Light in the Darkness: Dealing With Depression in Games

Are games capable of meaningfully confronting the difficult issue of depression? The creators of two new games think so.

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Fiction that deals with depression is nothing new. Many believe that Shakespeare's character Hamlet suffers from the disease. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a literary classic that presents a powerful psychological portrait of the illness as experienced by its main character. Numerous books, plays and films have attempted to illuminate the experiences of depression sufferers. But grounded, serious, real-world portrayals of depression are not something games have concerned themselves with much, until now. Two games, Actual Sunlight by Will O'Neill and Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey, are taking different but equally valid approaches to this difficult subject matter.

Actual Sunlight is a linear story created by Will O'Neill in RPG Maker VX Ace. Set in present-day Toronto, the game places you in the role of Evan Winter, a single man who, like many depressed individuals, goes through the motions of life without revealing to anyone around him the crippling emotional and psychological burden he carries with him everywhere. Actual Sunlight's power comes from the way that your experience playing as Evan is constantly interrupted by his thoughts and imaginings. In these interludes, Evan's emotional emptiness, the lack of a sense of meaning in any aspect of his life, is not just apparent; it's relentless. The voices in his head never stop laying on the self-loathing, nor do they stop commenting on the perceived pointlessness of his job, his failure to form meaningful relationships, and anything else they can use to suggest that Evan's entire existence is utterly worthless. As I played through Actual Sunlight, I couldn't help but be affected by Evan's mental and emotional state; O'Neill's use of language is strong and unflinching (this is most definitely not a game for children), and over time, I began to feel beaten down by these interludes. Yes, I mean that as a compliment.

As I played through Actual Sunlight, I couldn't help but be affected by Evan's mental and emotional state.
You may not have much control over Actual Sunlight's narrative, but I still feel like it benefits from being a story that is told in the form of a game rather than a book or a film. As Evan, I went through the motions of getting up in the morning, going to work, and returning home. I understood how, through Evan's eyes, it all felt so pointless, in a way that I might not have if I were just watching it happen to a character. And toward the end of the game, you're forced to make terrible choices that aren't choices at all, which I think is a powerful metaphor for the ways in which a depressed person's outlook can be out of his control. Friends might tell him to be hopeful, to look on the bright side, but much as he might want to, he can't.

Actual Sunlight can be played in its entirety for free, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the capacity of games to tell mature, character-driven stories. O'Neill is also currently running an Indiegogo fundraiser in the hopes of sprucing up the game with original artwork and music.

Meanwhile, game designer Zoe Quinn and writer Patrick Lindsey, who have both suffered from depression, are working on a game called Depression Quest. Due to be released on February 14, Depression Quest is being created using Twine, the text tool I recently wrote about. This game is a more interactive, player-driven approach to the subject of depression than Actual Sunlight. Depression sufferers often have precious little motivation, and in Depression Quest, you must try to manage your motivation level as you progress through the situations the game presents you with; as your motivation declines, options become grayed out and unavailable. Depression Quest makes use of imagery that changes depending on your depression level, and has a soundtrack by Isaac Schankler, who composed the music for the well-regarded narrative-driven game Analogue: A Hate Story.

"The two 'points' of the game outside of expressing ourselves are to help non-depressed people have a peek at what it's like and to help depressed people know they're not alone."
Quinn and Lindsey have posted updates on Tumblr about the game's development, in which Zoe has characterized work on Depression Quest as simultaneously difficult and therapeutic. But the two aren't just making the game for themselves. As Quinn wrote in a Tumblr update, "I really want it to be relatable, since the two 'points' of the game outside of expressing ourselves are to help non-depressed people have a peek at what it's like and to help depressed people know they're not alone and kind of reach out/commiserate." If the reactions of early playtesters are any indication, Quinn and Lindsey are on the right track. "Early feedback has indicated that DQ… makes people very uncomfortable to play," Lindsey wrote. "As much as I hate causing any sort of discomfort to my friends, I'm encouraged by the fact that maybe - just maybe - Zoe and I have hit on something that can accurately convey our experiences."

It's a noble aim for a game, I think. As I've said before, I strongly believe that games don't need to be fun to be of value. In fact, I think it's a vital step in the development of games as an art form that they come to be recognized as a medium that can be used to explore serious issues in a serious way, so I'm fascinated by the work creators like O'Neill, Quinn, and Lindsey are doing. Depression can be a crippling disease, and one that not only affects sufferers, but the families and friends of sufferers, as well. Often, the pain people feel when someone they care about is struggling with depression is compounded by the fact that they don't understand why their loved one is acting the way they are. If games can help more people understand what depression is, and help people with depression feel less alone in their suffering, then that's something games should do.

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Discussion

69 comments
khatibi22
khatibi22

I agree with Fembot_Eulogy. I guess many of us play video games to switch off the real world and forget about our problems and get away from what we dislike and live in a fantasy world in which we are immortal and almighty and nothing can stop us or hurt us. 

carolynmichelle
carolynmichelle moderator staff

In case anyone reading this would actually like to try Depression Quest, it was released today and is available here: http://depressionquest.com/ You can pay what you want, including nothing. If you do make a contribution, a portion of your contribution goes to iFred, an organization that is working to make depression treatment more widely available. http://www.ifred.org/

Loveless62
Loveless62

If you beat these games, you will cure your depression.

pip3dream
pip3dream

i agree with a lot of the people on here...  reading this article actually made me a little depressed just thinking about these games.  its an interesting experiment, and i genuinely love games that step outside the box with new and independent ideas (to the moon, heavy rain, come to mind as games that come close to what this article is talking about) I don't think that i could really ever bear to bring myself to play one of these games. as someone who has enough battles with depression in my daily life... just THINKING about putting myself through this game depresses me!

Fembot_Eulogy
Fembot_Eulogy

I appreciate the approach, but I don't think I'll ever find myself playing a game like this. I have enough of a melancholic side to just feel depressed just reading the article alone. I'll agree with Jurica (below) that I don't feel much like 'commiserating', nor do I find that constructive. I try and live my life on the positive side of things, in hopes that those who are depressed or dealing from other issues can find their out, (not by looking at what they don't have, but rather in hopes that they find hope through me being a source of encouragement- and no, encouragement alone does not bring someone out of a bind).

shadowysea07
shadowysea07

fragile dreams should of been the spokesman for antidepression medication right after euyore.

hombreg1
hombreg1

it's like in music, you want different games that will project different moods and feelings

Jurica
Jurica

While I agree that games needn't be fun to be useful, I can't say there is anything useful about dragging anyone into a world of depression. Even "conmiserating" doesn't sound like something a depressed person would appreciate. People suffering from depression need something to lift them up, and not drown them further into that poison or brood upon it. While I can understand why the game was made I must say I can't condone it's existence, as it's not helping anyone - only furthering and inducing the depression cycle for player. Having said this, I also add that I may be wrong - I deducted this from reading Carolyn's article and since I also sometimes have issues with depression, I don't want to even try something that may push me back down that road. 

RustedTruck650
RustedTruck650

Play games like Sillent Hill 1, 2, 3, and Resident Evil 1, 2 and i guess 3 also. But anyway, these games can inflict fear and tension in you with easy. It takes dedication and loyalty to fans to make games that inflict any sense of fear and horror into the player because those games don't sell much, so the same could go for depression it takes balls to say i'm not too concerned with revenues i just want to make this awesome emotionally different game for fans. I'ts becoming a thing of the past now more and more.

Danymoon
Danymoon

I think anything that you have interest on, can handle the depressions very well......i say this cause i suffer from depressions, not as disorder though, and cause playing games is something i love, it keeps me into it, and i dont think about other things. So i must say, anything that can help against depression, will work well.

