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Voiceless and forgotten: facing depression through play

Thursday, 4th April 2013 14:59 GMT By Dave Owen

Depression Quest and Actual Sunlight are two games based on depression. Dave Owen speaks with their creators to find out how they can help.

Depression Games

Depression suffer Will O’Neill is the creator of Actual Sunlight, a depression-based RPG that tackles some tough issues on the matter. You can grab it here.

O’Neill is currently trying to get the game published on Steam via Greenlight. Help support the cause here.

Adventure game Depression Quest was created by fellow depression sufferer Zoe Quinn. It’s a sobering look at the real challenges facing depressed people. You can play it here.

Quinn is also pushing for a Steam Greenlight release. You can support Depression Quest here.

Early on in Actual Sunlight, a home-made RPG that deals candidly and devastatingly with depression, creator Will O’Neill apparently panics and interjects with this missive: “The fact that you are young means in and of itself that you still have a lot of time to change things. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything you want, but I promise that you can do a lot better than you will if you give yourself over to despair.”

It’s clear that he speaks from experience. There’s a great deal of O’Neill in central character Evan Winter, an overweight 30-something whose life is rapidly buckling under depression.

Will tells me that “This is a story I wanted to tell because it was autobiographical, and it wasn’t the kind of story I thought was well represented.”

Similarly personal motivations lie behind Depression Quest, a text-based game designed to give an insight into living with depression.

“As common an issue as depression is, it’s amazing how few games there are that deal with it at all, let alone in a meaningful, positive way,” said co-creator Zoe Quinn.

“People seem to either not understand it or be afraid of dealing with such a sensitive subject,” Quinn continued, “which sucks because depression is such a misunderstood issue.”

“We thought that because games are so good at putting players in someone else’s shoes and evoking sympathy, we could use the medium to finally try and communicate what depression is like by putting people inside the head of someone with depression.”

This process required the creators to lay bare their own issues and experiences of depression. I ask both O’Neill and Quinn if making their respective games was a form of self-help. “When we started working on Depression Quest, we weren’t sure if it was going to make our own depression worse,” says Quinn.

“It sort of did both in two stages,” she added. “Actually making the game was gut-wrenchingly difficult. There were times we had to stop working on a certain encounter because it would rapidly change from writing the scenario to beating ourselves up.”

It’s this intensely personal approach that can make the game a distressing experience, said Quinn, “If the game is difficult to play that’s largely because its descriptions are very honest and personal, and I honestly hope that players with depression will be able to relate to the sort of candid experiences we talk about in the game and at the very least come away from it knowing that somebody out there understands what they’re going through.”

It’s through this attempt to connect with players that Quinn was able to find personal help from the game. “After it shipped we had an outpouring of letters from fellow depression sufferers, and we inadvertently managed to do for ourselves what we were aiming to do for others, in that we were supported and commiserated with by players who understood what we were going through.”

Actual Sunlight is an equally intimate experience, but O’Neill’s motivations for creating the game were somewhat different. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen to me over the rest of my life. But I doubt that I’m going to get married and have kids and have a ‘normal’ life,” he said.

“I wanted to make a contribution. So rather than dealing with my own issues, I wanted to say I was here. Someone like me was here. I don’t know if that’s a hedge against mortality or what, but it’s something you feel driven to do when you feel voiceless and forgotten within a culture. You don’t want it to be forgotten that you were there.”

Such words are a little chilling from the creator of an autobiographical game where player choice is systematically stripped away until only one option remains – suicide. Reactions to the game have forced O’Neill to reconsider his own depression.

“I consider myself to be mildly to moderately depressed,” he said, “but the interpretation has been that it’s about someone who’s unbelievably over the top depressed. So that’s been a strange thing. I wasn’t aware people perceived me that way.”

In different ways, both games strive to lend a voice to an issue that has long suffered from enforced obscurity. Neither intended their game as a form of therapy, but player reactions have been overwhelmingly positive.

“Many people have told us they’ve decided to seek therapy or go on medication as a result of the game, and one person even told us the game brought them down from considering suicide,” said Quinn.

