Gaming Reflections · Narrative in Games · Real Life

Day in the Sun

So, this semester I’m teaching a course on “Game Design for Expression.” It’s really more of a class on how students — especially students with no technology or game background — can make small, personal games. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of guest speakers willing to talk about their work, including Mattie Brice, Samantha Allen, and most recently, Will O’Neill, the creator of Actual Sunlight.

That game, like Depression Quest, is one that I deeply respected based on what I’d heard about it, but in the end couldn’t play, because I wasn’t in an emotional place where doing so would have been healthy. But I assigned it for my students this semester to play and discuss because I thought they would get a great lesson out of doing so. And because I’m their professor, I had to play it too, which I finally sat down to do on Tuesday night to be ready for Wednesday’s class.

This post is the story of how that went. Insofar as Actual Sunlight can be spoiled, this post will have them.

I knew I had to avoid Actual Sunlight for the reason stated above when I read about it on Polygon. In fact, I can tell you the exact moment when, skimming the page before fully reading the article, my eyes snapped to a page element and I knew then and there I couldn’t even read the review, let alone play the game. It’s when I saw this image:

"Mirror" pic from Actual Sunlight
Actual Sunlight’s Evan Winter seeing himself in the mirror. Apologies to Polygon for ganking this image.

This moment, this literal moment, has happened to me. Every aspect of it except maybe the for-emphasis mirror crack that isn’t really a mirror crack has happened to me. That moment when you look into a mirror and see your body and then watch in fascination as your own expression shifts from shock to a sort of soul-crushing horror. This picture is my past and my present. It’s happened. And I knew, I knew, seeing it, that I could not handle what Actual Sunlight had to offer me at the time.

The truth is, I’m not entirely sure I was ready for it on Tuesday, either. Make no mistake: Actual Sunlight is a game about what despair and hopelessness and the feeling that nothing can ever change, that nothing has any sense of purpose, can do to us. It ends ambiguously, in a way that holds a mirror up to the reader, reflecting their vision of the possibility of hope in their expectation of what happens to the game’s main character when he goes to the roof of his apartment building intending to jump off.

Suicide is no stranger to me. I’ve had multiple friends kill themselves in my lifetime, including one that played out in a highly unsettling fashion for me (that’s presented in a storytelling way but is a thing that really happened). I’m fortunate in that my bouts with depression have… well, I’ll be honest, I’ve had what a lot of people call “suicidal thoughts” but I’m very lucky that they never turned into suicidal ideation, or a real desire to go through with it. But I know what it feels like to want to not exist, to think the world would be a better place if you simply weren’t.

I’ve gotten to know Will over the past year, mostly via Twitter, and I know from discussions we’ve had that he and I struggle with many of the same issues. Weight and body image are certainly part of it, but there’s other things. A powerful inability to internalize success and a raging feeling that nothing you do really matters definitely count. The feeling that things like video games are providing us with a false escape, a self-destroying cycle of consumption and guilt that only makes things worse. Dealing with trying to harness creative energy to do something good, and a need to tell stories that would otherwise not be told. And the more I learned about these congruences the more terrified I was of playing Actual Sunlight.

Sadly, the experience of doing so bore out my worst fears. Playing through the game as Evan Winter, reading his internal monologue that is so artfully realistic at first that you believe it might not all be in his head until the game more or less directly tells you it is, I saw a painful mirror of so much of my life. I think my upcoming 35th birthday is probably part of it; an important aspect of Actual Sunlight is that it features the story of someone who is in his early to mid 30s and increasingly feels like it’s now too late to change the trajectory of anything. For Evan, life is a steady slope to the grave filled with constant reminders of everything he perceives as his failure to capitalize on his potential.

