Thank you. That was the message I was left with after the hour or so I spent playing Actual Sunlight. Signed by the developer, Will O’Neill, it was a short statement that I wish I could echo back to him. I want to be able to thank him for sharing this, an experience that frayed the lines between fiction and reality in a way that was almost uncomfortable in how personal and real it was. There are an endless array of modern examples of how video games have evolved as a storytelling medium, moving far beyond the mindless arcadey nature of Tetris and Donkey Kong, but Actual Sunlight is one of the strongest examples I have experienced.
You control Evan Winters, a 28-year old white male in the middle of urban Canada, working at a dead-end job with no friends, no savings, and no hope. Actual Sunlight is a story-driven game told almost entirely through text and some character interaction, with small bits of pixel art environment exploration here and there to tie scenes together. As the game progresses, you start to see just how little you control Evan, and how much he is controlled by his depression.
Choices and exploration slowly turn against you, as you are given no option but to indulge in the destructive goals and behavior presented to you. This game has no extra endings and no branching paths, so where many visual novels and adventure games give us the sense of being able to change something or craft the narrative path we want to take, this game takes that away from you. The protagonist is lost deep in a losing battle with depression, and that experience can only lead him down one path. Despite never being your story, the game does an excellent job of immersing you into Evan Winters’ life as the events unfold, and by the time you finish the game just an hour or so later, it will have felt like you were there for much longer.
Text in the game is delivered with a grinding, metallic sound effect that loops over itself for every character of text that fills the screen. The sound is distracting and prevalent at first, a stark contrast to other games, but as you continue, the constant presence of the harsh sound starts to fade into the background. While I like to look at this as an interesting sort of symbolic play on the way harsh things around us in everyday life slowly blend and morph into indistinguishable background noise, it is also annoying design decision, especially given that much of the first half of the game features virtually no background music. The game is so heavily reliant on text, though, that I have to imagine the choice of this grating sound effect was deliberate and symbolic.
As the harsh sounds fade into the background, you’re left able to appreciate the other artistic touches present in the game. The game features a number of beautiful art insert pieces, with sharp artwork that display a really great style of lighting, accentuating the way light bounces off a TV screen or spills through a window. The pixel art, while also well done, is just a functional aspect of the game and not particularly exciting.
There are a number of moments in the game where music helps echo the mood of the scene, and while they aren’t catchy beats from something like the Hotline Miami soundtrack, they do a perfect job of giving you the feeling of the depressing, dream-like state the character is in, further immersing you in Evan Winters’ mind.
Obviously the most artistic element of the game is the writing, and it definitely delivers. Will O’Neill brings such a fresh and brutally honest look at depression and the way it affects a person, physically and emotionally. Despite being a story about an white guy reaching thirty with no relationships to speak of, it’s a broadly informative and introspective experience that anyone can take something away from. O’Neill at one point breaks the narrative in order to admit that the game is a portrait of depression that is applicable in many ways to his own experiences, urging any young players to remember that they have much more in life ahead of them than Evan Winters does.
That bit of dialogue was when the game starting giving me something to take away from it. I’m very young, and still very much learning things and experiencing things for the first time, and can’t really relate to the character of Evan Winters beyond being a fan of video games and having a fondness for writing. I found myself applying my ways of thinking against his, and got that much more involved in the narrative.
While there are many other strong moments of writing in the game, they’re delivered in the form of droplets falling from a very heavy-handed fist. The game is a short experience, but condenses so many strong ideas and themes into that hour and a half of playtime. If spaced out between more narrative downtime, perhaps it wouldn’t feel so overwhelming, but in the current package, every piece if interaction comes with a heavy idea about society, or life, or love.
I’d love to be able to look at it as a similar symbolic representation of how busy and overwhelming life is, how the constant stream of information contained in this hour of experience reflects the constant struggles of work and school and society present in our own lives. However, the pacing really did just end up feeling like a poorly implemented aspect of the game to me, as at one point I found myself so overwhelmed by the text I was more glossing over what was being said than truly comprehending it.
Actual Sunlight is one of the strongest text-driven video games I’ve played. Where many games like this focus on hours of writing, slowly drowning you in a vast sea of dialogue and story routes, Actual Sunlight does not. Other narratives might try to show you the path away from depression and how you can recover, but Actual Sunlight does not. Instead it paint you a stark portrait of depression, and the dark path that it often leads you down when you’ve already lost so much of your life to it. Actual Sunlight drowns you in a cup of water, and if you are ready to experience that sad truth, you won’t regret it one bit.
Version Tested: PS Vita
Actual Sunlight was originally released on PC in 2013 and is out today on PS Vita in North America. A European release is under consideration.