The Depressing Descent of Eversion
The setup is one we’re all familiar with: bright colors, ambiguous kingdoms, and kidnapped princesses. It’s tried and true territory by this point in any gamer’s career. Jump on the bad guys, collect the gems, and make it to the flag. We know the rules. It’s nice and simple. Comfortable even.
Eversion does everything in its power to deny us that basic comfort. In doing so, it creates an experience that, alongside both Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest, attempts to tackle the idea of sadness and depression, two topics that video games have widely avoided discussing.
I happened to play all three over the weekend. Only one made me kind of sad. You’ll never guess which one.
It was Eversion, the one with bright skies and smiling blobs for enemies.
The basic mechanic that sets Eversion apart from a whole host of generic flash platformers is the “evert” button, which causes the world around you to slightly shift when used at specific points. With each shift, the music gets slightly more ominous, the colors dim, and the world starts to decay around you. Previously impassable trees wither and die, eventually becoming thorny brambles that kill you when you touch them. Your enemies, once cheerful little goomba-esque monsters, warp into passive blobs that cease all movement.
While each push of the “evert” button drains the joy from everything around you, you have to push it to progress. The puzzles, as simplistic as they are, often involve jumping between different levels of decay, removing obstacles as necessary to keep moving towards the end of the stage. It’s all above board until the fourth stage.
There are spoilers ahead, so be warned. Then again, if you haven’t played the game already, I recommend you do, as it’s something you shouldn’t miss. The game is free after all, with a HD version available on Steam for $5, and takes all of 30 minutes to beat.
When you hit the first block in World 4 you’re suddenly tossed down to a level of darkness that’s far beyond what you’ve seen before. The once smiling square becomes a twisted visage of pain, the sky turns a sickly yellow, and the music drops out, replaced with a sinister melody. Then there are the hands, these wicked red things that shriek out of the ground at you at every turn, a new mechanic that actually makes the game difficult.
It’s here that the game almost entirely ceases to be joyous or celebratory, the greens and blues of the first few stages replaced by contrasting reds and blacks. With every “evert” you go deeper and deeper, forced to slowly tear away at this once beautiful place.
Why? Because you’re supposed to do it, it’s how video games work. You walk to the right, the screen scrolls, and then you reach the end of the level. If you don’t want to beat the game, there are better things you could be doing with your time. Just like with real life, you’ve got to follow the rules to play the game, no matter how hard it might be.
The worst part is that you know full well what you’re doing the entire time, ripping layer after layer away from your once cheerful world in a desperate bid for the end, hoping that there will be something good at the finish line. Spoiler alert: there isn’t. Just like in reality, there are no happy endings, just ones that are easier to tolerate than others.
While both Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest capture the details of depression amazingly, it was the physical act of playing Eversion that reminded me the most of what it felt like to be in that dark place. Each tap of the “evert” button felt akin to giving in to a masochistic thought or destructive urge, something I knew would only make things worse but couldn’t resist doing.
After World 4 I pressed on through twisted world after twisted world. By World 6 the music became a twisted mirror of a song from an earlier stage, a warped record of a better time, like looking in a funhouse mirror and questioning how I had let things get this bad. I found myself desperately looking for some way out, some solution that didn’t involve wrecking things any more than I already had, but by that point it was too late. All I could do was see the story out. The forward momentum had become too much to resist. I had been going on this long, why not just keeping doing it?
By the end the darkness was quite literally chasing me along. The simple act of existing took such effort that I couldn’t stop for fear of what might happen if I did. It’s the fate that Evan Winters in Actual Sunlight suffers, the fate that’s always lurking in the corner of the room in Depression Quest, the nagging voice that starts quiet but works itself into a feverish yell: GIVE UP. In Eversion it’s given physical form, a bubbling blackness that threatens to consume you if you don’t keep moving. Hell, the game even tells you that if you die.
The ending of the game, if you could even call it that, is not happy. It’s a death that’s neither heroic nor exceptional, just the consumption of the player by a foe hidden behind the veil of happiness. Your goal all along, the thing you were fighting to get back to, is what kills you. It’s hollow, but you don’t know until it’s too late to stop it.
It reminded me all too well of what it felt like to stay up late into the night, lost and confused, desperately seeking some handhold as the world crumbled around me, each thought another eversion of whatever I had left.
Playing Eversion, while it wasn’t about depression on the surface, felt the most like being depressed to me.