Voiceless and forgotten: facing depression through play

Thursday, 4 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.