“We didn’t intend for the game to be a diagnostic tool or a therapy replacement. We certainly weren’t trying to glorify psychiatric help as The Only Solution. What we did want to get across is that the key to dealing with mental illness effectively is not to suffer alone. One of the most important things you can do is talk to someone, and we tried to reinforce that in the game as much as possible.”

O’Neill is pleased that players have resonated with Actual Sunlight, but is uncomfortable with the thought that some might view it as an alternative to therapy. “I think people feel that it has that simulation aspect, so people expect that [therapy’s] what I’m trying to do. But I created Actual Sunlight as art, and I think it’s totally valid as art. I was always just a writer that thought this was a story that could be told well as a game.”

However players choose to interpret these games, perhaps the most important thing is that they have compelled gamers to discuss and rethink not only what subject matter is appropriate for games, but also about depression and mental illness more widely. “I think it’s possible that the future is full of games like mine, or even a lot better than Actual Sunlight,” enthuses O’Neill. His lasting mark on society might be as a key figure in a new gaming movement.

“Our main goal was to dispel stigma and get people talking,” concludes Quinn. Although it may be a while yet before the stigma of depression is gone, games such as these that push the boundaries of the medium and encourage players to consider issues they may never have encountered before might prove a critical factor.

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12 Comments

  1. YoungZer0

    Interesting read and good article, Dave. I think I might actually check it out, to see how they deal with the subject.

    #1 1 year ago
  2. Dave Owen

    Thanks! The games are definitely worth checking out. They can be difficult to play, but only because they do such a good job of recreating/portraying depression.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. YoungZer0

    Starts off promising enough.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. GwynbleiddiuM

    Thank you Mister Owen. Will definitely give them a try.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. YoungZer0

    So I took the time to finish Actual Sunlight annnnnddd

    I did not like it. I doubt people who have not dealt with this sickness will understand. They will probably immediately drop it.

    I can definitely remember thinking like that for long, long, long time, but having beaten depression like Russel Crowe beats cancer, I can also see a lot of the things that went wrong here. O’Neill’s thoughts are full of self-loathing. He’s addicted to it. What he’s doing and thinking it’s … it’s useless, it’s dangerous and poisonous. It might destroy him in the long run.

    You can sum up a lot of the monolog in one quote from Nietzsche:

    “Whoever despises himself nonetheless respects himself as one who despises.”

    You have these negative thoughts and you kind of like them. You like yourself for hating yourself. You think your eyes are open, the world is shit that’s just how it is. The world is shit and everybody else doesn’t see it. Nothing matters and you kind of enjoy being sad and lonely because, man, that fucking drama is tasty. And why should you even complain? You live in a first world country, you have everything you need. So shut up, you’re pathetic.

    Blah, blah, fucking nonsense.

    You feel good about hating yourself and the world because you think it’s something you’re good at. You really appreciate the hatred. It gives you reassurance. But you have to realize that you’re killing yourself. And no, that’s not cool or sad. It’s just stupid. You’re purposefully blinding yourself from all the positive things you experience. From all the good you can did and can do. They would ruin your drama, they destroy your beautiful, miserable picture.

    We all want our lives to matter, not to be forgotten when we’re gone. And that’s easier than most think. Simply be and you will matter. Perhaps not to the world, but to the people around you.

    Puh.

    What just happened?

    #5 1 year ago
  6. Cobra951

    @5: Did you seriously just attack victims of depression? You’re judging them, throwing their pain back in their faces as if it were self-inflicted? Or is it all part of some act I missed?

    #6 1 year ago
  7. YoungZer0

    Wha’? Did you read past the first sentence of my comment? I dunno what gave you that idea.

    Have you actually dealt with people who have depression?

    If you didn’t get my comment, then let me explain; It was more of a personal message to O’Neill. His way of thinking makes me sick and it’s dangerous. I’m not going to put any sugar on my comment here. It won’t get better, not with this mindset. He needs professional help or it will kill him.

    Through his writing you get the feeling that he enjoys it, he enjoys hating himself and as someone who experienced it firsthand, I can fully understand it. But it’s not cool and it’s not harmless fun. It’s dangerous and he should do something against it.

    Unlike Depression Quest (Playing it right now and loving it so far), Actual Sunlight isn’t trying to show you any solution. That’s my main beef with the game. It’s a game about self-loathing and seeing no solution. It literally is depressing. If that’s his goal, congrats.

    If this is really how O’Neill feels or what he experienced (minus the suicide), then he needs help! Doesn’t matter what one Psychologist said, he should look for another and another and another, until it works out. Because he won’t be able to manage it on his own. Not with that poisonous mindset.

    I honestly think that people who are still fighting depression (Please don’t call them victims, okay?) should avoid this game. It’s extremely poisonous and will amplify any negative thought they might have.

    #7 1 year ago
  8. YoungZer0

    Now finished ‘Depression Quest’.

    A simple, yet well-made game. Probably the best when it comes to the subject. Recently played one that was featured on Kotaku and that game was just atrocious.

    Depression Quest might help both. People who don’t have depression but want to understand people who do and people who do have it, but don’t know how to deal with it, especially if they haven’t taken the first steps necessary to fight it.

    As the games conclusion is also very, very good. There’s no real happy ending. You still have your good days and some really, really bad days. Something a lot of people who suffer from it can confirm. It truly is a fight that never ends, it’s a sickness after all.

    Knowing how to fight it is the most important step.

    The game deals with the subject in a realistically manner.

    Sidenote: The music is fantastic.

    #8 1 year ago
  9. Dave Owen

    @YoungZero – I respectfully disagree with you about Actual Sunlight – in some ways anyway. I agree that it doesn’t show any solution to escaping depression, but O’Neill has made it quite clear that the game isn’t intended as therapy in any way. The idea was to portray his own experiences as accurately as he could, and I think he’s done that extremely well. I absolutely agree with you that the mindset behind it is self-defeating, but depression often is. It’s brilliant that you’ve beaten it, but others don’t succeed in doing so.

    As for his attitude of enjoying his depression… I’m not sure on that. I think much of that is just his writing style, which is very cynical, biting… I can see how it might come across in the way you’ve described it.

    I think your comments highlight what is so fascinating about these games – people are going to perceive them in so many different ways, and as a result they have the potential to have such a huge impact.

    #9 1 year ago
  10. YoungZer0

    @9: Yeah, I think it was pretty clear what he wanted to achieve. As I said earlier, it’s literally depressing to play.

    The fact that he seeked out to make it personal is reason enough for me to believe that it’s not just his writing style. When you’re depressed for a long time, you get this little sense of enjoyment out of it. This is where the Nietzsche quote applies. You enjoy being good at something. That something is self-loathing.

    Or you enjoy punishing yourself, because you think you deserve punishment for being the way you are, for being unable to enjoy your life, even though you think you should.

    And I have not ‘beaten’ per se. You can’t ‘beat it’, it’s a constant fight.

    Depression Quest really helps you figure out how to deal with it. Another reason why I like it so much.

    #10 1 year ago
  11. Cobra951

    “When you’re depressed for a long time, you get this little sense of enjoyment out of it. This is where the Nietzsche quote applies. You enjoy being good at something. That something is self-loathing.”

    See? I didn’t misinterpret you. This attitude is what outraged me, and still does. Longterm depression is not something enjoyable at any level. One may come to grips with it, like one comes to grips with losing an arm or a leg. One may even accept the reality of it, cope as best as one can, and not browbeat oneself about it. If the cliff is insurmountable, stop trying to climb it. Find peace otherwise. That is a far cry from enjoyment, or even contentment.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. YoungZer0

    Do you or did you suffer from depression? Because you sound extremely clueless.

    I think most people who suffered from it know exactly what I mean.

    I never said this kind of enjoyment is in any way healthy, which is exactly why it’s so negative. Wait, just forget it. If you didn’t understand it in the first two comments, I doubt you will understand it now.

    #12 1 year ago

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