Epicurus-Reborn
Epicurus-Reborn

I think this is a very great idea. So many of my piers don't seem to understand the disorder at all. And when it gets so bad and leads to suicide i always hear: 'that was dumb. why should any one care about some one who commits suicide.' Which is really bothering to hear them say, but goes to show they simply don't understand the disorder. And games being an interactive medium are probably the best way to drive the points home. It sounds like these developers are handling the subject matter in a smart way. I will have to get this when it comes out, and probably share it many many times. 

plasticreality
plasticreality

I'd also like to say that as someone who studies alienation, I think depression is far more common than people realize.  Certainly there are different levels of depression, but you don't have to be clinically depressed (i.e. have trouble getting out of bed) in order to suffer from depression.  You'd be surprised at how many people tell themselves they are happy but unconsciously feel inadequate, lonely, and as though life lacks meaning or purpose.

I highly suggest people watch the documentary God Grew Tired of Us.  It's not about depression, but Sudanese refugees who experienced genocide as children, yet seem more emotionally balanced and happy than your average American.  The first thing they remark upon arriving in the U.S. is how unfriendly people are, and how difficult it is to maintain relationships in a culture that forces people to work long hours in order to survive.   It really says something about Western Civilization.

plasticreality
plasticreality

I'm glad GS (and Carolyn specifically) is focusing more on games that serve a purpose other than entertaining people.  It's also possible for a game to be fun and deal with complex social, political, and emotional issues, but it doesn't have to be in order to be engaging and meaningful.  We need journalists to be pushing the medium forward, and one way to do this is to highlight the really great work that's already being done and to give it legitimacy.  

Anyhow, great job - I look forward to future articles like this.

eyehategod420
eyehategod420

Hey Carolyn, I just want to let you know that not only are your articles always top notch, they're often interesting and penetrative into video games as a medium. This is a good one, thanks for covering these games. I feel that the topics brought up are a lot more engaging and beneficial to this industry than the same old articles about blood, gore and violence ever are. 

stratfender89
stratfender89

So, I played through the game until I got to the roof scene. I feel like the character is someone a lot of people can relate to, but the profanity at times just seems a bit melodramatic and takes away from the game's story. I think it's realistic and poses a lot of relevant social topics that a lot of us twenty somethings face in our lives and ways that we can try to cope with it.

jdookee
jdookee

Depression is a luxury

Erebus
Erebus

Depression is highly contagious. The notion of allowing someone to "see what it's like to be depressed" seems disingenuous.

magicalclick
magicalclick

Games comes in many different flavors, so does books, movie, music, and etc.. And this type of depression based entertainment are not  enjoyable for me nor do they help me become more optimistic or be more active in life. Thus, while they have a lot of values to others, they do not have any values for me.

I do like those Seether music, I like the rhythm mixing with chaos and sadness, and yet so peaceful and pump my blood up. But, some are poorly executed and not enjoyable. Movie like Pursuit of Happiness has so much struggle, and yet beautiful. Even Time Traveler's Wife, Curious Case of Benjamin Button. They are all present a struggle, and yet, the movie is engaging, beautiful, and interesting to watch.

My point is, I don't need someone to teach me depression. If they really want to do this, have a game about how the main character's family member is depressed, and he went on a psychological journey into his mind and help to uncover his source of pain, and help him to resolve that problem. At least, you get to learn the minds of depressed person without become him, and you get to help him resolve his pain in the end. Isn't that more fulfilling and educational than just have a game that tells you that we are not better those depressed people because you couldn't beat the game.

RPG_Fan_I_Am
RPG_Fan_I_Am

RPG Maker VX Ace is a very nice program. Specially if you learn some coding. you can do pretty much anything with it.

ilantis
ilantis

"OH BOY, today Depression Quest is out!! I'm so excited"

mled
mled

I just finished "Actual Sunlight", it's a great piece of interactive medium. My thanks go to Carolyn for bringing  this to our attention.

Victorious_Fize
Victorious_Fize

Final Fantasy? Sure we can argue that it's mostly teenage angst, but lets face it, most depressed individuals are just angst-riddled, insecure betas.

supa_badman
supa_badman

One game that I played that tried exploring this theme combining it with work-related monotony and rather nailing it on the head quite nicely is a flash game called 'Everyday the Same Dream'. 

