading the thoughts in the game I had an experience that brought to mind the thought processes I’ve had during periods of depression. The external reproduction of this state maybe affects the internal, just like how smiling supposedly causes one to become happier.

O’Neill Sure – I think a lot of people who haven’t had any kind of personal experience with depression have played Actual Sunlight and come away from it feeling pretty depressed themselves, even if it only lasts awhile. That can be difficult to separate, though, from the fact that it’s also just a pretty sad story…!


ST: Absolutely. Do you think Actual Sunlight should be played by people in the midst of a depression?

O’Neill One thing that I’ve always tried to articulate is that I don’t think Actual Sunlight should be thought of as a mental health tool in any way. Trying to treat depression with it would be like trying to treat depression with a Pink Floyd album or a book of poetry by Sylvia Plath. This puts me in contrast with a lot of my contemporaries, I think, who are creating games like this with the explicit desire to help people, or raise awareness of something out of a charitable concern. My belief is that the purpose of art is to be truthful – maybe that helps, maybe it doesn’t. But honesty is its own virtue.

So should it be? I’m not sure. In the midst of serious depression, it’s unlikely that you could take away anything insightful from it, so I would say not. And I think it’s important that it’s made clear to people up front that it can be a very emotionally harrowing experience, which is something I do within the game and also everywhere that it’s been offered for sale.

ST: I think that’s true. There is a tendency with these kind of subjects to have a pathway dependent conversation, in which only one narrative is available; say self-help. Do you think there is a poverty of language around suicide? Do you think we lack any meaningful way of conceptualising or exploring it without resorting to alarmism or platitudes?

O’Neill It’s very difficult, certainly. We don’t want to believe that there is any situation in which a person could rationally take their own life, and suicidality is a crisis – most people in the midst of it are in no position to evaluate themselves realistically, which is why hotlines and intervention are so important – but certainly you have cases in which people are suffering from terminal disease or debilitating chronic pain wherein I think the conversation opens up a bit. Actual Sunlight doesn’t deal with those things, but I think those are the areas in which these types of conversations can begin to happen.

Whether or not they’ll ever extend to people who are in perpetual anguish psychologically is a lot more difficult to know – again, that kind of suicidality is a crisis – but it may. Again, as an artist I feel like questions like that begin to extend beyond my reach.

ST:Yes, it feels a bit like the medical marijuana argument. It’s only an option if it will help people in medical pain. I wonder if that points to something lacking in the discourse.

Can you think of any games recently that spoke well about suicide?

O’Neill That’s a good parallel. I’m sympathetic to how difficult it can be to think of one like the other, honestly – there’s so much about the mind that we just don’t know. It’s a lot more complicated and nuanced than a broken leg, I’m sure. I can’t think of any recent games that address the topic, but historically I think something like Silent Hill 2 does a decent job. The problem with most video games is that they’re addressing these things through a supernatural lens – I don’t think that’s comparable to something like Actual Sunlight.


ST: Actual Sunlight spends a lot of time at a typical alienated place of work. In what sense does the game reflect widespread societal alienation right now? Do you think it can be tied in any way to the rise of pursuits of meaning such as identity politics or radicalism?

O’Neill I don’t think it does anything exceptional in how it summarizes the ennui of contemporary white-collar work, to be honest. It’s concise and true to my experience, but much has been said about these things across every medium you can think of, Actual Sunlight no more and no less. I wouldn’t say it’s tied too heavily into identity politics or radicalism – depression and isolation are big problems, but if enormous political and social changes do come in our lifetime, it’ll probably be over scarcity of things like food and water rather than love and happiness…!

That being said, I think you could say that the general tone of our era discourages the kind of goodwill and cooperative spirit that could make a contribution there. Barring some kind of unforeseen technological miracle, I’d say we’re all pretty much doomed.

ST: That’s probably the case. Would you recommend Actual Sunlight be played by relatives or friends of somebody who has committed suicide? Why?

O’Neill Similar to whether or not people with depression ‘should’ play it or not, I’d say again that I really didn’t create it for a specific audience. Somebody who has a friend or relative that committed suicide might find it valuable and interesting as a work of art or not, but I wouldn’t recommend that they play it *because* such a thing had happened.

You’ve got to keep in mind, as well, that the motivations people have for making that choice are hugely complex and varied. There might be a lot of recurring themes – pain, loneliness, poverty – but Actual Sunlight still only captures a single perspective.


ST: That’s true. Okay, last question.

What do you see as the future of short-form games? Do you think they offer something unique in exploring obtuse human experiences?

O’Neill Definitely. If anything, I see the polarization between long games and short games going even further, with tiny indies offering ever-shorter but very dense emotional experiences while III and AAA studios expand their games into neverending but even blander and more repetitive sandboxes.

There are basically no human experiences that take 200 hours to convey, but 200 hours is what they want you for – human experience gets thrown out the window.

ST: Life isn’t a sidequest.

O’Neill Exactly. If human experiences are what you’re looking for, I believe short-form and indie games will continue to be your best bet.

ST: Excellent. Well, I look forward to your future games. Thanks again for the interview. Really great answers.

O’Neill You’re very welcome! I enjoyed it, and anybody interested can take a look at to learn more about my next game.

ST: Absolutely! Best of luck. See you!


Actual Sunlight:

Will O’Neill: