[I love games, but the older and busier I get, the less time I have to play them. Being as book-minded as I am, I’m mostly drawn to games with compelling and intricate stories. In this column I share some of my game playing experiences that I think might be of interest to fellow book nerds. You can read previous installments here.]
I came across a couple indie games–if you want to call them that, there’s not much playing–and was struck in such a way that I wanted to talk about it. It’s going to get a little heavy from here, so heads up.
I have major depressive disorder. It’s something I’ve dealt with pretty much my entire adult life; sometimes I’m able to cope with it well, and other times I’ll go through extended periods of struggle that are as seemingly endless as George R. R. Martin’s winters.
One of the most difficult hurdles of depression, and what make it a real son of a bitch, is that it runs counter to logic. I’m perfectly aware if I’m being too hard on myself, or if I’m making a decision I know I’ll regret, or that I should be finding pleasure in certain things. I can sit down and think or write about it rationally. Then I won’t follow through with any plans to adjust things, at least not when I’m in the depths of an episode. It’s like my id locks me in a box and puts my body on autopilot toward a brick wall. I scream at myself inside my head to pay attention and change course, but the rest of me isn’t listening.
Feeling helpless inside your own body is a horrible experience. And it helps perpetuate the negative emotions, pushing you down even deeper, convinced of your ineffectual helplessness. Usually I am able to wrest back control and swerve at the last minute, but not everyone is so lucky to miss that wall.
Actual Sunlight was created by one man, and the whole thing will take you about a half hour start to finish. (Unfortunately you need Windows to run it currently.) It tells the story of a young man, Evan, who suffers from depression. You guide him as he goes to work, rides out the day, goes home, gets drunk and eats junk food, and repeats it all the next day. You control Evan with the arrows on your keyboard, but very few options are put before you. You have to go to work. You have to talk to your boss. You have to stop at the store for junk food and video games, despite Evan’s narration telling you how much he really doesn’t want to be doing that.
This disconnect between agency and control is what really struck me with Actual Sunlight. It’s something I think is very difficult for people without depression to appreciate, even when they think they’re empathizing. Often, loved ones will tell me that everyone has ups and downs, how sometimes you just need to tough it out until life turns things around. To some extent that’s true. But the abject feelings of worthlessness and despair are sometimes so overwhelming I literally lose my breath. I can recognize these episodes for what they are, yet feel utterly incapable of changing them. At times it honestly feels like part of me is being controlled by someone else.
Actual Sunlight replicates that experience and the baggage it brings with it in a way I’ve never encountered before in books or movies, or other games.
It comes to a head at the end of the game. When you get in the elevator to go to work, instead of having a choice of floors to go to (you usually go downstairs to catch a bus), your options are “Roof,” “Roof,” and “Roof.”
“Go to the roof of the building and jump off?” the game asks Evan. You can pick “Yes,” or you can pick “Yes.”
So you walk Evan to the ledge of the building, his inner monologue racing the whole way. I was constantly trying to pull him back, but the game kept compelling me to push him toward the edge. For a 30 minute indie game, it delivered one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences I’ve had in awhile.
This game is emblematic of some interesting changes coming about in consumable content right now. As more media (books, games, movies) become increasingly democratized–primarily due to the Internet’s removal of distribution hurdles–in the same fashion music has for a while now, there’s a noticeable merging of traditionally entertainment-focused content and expressive art forms. Evan’s story isn’t a very fun experience. It’s a game in medium only. But it would probably make for a hack job short story. The limitation of player agency is crucial to the experience in a way a traditional cannot be, since reader agency is already restricted to interpretation. That doesn’t mean it’s better, just different–and worth experiencing.
Depression Quest is much more akin to a traditional story. You can play it in your browser right now, and I recommend you do. Like Actual Sunlight, Depression Quest does a really fine job of accurately depicting what goes through someone’s brain as they battle through a depressive episode.
This one is even less game like. It’s basically a hypertext Choose Your Own Adventure story, where the adventure is the day to day existence of a young person trying to weather the onset of depression. It’s mostly text, and well written. Your character has a new girlfriend, but struggles to open up. You want your character to do things and be sociable, but you can empathize with the impulse to resist. The character you play is utterly lacking in self-confidence, and you can try and help, but it’s not so easy. It’s a stark depiction, but an honest and relatable one.
Thankfully, Depression Quest won’t leave you feeling quite as hopeless or emotionally drained as Actual Sunlight. If you play just one, probably go for this one. It’s not fun at all, but a worthwhile experience. Also make sure to have the sound on, because the soundtrack by Isaac Schankler adds a lot.
I’m fortunate: I have great friends and family who are always there for me, whether I ask them for help or not; affordable access to a shrink and meds; and a sizable library of books (and games) that help quiet my soul when I’m at my lowest. Not everyone is so lucky. If depression is something you have to deal with, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If it’s not something you’ve experienced, you still probably know someone afflicted–ask them about it, you might be surprised by the honesty of their response.
Take one of these games for a spin, they will stir up emotions, and hopefully help more people understand what life in a depressed episode is really like.
Next time: A happier tone (I promise) and why 3DS is the best game machine out there for nerds like us.