"Now that Actual Sunlight is finished, I think I feel more definitively depressed than ever, because I've now done the one thing that I sort of could do, if you know what I mean."
For Will O'Neill, the process of creating Actual Sunlight, "a short interactive story about love, depression and the corporation," has taken its toll. It's a game that candidly explores notions of hopelessness, unfulfilled potential and suicide. The completion of such a difficult project should be a relief, a cathartic release of a lifetime's worth of negativity. Instead, and with absolute sincerity, O'Neill believes that, if anything at all, creating the game has only made things worse for him.
"Add that to the fact that the existence of Actual Sunlight probably threatens my livelihood, as well as the fact that creating games about suicidal depression is not a great way to pick up chicks, and I've probably kicked around even more in the quicksand that I was already sinking in.
"Honestly, I sort of feel like I'm already dead."
You only live life as yourself
Will O'Neill was born in Toronto and never left.
He grew up in Scarborough, an eastern district of the city more abundant in both green spaces and diversity of cultures than any other area in Greater Toronto. Now 32, he moved into a small condo downtown during his mid-20s. By his own admission, his job as a creative director at a small communications agency barely exists outside of downtown Toronto. There's rarely any motivation for him to stray from the city boundaries.
"I'm not much for vacationing or seeing the world," he says, "though I do enjoy travel as a byproduct of going somewhere for an actual reason.
"There isn't much to suggest that I'll ever leave here."
To claim that O'Neill always wanted to be a writer would be to put words in his mouth. Such confident assertions seem unnatural to him, precious, too boastful for a personality constructed on a fragile foundation of self-deprecation. The way he talks about his life and ambitions is submissive, resigned, as if nothing that happened was really his choice. "Most of my job consists of writing, and I suppose a writer is what I wanted to be."
O'Neill's early forays into writing were strongly indicative of his ability to transform this diffidence into subversive, biting comedy. A story published in McSweeney's, titled "The Society of Pain," took the form of fictional chatroom exchanges between people who are in constant, all-consuming agony: "Welcome to SufferChat — Your Online Pain Community!"
An acerbic, deeply personal and darkly humorous style was developing. O'Neill seems to have been born with a gift for aphorisms, for cutting observation that teeters precariously on the border of outright nastiness. It is, in the most uncomfortable way, ruthlessly compelling.
Anything even resembling such a compliment is hurriedly brushed aside. "[I wrote] a million other things that never really went anywhere," he says. "I'm an extremely mediocre creative writer."
This self-deprecation isn't an affectation. It's not an immodest approximation of modesty. It is unequivocally clear that O'Neill's dissatisfaction with himself is painfully genuine.
I guess the night before, you feel like tomorrow will be different.
O'Neill can't pinpoint exactly when he began to experience symptoms of depression, but he has an idea. "I grew up considerably overweight, and from an early age I definitely understood what that meant. It's intensely honest and extremely warping at the same time — you really do know how people feel about you, but you also experience such a narrow and negative spectrum of what they're capable of feeling in the first place. I think growing up that way does something to you."
O'Neill dealt with his depression "in the same way that a lot of non-depressed people have a really great time: drinking, sleeping, video games, pornography, stupidity, long-distance internet relationships, cats, academic probation, late-night Chinese food, terrible jobs with prison-grade camaraderie. The usual."
This reticence in directly addressing his issues proved, unsurprisingly, to be a temporary solution. No matter how much fun he crammed into himself, it couldn't satiate the profound emptiness that had grown inside him.
"My mid-to-late 20s are just a big black hole. I haven't been [in a relationship] in seven years. I shuffled from one office job to another. I didn't go anywhere or create anything of any lasting value. I can't cook. I can't fix or build things. Suffice to say I would be the first person to die in any post-apocalyptic scenario you could imagine, or even most pre-apocalyptic camping trips.
"I'm a pretty nothing person. I just keep getting older and fatter, wearing the same clothes, playing the same games, drinking the same drinks, watching the same shows. Waiting to die."
Why kill yourself when you could masturbate tomorrow?
Work began on Actual Sunlight in the summer of 2012.
It tells the story of Evan Winter, an overweight 30-something who spends his days as a cog in the corporate machinery, falling in love with an engaged co-worker and slowly buckling beneath the burden of his own depression. The player assumes the role of ghoulish voyeur, rubbernecking at Winter's inexorable decline.
It was the unlikely, unprecedented combination of subject matter and medium that convinced O'Neill it was not only a story he needed to tell, but that it had to take the form of a game. "Our stories are always sadly aspirational," he says. "I felt that a character like Evan Winter in our culture, his story would usually be that one day he decides to start jogging, and everything in his life would suddenly fall into place. I wanted to tell a story about depression and how your viewpoint narrows through that mental state. I wanted to tell a realistic story about someone like that."
