By Jamaal Ryan
I had the privilege to speak to Rami Ismail from Vlambeer, and Akash Thakkar sound designer on Hyper Light Drifter; but at this year’s PAX East, I most looked forward to speaking with Will O’Neill, the creative mind behind Actual Sunlight.
I asked Will about his game, an interactive narrative that’s an autobiographical projection of his struggles with depression, and whether or not he felt as if creating this game helped him with his depressive symptoms.
“No, it actually didn’t,” he said.
That response taught me two things: 1. Never base your interview with a developer off of expected answers, and 2. Telling one’s story might not serve the purpose that you expect.
“I like these dark themes.” Will discussed how both Actual Sunlight and his new title that he’s working on, which he was reluctant to share any details on, are both very dark in tone. And while he enjoys telling these types of stories, he claimed that this is more of a means in communicating with the player rather than helping him cope with his depression.
Originally, I saw these expressions as ways to process and cope with trauma. Victims of sexual assault and other forms of violence that are candid and give talks on their experiences don’t only do so to inspire others, but the act in sharing their stories themselves is therapeutic.
Creators experience something different from inspirational talkers in that their practiced art form allows for different interpretations and inspires the viewer/player/listener in unique and often unintended ways. Mattie Brice, critic and game developer, originally created Mainichi to illustrate her experience as a transgender individual. Ryan Green, creator of That Dragon, Cancer, strives to create a safe place for the players so that he can share his story. Matt Gilgenbach led the design on Neverending Nightmares to educate players on his ODC and depression.
But I’m arrogant. As a counselor, I’m of two minds: No one knows what’s helpful other than the individual, and yet, “The patient is always wrong” (a quote from the HBO show In Treatment). Back in high school, my 11th grade English teacher gave us an insightful realization, “Giving to charity is a selfish act.” The term selfish isn’t a bad thing, as he ultimately went on to say that every human act is an action based on selfish intent. What he meant was that the gesture of giving to others was a way to make ourselves feel better, and seeing others being helped makes us feel better. I can tell you that as a social worker, I’m in this field for myself first because I like to see others recover as underprivileged individuals.
To the point, I truly believe that developers create this material as a form of expression to help themselves cope. Even just hearing, “Your game made me understand my depression better,” or “You game made me feel that I wasn’t alone as a transgender,” I can imagine is a marvelous thing to hear that’ll ultimately benefit the creator.
So why do developers create these types of games? To help themselves by helping others.