‘This game is not a game, it’s a portrait’
Actual Sunlight isn’t really a normal video game. There are no rewards, no action sequences, no real progression, no replay-ability features, and to be honest it isn’t that fun. I wouldn’t even consider it a game, more an interactive novel into the mindset of an individual clearly tormented by his demons. Depression is never an easy subject to discuss, be it with an individual suffering from it personally or not. Often horribly mis-judged as a ‘pseudo-illness’, with a simple remedy being to just ‘get over it’, depression is an incredibly complex condition coming in many different forms that (finally) has recently been taken much more seriously throughout the world.
I should disclaim that I have no real credible insight or knowledge in the issue, other than knowing a couple of people who have suffered or are suffering from the illness. I don’t want to sound like I do or that I agree or disagree with the social standpoint on the issue. My real reasoning behind this post is to discuss a game that I have recently played!
Actual Sunlight is probably best described as a text adventure more than anything, with top-down 4-way movement and interaction with people and objects. However the gameplay is somewhat irrelevant. The protagonist is a man in his late 20s called Evan Winter. The world is seen through his mind, with almost every interaction with an object or person giving an insight into his self-loathing, life-destroying thoughts. The game starts with a warning that should be heeded by all, before diving straight into the thick of it:
We journey through a normal day in Evan’s life, from waking up through to his work day, via the journey there. The other characters on screen come in the form of sprites, looking remarkably like early Final Fantasy characters which may or may not be intentional. Evan often talks of his love/hate relationship with gaming, and possibly sees other random people as just fictional characters either through habit or to make them seem more interesting than they actually are. When speaking to someone, a small picture of them comes up next to the text which looks different to that on the main screen, possibly showing what they actually look like.
Many interactions, be it with a human or an object, bring up the black screen where we read Evan’s inner monologue. This is where the deep, upsetting nature of the game takes hold. He thinks about himself on a talk show as an interesting celebrity, or as an author of Life-coaching books for example. Interacting with mundane objects such as a dresser, or even just walking into another room brings up these frankly disturbing sequences. At first, if read out of context they wouldn’t seem too bad, however knowing the over-arching tone and the way these passages gradually turn into extreme self-abusing, suicidal thoughts creates a very uncomfortable experience.
An example is where Evan daydreams of a situation of himself being interviewed by a psychiatrist. Known only as ‘Doctor’ and ‘Patient’, the general questions are asked about why Evan thinks about certain ways in this fashion. At one point though he changes drastically, realising that he is in fact just talking to himself, and the ‘Doctor’ starts to insult the ‘Patient’ as well and tells him basically to end it all. Of course, the ‘Doctor’ and the ‘Patient’ are both creations of Evan’s mind, and despite the positive outlook of the Doctor at first, they both turn into hating Evan himself, a raw reflection on the way Evan sees himself through his own eyes but also through others as well. (Like I said earlier, this is my interpretation, possibly and probably not correct at all)
The story is only ever heading in one inevitable direction. As time passes and the daily grind is executed, things just get worse, and the people who were closer to Evan start to drift away, or threaten to. The ‘bad guys’ begin to get everything they and Evan want, so the loneliness, self-hatred and jealously of others takes over. The developer even hints at one point about the unavoidable conclusion. Here are the moments before the finale:
It’s safe to say this is not an easy game to play. I consider myself quite stoic in the face of adversities of others or my own. Not that I’m cold-hearted but I am very resilient to certain issues and can at times brush things off and think positively about life, perhaps through immaturity, who knows..? I am obviously one of the lucky ones, however a lot of this game hits hard even with me, and in some cases quite close to the bone. I won’t talk about which parts of course, probably to anyone, but I can assure you that you will not be unmoved by this tale, no matter who you are. It isn’t fun, and it’s not supposed to be. It is however an experience that I’m glad I undertook.
I want to suggest you play it, however if you or someone very close to you suffers from depression I would recommend steering clear.
Actual Sunlight is developed and written by Will O’Neill (@willoneill). It is available through Steam or (US-only) on Playstation Vita.