"It was difficult to concentrate on it during the weekdays even when I could technically find the time."
He really means someone like himself. Actual Sunlight is fearlessly autobiographical. As O'Neill puts it, "It's not made up: It's me."
Winter's three-room apartment is modeled faithfully on O'Neill's own. Winter's orthopedic chair, stove (never used), PlayStation 3 and flat-screen TV are all owned by O'Neill. Winter's commentary on these objects tells us in minute detail not only about our protagonist's life, but also the life of his creator.
Then there are the frequent black-screen essays that accompany environmental interaction or certain junctures in the narrative. These vary from amusingly tragic accounts of quotidian failures, such as a shoddily constructed flat-pack dresser, to broader existential musings. An early missive reads, "There has never been a better time in the history of mankind to be completely, cripplingly, devastatingly alone, and yet here you are: Thinking about giving up on the good times." Reviews, therapy session notes and imaginary exchanges reveal a psyche fractured by disappointment and hatred, not only of the world around him, but also of himself. This is Evan Winter's mindset. This is Will O'Neill's mindset.
With no previous experience whatsoever of making a game, O'Neill turned to RPG Maker VX ACE, a version of the home development tool generally considered more user friendly than previous iterations, but still frustratingly limited. The game came into being over a period of about six months, with most of the work being done on weekends: "My job typically bleeds into the evenings, so it was difficult to concentrate on it during the weekdays even when I could technically find the time."
O'Neill took advantage of the large RPG Maker community and the huge number of custom scripts available online. Despite this community input, the game was subsequently rejected by the community for the crime of using ceiling tiles for floors.
There are other limitations. RPG Maker lends Actual Sunlight a disarmingly cutesy hue. Characters resemble misguidedly hip Final Fantasy NPCs. It fits Winter's worldview well, alluding to a lifetime spent escaping into video games and anime. It's also a testament to the strength of the writing that, within minutes, the relative crudeness of the visuals is forgotten.
It was the importance of nailing the writing that led O'Neill to scrap his progress several times over on the way to the finished product. "I think a game like this could become self-indulgent. As a writer, I really had to be hard on myself. I said to myself that if it's not good I'll start over and over. I just said to myself, on this project I'm going to do everything I can to make sure all of it is killer."
For the first time, a sense of pride creeps into his discussion of the game. "Actual Sunlight is a one-off gem that I basically sold my soul to make."
The self-effacement soon returns. Although he's proud of the craft and control exercised in the story, O'Neill believes that its autobiographical nature diminishes the creativity involved. "It was really the least creative piece I've done in a lot of ways, because I didn't have to make very much of it up. In the end, I guess my lack of talent was actually an asset, because I didn't have any great potential to sacrifice in the first place.
"And you don't have some big day of artistic reckoning when you're just another asshole trying hard but going nowhere — you just get a job and get on with your life.
"Or you try to, but your life goes nowhere. And then I guess you do what I did."
All you have to do is destroy everything
The unbreakable link between Evan Winter and Will O'Neill is never hidden from the player. Early on a message is delivered admitting that "This is not a game: It's a portrait." This can make playing Actual Sunlight an uncomfortable experience.
It's a game very deliberately not centered on incidents. The workaday repetition is integral to the experience. But this doesn't prevent Actual Sunlight from being deeply affecting. While significant moments are objectively low-key, they are critical triggers of a devastating personal crisis.
On the first of Winter's work days that we are privy to, we see his awkward, unrequited yearning for an engaged co-worker. When the game later fast forwards several years, a frosty conversation indicates that Winter has behaved badly toward her in some way, destroying the friendship and alienating her to the point where she is quitting her job.
"Evan is almost perfectly autobiographical, but the other characters in the story are more like fusions: I've sort of melded different people together for effect, based on what they represent to me," says O'Neill. "That relationship, though, really is less of a fusion and more based on a particular personal experience.
"What I'd say about that part, though, is that as much as I'm trying to portray his feelings for her as sincere, I'm also trying to show how I think people not loving you back can make you think you love them a lot more than you actually do.
"Or maybe I did. Who knows? You never get to find out."
The narrative of Actual Sunlight is a downward spiral, almost entirely devoid of hope, careening toward a shattering, inevitable conclusion. "It's pretty clear where all this is headed," reads an early message to the player. As identical days become identical years, Winter finally cracks.
He lays waste to his apartment, destroying the shoddy dresser, the orthopedic chair, the PlayStation 3 and flat-screen TV. A final confrontation at work with his shit-eating boss compels Winter to finally quit the job that has made him miserable for so long. Yet this isn't a turning point in his life. Winter isn't about to take up jogging.
