The Darkness Underneath the Sun Depression, Self-Hatred and Body Image in Actual Sunlight

The original version of this text was first published on Helvetet På Jorden Syns Från Månen.

(Throughout this text I mention some very specific details about the short game Actual Sunlight, and I recommend you play it before carrying on with this article. It takes an hour to complete and you can get it on Steam.)

Actual Sunlight was a difficult game to complete. It’s not a game that demands quick reflexes or challenges you with brain-teasing puzzles, but one that forces you to confront some deeply real, authentic emotional subjects. It’s a simple interactive short story about a guy named Evan and his everyday existence, which mostly revolve around his days in an office and evenings in his apartment. It’s by no means a story without flaws. The dialogue has a tendency to feel overwritten and the ending feels both cheap and unearned, with the sort of final twist that makes the entire experience up to that point feel less profound than it otherwise would.

But despite all of this, Actual Sunlight is a deeply fascinating and moving experience, and one that struck a very raw, personal chord with me.

I have seen the game compared to Gone Home and Depression Quest, doubtlessly because it touches on similar themes of depression and features a character distancing themselves from the world around them, but beyond that I don’t think the comparison really works. Those games certainly had their share of autobiographical elements, but their purpose was ultimately to force the player to experience a situation with which they might not have previous personal experience; going through a sexual awakening in an environment where nobody understands you, and living with crippling depression respectively. I believe they are games that present an unfamiliar scenario to make the player emphasise and understand those that have lived through that experience for real.

Actual Sunlight does not have the same pedagogic ambitions, but feels like something much more naked and rough. Playing it is like reading through developer Will O’Neill’s unedited diary entries or, as it was for me, like looking in a mirror. That’s because Actual Sunlight is a perfect depiction of how it feels like to intensely hate yourself.

It’s a feeling I’ve spent long periods of my life coping with. The reasons change – sometimes they focus on my appearance or my personality. My ambitions and my shortcomings. At times, even my accomplishments can be made to feel like failures as I rewrite the actual events to match my self-loathing reality. Playing Actual Sunlight and becoming intimately privy to the main character Evan’s internal struggles was an unwelcome but authentic flashback to a state of mind that I have never managed to fully leave behind.

For that reason, I’m not surprised if O’Neill has intended this game for us that are or have at some point been trapped in the same situation. A large part of the game is spent with just Evan and his thoughts, with no attempts to make him seem more sympathetic or rationalise his self-destructive behaviour. We have an unobstructed view of every internal conflict, the judging voices in his head and how they manifest in his behaviour and interactions with others. If you have never been there yourself you have every right to see him as an intolerable, pathetic self-pitier. If you have been there you know just how correct that assessment really is.

Because the game doesn’t try to smooth out the edges, Evan becomes a mirror for everybody that has ever lived with the same type of aggressive self-hatred. Seeing it portrayed in a game was unpleasant and upsetting. I’d liken it to listening to my own recorded voice or finding a really unflattering photo of myself, except the embarrassment concerns every part of yourself instead of one single aspect. It brought back all those bitter thoughts. How I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror. How I, on more than one occasion, started destroying my belongings because I didn’t think I deserved the joy they gave me. And worst of all, how I started externalising these emotions to punish others that tried to help me.

And the older I get, the more I’ve come to realise that self-hatred is really the most destructive form of narcissism. When you spend every waking second thinking about yourself, picking apart your every word and action, digging into the core of your personality to justify what a miserable person you really are, how could it be anything but? It doesn’t matter whether you spend that time feeling sorry for yourself or once again lying awake at night, going over every mistake you can remember making, like others might count sheep.

Baah, remember that time you tried to make a joke with your colleagues but you only made everybody feel uncomfortable?

Baah, remember when you couldn’t even manage a single push-up in gym class?

Baah, remember when you were in a bad mood and you were rude to that cashier that’s always really nice to you?

Baaah.

This turns your life into an echo chamber where all your flaws are being projected on every surface until you can’t think about anything else. And the only way of dealing with it becomes to externalise it. “Sure”, you think, “I am a terrible person, but I am also a product of my surroundings. I am awful, but I am only a reflection of an equally disgusting world.” This is around the time when you start developing a misanthropy that serves to make you even more distant and you convince yourself that you hate yourself only because you’ve understood the deeper truth that others choose to ignore: that deep down we are all equally horrible and worthless.

You’re now sipping on a foul cocktail of self-pitying, anger and a bitterness that’s become all-consuming. You isolate yourself because you can’t stand the thought of putting other people through the pain that is your presence. You start fulfilling your own prophecy by becoming bitter and unpleasant to be around. You step back from all social situations or intimacy, and the destructive patterns starts wearing on you. Even today I barely know how to speak to people because so much of my life has been spent actively avoiding human connections. I can barely send an email or make a phone call without feeling absolutely positive that the person on the other end of the line will think I’m an irritant. I ask for forgiveness at least a dozen times a day, usually for no reason at all. It feels like my mere existence demands it.

But no matter how unbearable it is to hate yourself, it becomes a comfortable state of mind after a while. Faced with the option of living with a pain you’ve grown used to, or risk being exposed to an unfamiliar one, the former will almost always win out.

I’ve been Evan and sometimes I become him again. I can get shaky fingers if I have to talk to a stranger. I sometimes want to grab a knife and carve off every inch of superfluous skin on my body. I read through texts I’ve written and regret every word. I doubt every kind word people say about me and I believe every negative one without question.

Baaah.

So how do you get out of the loop? Honestly, I don’t think there’s a solution that will work for everyone, but I believe an important part is to pay more attention to the world around you. Self-hatred and narcissism are symptoms that depend on each other for sustenance, so the only way you can escape your dark mental cave is to face the light coming from the outside. Take notice of your place in the world and what roles you play in it and don’t push away those that you have a connection to, unless they have a negative influence on you. Notice that you are a small part of a greater whole, where you have the power to make a difference for the better, for yourself and others.

For what it’s worth, when I was 14 I started writing a journal. I found an old notebook and every evening I would write down three good things I did that day and one bad. It was a simple routine, but it forced me to make myself aware of the positive things I did, while also not allowing me to hide away from the negative patterns in my behaviour without dwelling on them. Every once in a while I would open an earlier page of the book and remind myself of moments when I had made others happy. I didn’t allow my brain the opportunity to delete those moments from memory to feed my own insecurities, and that made a huge difference.

If there is any thought I hope stays with you after reading this, it’s that self-hatred is a lie. The feelings you dwell on are made up by filtering, obfuscating and producing a version of yourself that has nothing to do with the real thing, only so that you will eventually become consumed by it so the lie becomes reality. But the self-hating voice in your needs that echo to survive, and making the decision to open yourself up to other people is the best way of silencing that voice. Just by forcing yourself to formulate the thought that you mean something and that people can enjoy your company is a huge step towards distancing yourself from the bullshit.

Take care of yourself, good luck and do not forget that you – yes you, YES, even YOU – deserve to be happy.

Rikard Olsson Written by:

Sweden-born, England-based writer about video games that can otherwise be found on PC Gamer, FZ.se and FeTT Magazine.