I recommend it to anyone who loves appreciates the simplicity of a flash game with interesting mechanics and an interest in the human condition

SoreThumbsBill
SoreThumbsBill

Try "The Cat Lady", http://www.thecatlady.co.uk/.

It's the story of a lonely and depressed 40 year old woman who tried to end her life.

I enjoyed that game very much. Much scarier than DS3 and RE6.

Flamewolf75
Flamewolf75

Not a good idea to play if you are or have gone through depression. I just finished this, it just makes you feel really bad. But on the artistic side, it is a great game and really lets you think.

EtherAngel
EtherAngel

Glad to see mental health issues being represented maturely in video games for once. Kudos to the creators.

Sohereiam
Sohereiam

When I was with depression, most of my family(father side family) just made it worse, my father called me "selfish", since I was obese and to my brother all fat people should die, he made my life a hell, and worse they didn't even lived with me, they oppressed me, my mom(who helped me) and my sister(who also helped me) so much, that once I recovered my sister fell on deep depression and took 5 years to get better.

starduke
starduke

I had a bout with depression back in middle school. So, I know what it's like to be depressed, and I have no interest in touching these games. It would dredge up a lot of bad memories. However, I do know from experience, how people reacted to me while I was depressed, that it's hard for non-depressed people to relate. So, maybe these games will give some insight to what it's like.

Fembot_Eulogy
Fembot_Eulogy

Just for the record, I have suffered from depression in the past too. It claimed two years of my life.

mr_england
mr_england

@Jurica I suspect a large part of the idea is for people who don't suffer from depression but know someone who does. I have no issues with depression at all but my girlfriend on the other hand does. These games give an insight which I could never gain otherwise because as much as I try to understand depression, my brain just isn't wired that way. And if it helps just a few people actually help someone with depression instead of just saying 'oh cheer up you miserable sod' (which is especially unhelpful) then I think they will have justified their existence.

I do agree that a depressed person should stay away from them though, unless knowing they are not alone is helpful to them, but I'm not sure how that would work.

eyehategod420
eyehategod420

@jdookee  A luxury? Don't be an ignorant waste of life. I see what you're getting at, and some would claim instead that depression is the human psychology reacting to a mind-numbing culture that prides itself on luxury. As well as any number of other factors - what I'm saying is grow up, or something along those lines. 

Mausingen
Mausingen

@magicalclick Yes, the problem with your worldview, mr.magicalclick, is that the real world's journeys are actually a little less kind and a little less cathartic and forgiving than the ones presented in, say, Benjamin Button and TTW.

The world is a very cruel and a very bleak place for some. I don't think this game aims to educate per se; rather to shift the users' perspectives somewhat.

Frostyballoon
Frostyballoon

@Victorious_Fize People with depression arent angst-riddled, insecure betas. People with depression dont show it, they feel weak and pathetic because they know nothing is wrong with them, but yet they hate themselves. They dont enjoy what they use to enjoy. They arent people who whine and cry and want attention. They are real people that want to feel better, they want a cure, they want to smile, but in the inside of their brain is a constant battle of balance of happiness and hopelessness. This is why suicide is the last resort for these people. They make a point in their life that the only way to stop feeling pain is to end ones life. They dont want to die, they dont want people to know, they do want help from their friends but feel ashamed that they will be look down upon as if they are pathetic and should just "man-up" . "Emo" Kids think its "cool" to be depressed but dont every fucking stereotype depressed people as whining teenagers. As a person who deals with depression everyday, no one knows except my sister because I am ashamed  I seem happy on the outside, but inside is a completely different person. Some days are easier then others, other days seems like it could be my last. I found something clears my mind of horrible thoughts, and other induces these thoughts. I hope one day I wake up and im just like everyone else. please the next time you think you know a sickness and decide that 'Most" depressed people are emo whining teenagers that cry when they dont get their way. Do research, you will be surprise. 