"Just because you want to be a different person doesn't mean you will be able to become one," he tells himself. Winter is left stranded in his gutted apartment, bereft of anything that defined him bar his own indefatigable hopelessness. Only one choice is left to him, and to the player if they wish to progress.
"Go up to the roof and jump off."
"I recognize that seems like a perilous thread to dangle from, but it's what I've got. I can't honestly tell you that I'm happy to be alive."
Actual Sunlight fades to black with Winter teetering on the edge of the rooftop, the outcome of his life handed over wholesale to the perceptions of the player. It's impossible not to wonder whether O'Neill himself ever stood at that same tipping point.
"You're the first person to ask me this directly, and I'm not just referring to journalists," he says. "I'm going to say that I owe whatever considerations I've made in this regard to the people who I think I owe something better than that to.
"I recognize that seems like a perilous thread to dangle from, but it's what I've got. I can't honestly tell you that I'm happy to be alive, that I think the future holds anything good for me, that I have the ability to overcome my problems, that I think the world is headed anywhere but straight to hell, but at the same time? I feel like I'm all right.
"I still want to know how everything turns out, and I still feel like I'm supposed to be here — so I'm just going to keep being here. Even if I don't really think there's very much good about it, or if it hurts.
"And my brain and my body are pretty fucked up for somebody my age, so believe me: it hurts."
Please read this if you're a young person
Much of the media on Actual Sunlight has scrutinized a moment early in the narrative where, writing under his own name, O'Neill appeals directly to the player: "If I have any great fear about putting out this project, it's that somebody who is in the midst of a difficult time growing up will see this game and think that it applies to them."
The project may not have been cathartic for O'Neill, but, despite the game being designed with absolutely no therapeutic intentions, he's happy when players contact him to explain how the game resonated with them. Still, he's sick and tired of being asked about his personal appeal.
"I feel like I've said the same things over and over. The note I'd like to leave it on is this: if you're 23 or 24 right now, I hope you'll somehow get the chance to come back and play Actual Sunlight when you're 31 or 32. I think you're going to look back and understand exactly what I was talking about.
"And I'm not saying there aren't exceptions to the exact numbers I'm laying out in that piece — I'm just saying that there was a big difference in my life in how I was a young adult and then became an adult who was not so young at all. And I think it's a pretty common thread."
The message ends with a plea: "Don't you fucking dare."
Maybe I feel like looking weak in front of normal people is the saddest thing that anyone could possibly do.
O'Neill has just released an improved version of Actual Sunlight. Following a successful Indiegogo campaign that raised $2,500 — "maybe the smallest game budget of all time" — O'Neill carefully selected collaborators to take care of new pixel art, CG animation and new music, as well as adding some new writing himself.
Despite the intensely personal nature of the game, O'Neill had no trouble working with other artists for the release. "I chose people I had a lot of confidence in, and when all is said and done, the essence of the game is in its writing. That part I don't think I could ever have collaborated with anyone on."
For the first time, O'Neill is charging a small sum to download the game. There is a great deal of hope invested in this final version of Actual Sunlight. After all, the game is his life.
"If it's true that Actual Sunlight was everything that it was because I had the advantage of writing it from a place that was truly genuine and sincere, I have to ask myself: what else do I really have to offer as a writer or as a developer? I don't really know about anything except being a sad, lonely sack of shit.
"What do I really know about love? What do I really know about family? What do I really know about life?"
Despite wide media coverage, Actual Sunlight has not yet caught on in the way that O'Neill had hoped. For someone with such a longstanding low opinion of himself, it comes as quite a blow. This might prove to be the only game he ever makes.
"It kills me that people think I can do something like this again."
"If this is the best thing that I'm really capable of doing as a writer, and it still isn't big enough to make a big impact, then I don't think anything else I do really has any chance at all.
"It kills me that people think I can do something like this again. They don't understand that I didn't make any of it up — that there was a lifetime in it. And if all of that is true, that's fine — I did it because I loved it and it was honest and I wanted to do it.
"But I'm probably done."
In some cases this could be perceived as a creator throwing his toys out of the pram, blaming the ignorance of an audience for failing to understand the work. But for O'Neill it's something else: it's a deeper need for the game to be considered a success so that he can consider himself a success. Actual Sunlight is a remnant of O'Neill's existence — part of himself that has been surrendered to the world so that it might remember him.
"Ten years from now I'll be in some job interview because I need prescription medication coverage, and some HR robot who Googles you to slivers in its incomprehensible mind will ask me if I made Actual Sunlight.
"I'll shrug and say it was a lifetime ago, and I'm sure that it really will feel that way. Actual Sunlight will be a footnote somewhere, and a life nobody would envy will be the only piece left of it.
"And I'm sure I deserve that — I guess I just wanted to say so."
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan