Publisher: Will O’Neill
Developer: Will O’Neill
Genre: Visual Novel
Release Date: 04/03/2014
This game is not for the faint of heart.
Actual Sunlight is a game about a middle-aged man, Evan Winters, dealing with depression while working a job he doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy and battling what might be called video game addiction. Outwardly, Evan seems like he’s generally a nice guy, but his inner monologues and memories reveal how little he actually likes his situation and most of the people that surround him. The game’s creator, Will O’Neill, tells us early in the game: “We all know what’s coming,” and it’s true. Evan displays most, if not all, the characteristics of someone dealing with major depression: he’s irritable most of the time, he plays video games long after he stopped enjoying them, he has trouble managing his weight, he can’t sleep (and when he does sleep he doesn’t want to get up), he feels completely worthless, he has trouble concentrating, and he’s seriously contemplating suicide (to the point where it’s starting to interrupt other thoughts).
Go to the roof and jump off.
Evan isn’t just “not happy,” he’s actually depressed, and it’s seeping into his relationships with other people, and perhaps more importantly, his relationship with himself. As you continue through the (roughly) hour-long game, you’ll see his descent into feelings of powerlessness and his problematic relationship with alcohol. As you do this, you’ll read his inner fantasies of being an accomplished writer, interviewed on late night television; transcripts of interviews and doctors’ appointments; and general musings on the stupidity that is life with an office job and “the way things are.” It’s a hard read, but one that makes a sick sort of sense if you’ve ever been there yourself. For people who have dealt with depression and/or suicide on a personal level, this game may be very hard to get through, especially if you can see yourself in Evan, or if what he says sounds suspiciously like what you’ve heard people close to you say. I know I was left thinking of the game long after it finished.
Actual Sunlight is aesthetically pleasing in its own way. The soundtrack is great: not overdone, not distracting, and appropriate on an emotional level. Visually, the game is rather text-heavy, with white text on a black background, though there are points where you control Evan. The graphics of the “gameplay” portion of the game are pretty standard, but it’s the original artwork that shines. Really, though, the text portions are the most important part of the game here, so you don’t get much graphically. This worked for me, but it may not work for everyone.
The most interesting part of the game, for me, is the way O’Neill plays with the idea of choice in this game. There are a few points where you have choices that seem like they might be important. It’s because of this that I played the game twice, thinking perhaps there were multiple endings. For instance, when you’re at the store, you have the choice of buying a video game or leaving. It seems like a silly choice, but the impact on Evan is pretty heavy at this point of the game, so I thought perhaps this would have an effect on how the rest of the game plays out. When I replayed the game I made sure to choose to leave instead of buying the game. I was surprised at the result from a gamer perspective, but not from a human one, if that makes sense. At one point you actually lose the ability to make any choice other than the one Evan really wants to make; at this point, a sense of dread came over me. The choices in this game all lead to one end, and that, perhaps, is where the most interesting choice occurs. O’Neill doesn’t actually show what happens to Evan, but you decide for yourself how this story ends, and I think that is perhaps the most important choice in the entire game.
Actual Sunlight is definitely not a game for everyone, and I don’t see most people playing it more than once. The lack of involved gameplay and visual novel aspect may turn a lot of people off. I think, however, that this short game provides an important and insightful look at what depression can be like, one that isn’t romanticized or filled with fluff like, “And then she fell in love and everything was okay again,” which, while entirely possible, is not representative of how many people experience or deal with depression. While Evan’s story is of course not the only story out there, it does provide an honest look into the thinking that often accompanies depression. We don’t necessarily like Evan, even if we laugh at his sardonic wit, but we do feel for him, and that might be the most important outcome of the game itself.
Short Attention Span Summary
While Actual Sunlight is certainly not for everyone, it provides an insightful – if bleak – look into one story of depression. I don’t see many people playing it more than once, and I clocked in at just under an hour for my first playthrough, but the potential for this one playthrough to have an impact on the player is high, especially if that player has any experience with depression at all. The music helps set the mood and the visuals are minimal enough to make you focus on what is being said.