Actual Sunlight review: a game of depression

So I just finished “playing” a game called Actual Sunlight.  It conjured up a confused mix of thoughts and feelings that  compelled me to write a short article in order to sort it all out. 

To begin with, Actual Sunlight isn’t really a game.  It’s an interactive story using the video game format, which I think is great.  It’s a sign that the video game has gained acceptance  as a legitimate medium of expression rather than being simply a form of entertainment.  The game is not revolutionary in any sense, but it does capture the essence of what it feels like to be depressed.  The hopelessness.  The myopic blindness. The isolation. Actual Sunlight is actually no fun at all.  It’s painful and predictable.  A slow free fall to a predetermined end.  And this is fitting because it is precisely what depression feels like.

I have mixed feelings about the game.  Will O’Neill, the creator of Actual Sunlight, takes pains to explain that the game illustrates one possible outcome of a lifetime of depression. It’s meant to be a wake up call to sensitive young people, many of whom play games. However, I wonder if some of them will take it the wrong way.

In principle, Actual Sunlight is a great idea. The truth is that life is the sum of all of your decisions and actions.  The law of inertia that we learn in physics applies to life as well.  While it’s theoretically possible to change your life at any given moment, in practice, it gets harder the older you are because you must overcome the weight/momentum of all of your previous choices.  To succeed, one needs discipline and persistence–two habits that depressed people often lack and that take a long time to develop. Therefore, the best chance anyone has to actually “beat” depression is to start when s/he is young. There is less inertia to overcome and more time to build up the necessary habits to be successful.

I hope that some kids will hear this message and take it to heart.  I really do. But I wonder if the message will fall on deaf ears…or worse, reinforce negative outlooks. The Catch-22 of life is that the people most able to change their lives are often the ones who have the least motivation to do so.  Teenagers do not think of time the same way adults do, and they typically do not think 10, 15, 20 years into future. There is also the very real human tendency for people to reinforce their preexisting opinions by selectively filtering their experiences.  In other words, they only hear what they already believe. To kids that already believe that there is no hope, the danger is that a game like Actual Sunlight would only confirm this belief.

Misinterpretation is a risk inherent in all arts.  Art speaks to many but to each person differently.  Still, I think that this is a risk worth taking. An artist has something to express, and his or her calling is to express it to the best of his or her ability. Focus on that, and let everything else fall where it may.

We are all artists, in fact. Our lives are our canvases.  We don’t always get to choose the colors in our palette or the number of brushes or the size of our canvas. But none of that matters. All that we can control–all that really matters–is doing the best with what we have.

That brings me to my final point. One thought that I had immediate after playing Actual Sunlight was “there is no solution.” But there is, although it’s not presented in the game. Depression is a black hole that is constantly sucking you in.  For people dealing with brain chemistry imbalances and traumatic events, a combination of talk therapy and medication can help. But for people who lack direction or community, the solution is action.  Follow Will O’Neill’s example. He crafted a game to express something important to him. What is your craft? Find your true self, what you are passionate about, and go and do it.  It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t pay or if people don’t approve or understand. Just focus on your craft. Your purpose. Your reason for existing.  And when you have practiced your craft for long enough, you will find others like you–doing the same thing for the same reason. It’s inevitable. It’s a big world. They are out there, and it’s only a matter of time.

Anyway, Actual Sunlight is worth checking out for anyone who struggles with depression or wants to know what it feels like. The time commitment is modest (45-60 minutes), but the game and the thoughts and feelings that it engenders will likely stick with you for a good deal longer.

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