I’m Fine: On ‘Actual Sunlight,’ ‘Depression Quest,’ & Isolation

Illustration by Istvan Banyai for The New Yorker
Illustration by Istvan Banyai for Depression Quest

[Trigger warning: Depression and suicidal thoughts.]

Everyone has their own story to tell when it comes to depression. While most understand the broad overall idea of what depression is and what it isn’t, depression is intensely personal for everyone who has it. Clinical depression is a mental illness that isolates a person in every way that it’s possible to be isolated. Depression takes away so many aspects of what being a human is. Our ability to connect with others, our ability to empathize, our ability to feel, and to be able to communicate those feelings are all swept away when depression digs its claws in.

Depression—particularly when it veers toward the suicidal end of the spectrum—can feel like you’re the only person on earth. My depressive episodes aren’t exactly typical, since I have more than just depression to contend with in my mind, but when they hit, they hit hard. There are some video games I’ve played that really encapsulate the feeling of depression. I’ve already waxed poetic about why I think Dark Souls is an incredible analogy for depression, but there are other games more directly focused on depression and suicide.

For me, the color drains out of the world, and I begin to experience things differently, as if an invisible filter has come between me and everyone else. It’s not that the color has gone or there’s anything wrong with my vision. I know it’s still there, but everything becomes muted. I watch people laugh and live their lives, knowing that they have problems too, but struggling to understand why they’re not as bogged down as I am. Maybe the problem’s with me. Maybe I’m just broken.

I begin to feel more alone.

The isolating aspect of depression is one which was the focus of Depression Quest. Whatever you may personally think about it, I’ve never seen a game that has accurately represented the way depression lessens the amount of choices that are available to someone who’s suffering from it. In Depression Quest, you’re playing as someone who doesn’t have a tragic past. They don’t have a huge life-shattering event that they can point to as the source of their depression.

Depression Quest
“You are deeply depressed. Even activities you used to enjoy hold little or no interest for you and you exist in a near-constant state of lethargy. You are not currently seeing a therapist. You are not currently taking medication for depression.”

When I played it, I felt this eerie sense of camaraderie with that struggle. Communication breaks down and all those things that you’ve been wanting to do or want to try to break yourself out of are eventually only available as struck-through options. The people around find it hard to understand why you’re being like this, and you don’t have the answers that they want.

Easy answers are important to people. Depression isn’t widely understood enough for people to know that this isn’t something that I can shake off and that positive thinking, however well-meaning, won’t save me. The more times I try to reach out and communicate, the more stymied I feel. A talk about my depression gets hijacked with good intentions and attempts at empathy.

“Oh, I’ve been tired too lately. I went to the gym for two hours and was absolutely wrecked, so I know what you mean.”

“You probably just need to get outside more. Have you tried taking Vitamin D? I always feel slower in the winter.”

“You just need to get out and have fun. We should go out.”

You can see that these aren’t bad things. In fact, the people saying them probably think that they’re being pretty helpful, but like Allie Broshe pointed out in her brilliant “Dead Fish Metaphor,” they’re trying to solve a problem that isn’t so easily solved by focusing on the wrong things. Treating the symptoms of depression will only stem the tide at best and drive you further into a depressive state at worst.

The more cheerful advice that is offered, the more alone I end up feeling. People don’t understand, and I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s me. Maybe I’m just a terrible person and the world would be better off without me.

Actual Sunlight

Depression Quest nails this feeling of isolation. Actual Sunlight is another game that captures the feeling well. When it gets bad enough and the isolation is complete, I end up isolated even when I’m surrounded by people, and that’s how Evan from Actual Sunlight feels. Evan has people in his life and there are people all around who populate the world, but it still feels empty and hollow. As he ends up isolated more and more, his attachment to the world is lessened.

The terrifying thing about depression and isolation is that it isolates you from everything. Depression makes it very easy to ask yourself why you keep breathing even as it lessens your ability to find the joy that would help you want to live.

Video games, books, and movies just seem like hassles and perhaps even wastes of time. For me, they’ve felt like too much effort, as if concentrating on a screen would be too much for me. Much better, I’d tell myself, to stay in bed and hope that I could fall asleep again. Evan has the same thought process, trying to find meaning in the world even though his ability to see meaning has been blocked by the same filter that sucked the colors out of the world before.

I’ve heard people say that they could never understand why someone would commit suicide, berating it as selfish and still—still—only thinking about how they feel about the death. There’s no understanding of how oppressive living has become or how, in some cases, it feels like suicide is the only option that will help the people close to you.

Actual Sunlight
“I’m fine.”

If I’m such a waste of space, if I’m such a burden, the best thing to do would be to end it so my family doesn’t have to suffer from me any longer. Sure, they’ll be sad at first, but that’ll fade quickly once they realize how much better their lives are. When suicide enters the picture, I think about my friends and my family, and about how I’m a heavy weight dragging them down. If I were the cut the chain that linked me to them, maybe they’d be able to find happiness. Maybe I’m the only reason they’re not able to be as happy as they could be.

Evan and our protagonist from Depression Quest aren’t anomalies. The most insidious part of depression is how it strips away our ability to connect with the people we need the most when we’re depressed. Video games are powerful ways to help communicate our helplessness.

So if you know someone who is depressed, pick one of these games up and give it a gander. Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest won’t give you all the answers or tell you directly how to fight depression, but at the very least, you might be able to better understand why it’s not so easy for someone who is depressed to pull themselves back onto their feet.


Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, Lindsay also curated a helpful list of resources. You’re not alone! Reach out. There are so many people out there, including us, who care about you and want you in this world.

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