Mausingen
Mausingen

@SoreThumbsBill What an AWFUL game, in stark contrast to the great piece of narrative that was actual sunlight. 

The_Last_Paladi
The_Last_Paladi

@Flamewolf75  Yeah I was thinking the same.  With the media already trying to blame media for things like gun violence, I wonder what they would feel about a game like this? 

Sohereiam
Sohereiam

@ZexionLuv In most cases this ain't enough, and a full treatment can take years, my case took 2 years, my sister was 5 years, my uncle was treating for decades, taking powerful medications, but he suicide, its a real difficult thing to treat.

tempertress
tempertress moderator staff

@starduke Fair enough, it is upsetting, perhaps try out the latter game then - the first is very disturbing.

Jurica
Jurica

@mr_england @Jurica Thanks for the comment, mr_england. As I said, I can't really be objective on this matter. On the other hand, I understand you completely. For instance, I've played a lot of very gory games and horror games, but never found them disturbing or being able to push me to do violence myself. However, I do think that unstable individuals may need to steer clear of them... in the end, the issue is within us, not the games themselves...

Best of luck with your girlfriend. She's lucky to have you. I'm glad to have my wife to cheer me on when I lose perspective.

Victorious_Fize
Victorious_Fize

@Frostyballoon @Victorious_Fize Good on you mate, for clarifying and all. I did say "most", because I knew there's people that require genuine help, for sure.

But, sorry, there are many entitled brats living in developed, first world countries, who use the aegis of depression for their teenage tangents, and they outweigh peeps like you by far.

starduke
starduke

@tempertress Well, I have no interest in playing any game that involves depression, a subject I am very familiar with, as I said. Yeah, I think I'll stick to games where I kill pretend bad guys, they're very cathartic. 

Jurica
Jurica

@pip3dream @Fembot_Eulogy Thanks for putting it out there. Exactly, encouragement didn't help me either, but it slowed the drowning process. In the retrospective, I guess it was helpful afterwards - once you DO regain perspective, all those helpful and encouraging moments have meaning again. I remember being grateful only after the "lights came on". Still, when I do get depressed again, it all loses meaning again. and it's not worth more than it was before... it's even discouraging to falter the second time.. and more damaging to have done so in spite of people actually trying to help you up...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we need *something* to adress the "triggers" that make us go under. Maybe something that would provide us with insight and way to help us battle or evade the depression, rather than letting us taste it all over again and wallow in it (very destructive and dangerous)...

Maybe I'll try making a game like that. I am a graphic designer and learning Unity3D...hm. Any thoughts 
@Fembot_Eulogy? Do we need this at all? Can games actually be therapeutic? 

fbgbdk4
fbgbdk4

@Victorious_Fize Sorry, mate, but you sounded like a jerk. If we're talking about depression, that automatically excludes the fake stereotypes you cited. Indeed, I have a great respect for people that battles depression, because it is a difficult and often lonely fight. Because of comments like yours, people with depression often struggles to mantain a "happy" facade, as if coping with it was not hard enough already. 

Goddammitj
Goddammitj

@Victorious_Fize @Frostyballoon What you just said seems to be conjecture. Keep your judgements to yourself  (and I urge you to forget them when theyre significant) until you can provide evidence. People have lived their own lives, until you find a way to live it with them you cant say much at all. And where you live has little effect on the significance of any type of depression.

And do you realise how potentially dangerous and arrogant it is to essentially be saying "most people use depression as an excuse" or to attest that they are faking it, or even maybe to imply that theyre too weak?

pal_080
pal_080

@Victorious_Fize  Most truly depressed people don't take out their frustrations on others, or act like jerks, or constantly bitch about their life.  In actuality most of the negative feelings someone deals with are pointed squarely at oneself, and it's a serious and tiring struggle to overcome those thoughts and feelings, and to act totally normal from the outside.  Most struggling with depression don't even tell anyone how they feel, or what it's like, in large part because of comments like yours, they feel they'll simply be further antagonized.

Please don't confuse "angst", or simple jerks with actual depression symptoms.