"Bed" picture from Actual Sunlight
Evan Winter lies in bed, reflecting on his life. Image from

And to be honest, this picture is me all over again, too. At night, when you lie down for sleep, is when these anxieties wait to attack you. Your head, emptying itself out for the night, suddenly fills up again, and with nothing good. You want to focus on something, anything else, but you can’t. And you hear your own voice tell you that everything you do is pointless, that you have no worth. Our cultural focus on romantic partnership really rears its ugly head the most at these points. The expectation is, if you were someone worthy of love, you wouldn’t be sleeping alone. There’d be someone there to share the moment with you. And then you hear your own voice say “it’s alright, I’ll just have to make it on my own” but that never lasts, and you start to think about dying alone, and realize that what you just said is a lie, and the pressure on your heart becomes physical pain as you bunch up muscles everywhere trying to force yourself not to cry, or to start crying.

Of course, this sort of maudlin and self-indulgent description of how awful things are is Evan Winter’s stock in trade too. The game is full of his self-defensive, self-effacing writing on different aspects of reality, all in the same brittle wit. Reading a fake transcript of his appearance, in his head, on a late night talk show, the wooden witticisms employed in that scenario are punctuated by laugh track sounds, calling us to realize what desperate, awful artifice they are. Visually, when we see Evan’s writing in the game — and it’s impossible to really know if they’re things he wrote or things he wishes he wrote, most of the time — the presentation is stark, barebones: white text, black background, Times New Roman. Comparatively the ‘real’ world for Evan, built from RPGMaker tilesets, seems almost garish and ridiculous by comparison. And in truth, as Will told my students, that’s how Evan sees the real world: as caricature, more like theatre than reality, influenced by the character’s love of video games (and probably JRPGs, given the format).

In the end, the game takes control away from you. In the end Evan’s had enough, and the only way to fight his seemingly inevitable fight is to put down the controller and walk away, literally step away from or quit the game. Otherwise, you have no choice but to get dressed, go to the roof, and move to the edge. The game ends on a quick fade to black just as we would expect to see him leap off the roof to his death. The ultimate fate of Evan Winter has no canon reality. It’s left ambiguous. And as I say, how we react holds a mirror up to us, and I believe that he really did go through with it. That he gave in.

That situation leaves you with the worst question in the world: “how did it get so bad?” For the survivors, this often branches out into “what could I have done differently? How could I have stopped this? Why didn’t I see?” Often there are no satisfying answers to these questions, which means they will haunt you for a long time (see above ref to story from my past). And really, Actual Sunlight is the answer to that first question, longform. The game shows us both the self-destroying hopelessness of Evan’s life — how cycles of his own behavior and mistreatment by others combine to reinforce his unhappiness — and the inevitable result if change doesn’t happen. It’s an unpleasant reminder, one we might better want to forget, and it ends in a way that has no closure.

It’s easy for us to see suicide as an irrational act. After all, surviving another day is what we as humans are supposed to want, right? And in so believing, when it happens, we go through the public practice of trying to make sense of it by looking at the context of the situation. “Oh, well, they had [x] influence. No wonder they felt so sad! That must be it.”

But I don’t think that’s how it works. These urges, this… desire not to even be anymore, it doesn’t come all at once. It gradually builds up as your ways out, the hope that things can change, is stripped from you… and every unhappy day, every day where the cycle of depression and reinforcement of that depression takes away your ability to feel joy, adds to it. Eventually it becomes unbearable, and I think this is why many people who commit suicide feel a sense of great relief when they make the firm decision to do it (just as Evan does on the rooftop). Suddenly the solution to this problem has arrived, and so a weight leaves your shoulders despite the awful, tragic end that sparked it. And this is why I think the age of the character in his early 30s — and my age as a player — come into this so strongly. I think your early 30s are a time, in the modern era, where you start to feel like your life trajectory is calcified, or beginning to be so. It’s when you stop thinking about changing things and start thinking about settling into the security of routine.

And really, I think that’s what the anxiety of depression takes away from you in the end: the belief that things can change. It tells you that this is how it will always be, and the terror that realization induces can be an awful thing.

1700 words into this you might be wondering what my point is. To be honest with you, I’m not sure that I entirely know. I do know when I sat down to write this blog post, I asked a friend to dig up these tweets, which I made earlier this week after playing AS:

[tweet] [tweet] [tweet] [tweet] [tweet]

What I’m trying to say is that playing Actual Sunlight was painful, and unpleasant, but I don’t regret doing it. I think for people who struggle with these issues, reminds of just how bad things can get can be useful; we’re taught to avoid them for fear of making things worse, but I think playing AS reminded of how I’m different than Evan, not just how we’re the same. Every bad choice Evan made that I’ve made was a haunting reminder, but every good choice I made that he didn’t told me the difference between us. Reminded me of why I still get up every day no matter how bad things get.

I thought that Evan really did head off that roof but I was confident that I wouldn’t have. Maybe that was enough.

Will’s “letter” to players, which happens early on in the game, is really a hopeful thing amid the darkness of the game. It’s his reminder to us that things can be changed, but that you can’t wait around to do it. If you do, eventually you get trapped in this mire. Eventually, your belief that things can change gets worn away by the time and tide of life. And really, in the end, the belief is the important thing. I think if you believe things can change, then you might be able to find a way for that to happen no matter how old you are, or how dark things can get. I think having that belief that it won’t always be this way is so important, so critical, so vital. Without it, no change is possible, and with it, despair can never truly win.

I don’t know that I always have that belief, but I do know that I try to. And I don’t want to defend Evan’s life choices in the game, but some of the things that he decries as hopeless escapism, as things he did just to stave off hopelessness, are things that I actually don’t agree are quite that. The playing of video games is the big one. For Evan, those moments were never satisfying, never fulfilling… but I have to wonder if he, and lots of other gamers with our shared history, expect them to offer more than any game ever could.

When I was younger, my game playing was obsessive, lengthy, damaging to other things in real life. I gave up sleep, socializing, lots of other things to do it, and I think part of that is because in the frequently power fantasy-filled world of games, that was where I felt like I had some agency. I couldn’t find a boyfriend, I couldn’t get the energy or will to exercise, but I could finish the secret dungeon in the latest JRPG that everyone said was super hard. At 34, I don’t have the energy — or even the desire — for that anymore, really… not even with games I love to death. But I think I’ve come to appreciate games as small moments of enjoyment instead. I don’t need games to fulfill me as a person anymore. And maybe that makes all the difference. I think it’s certainly why “savior discourse” about games, where we believe them to be what will make the future so bright and wonderful, frustrates me. Yes, games can show us wonderful, beautiful things. I’m happy when they do that. But I’m happy when they’re awful power fantasies sometimes, too. Sometimes that small moment of enjoyment is enough. Not always; sometimes I want more. Just like anything else in life. But I think if you stop being able to find momentary joy in even the simple things, then you lose perspective on how important the big successes can be.

I’m not entirely sure why I wrote this blog post. Maybe I just needed to get it off my chest. I couldn’t stop replaying my reactions to Actual Sunlight and related stories over and over in my head. When I saw that picture in the Polygon piece I literally snapped the browser tab shut and got up and paced the room until my pulse came back to normal. When I finished playing it on Tuesday, I opened iTunes and I found the brightest, peppiest J-pop in my library and sang along with it, which was hard, because with each passing moment my chest felt tighter and my lungs didn’t fill as much until, eventually, in the middle of the fourth song I just started crying.

But perhaps the marvelous thing was, even though those reactions were so painful, so disconcerting, they were reactions to seeing a story that the media would never tell the way Actual Sunlight told it. On Wednesday Will told my students that he wanted to write this story, make this game, because he knew if someone else did it the story would be about Evan’s eventual redemption. He’d “suddenly start jogging and everything would turn around.”

I’m glad that story doesn’t exist because it would be awful. I’m glad that no matter how sad Actual Sunlight made me feel, no matter how hard it was to see so much of myself laid bare for the universe (even though it wasn’t “about me”), it still exists. Someone thought that story was worth telling. Someone thought that it was important for others to see this, even if it ends in tragedy.

I think for me, that was enough.

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