I jumped into this one planning to do a review of Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight. However, almost immediately after starting it up, I realized that it wasn’t going to be a typical experience. As I played through the story, mostly as an observer simply seeing the pageant take place in front of me, it became more and more apparent that a simple review wouldn’t come of this.
I can’t, in good faith, take my feelings or observations about Actual Sunlight and distill them into a few easily-digested positive and negative points. I can’t wrap my head around attempting to stamp a number at the end of it all. At the risk of sounding over-invested, there’s no score that I could give this interactive novel that would appropriately sum up my thoughts or impressions. So, instead, I’m going to opine a bit on what Actual Sunlight is and does, and give my take on the experience, without the confines of rubrics or metrics to weigh it down.
The first thing that must be said is that Actual Sunlight is not something for everyone. Dealing through and through with depression, failed relationships, and suicide, this isn’t a world where everything works out or people get all the help that they need. The story is a stark, no-frills expression of a man in the depths of the darkest corners of the human psyche, and the text-heavy play is littered with profanity and extreme self-loathing and hopelessness. An inescapable dread and sadness permeates nearly every line; both interactions with other characters and frank internal reflection offer little to feel good about, or to take any sense of accomplishment from.
To wit, the game takes a moment to ensure that players understand that the world presented does not necessarily reflect, or have to reflect, anyone’s reality, especially their own. The very fabric of it urges anyone feeling the same soulless negativity to step back and consider themselves before moving on, or before doing anything drastic with their own lives.
Throughout all of Actual Sunlight, the end result of all the misery is clear, both to the player and to the protagonist. While there are moments within our brief look at Evan Winters’ life that seem to show some fighting spirit, some resistance against what might not be an inevitable finale, ultimately they are presented only as surface thoughts; fleeting expressions of Evan’s lackluster desire to be something other than what he sees himself to be. There are brief glimpses where, just maybe, it looks as if something might break through, but each of these drains away at his fragile state even further, as if the effort of pushing back against the weight of his own thoughts is so exhausting as to be unsustainable. From my own experiences with bouts of depression, and chronic depression of people very close to me, this brutally honest look at it reflects much of what I’ve seen and experienced. It isn’t pretty, and it’s not well-suited to entertainment, but it’s powerful.
It may sound like I’m making Actual Sunlight out to be a miserable, undesirable thing to experience. That’s not my intent; I’d just rather not do it the injustice of candy-coating it. A creation such as this, stripped of so many of the things we come to expect from games – feelings of power, happy endings, characters who are in control of their destiny – doesn’t deserve to be treated with anything but the same honesty with which it addresses its subject matter. If you’re prone to depression, I’d urge you to really think before jumping into this one. It’s heavy, hard-hitting, and dark. If you’re someone who’s had trouble really understanding what it can be like inside a depressed person’s thoughts, Actual Sunlight could offer some cold, harsh insight that might shed light.
I really thought this was a worthwhile story, even if I can’t say that I really enjoyed it in the sense that one typically enjoys a good game. I appreciate it for it’s refusal to put on airs, or to dress up the subject, and to approach a difficult topic with total, unmitigated honesty. And if that sounds appealing, then you might just owe it to yourself to pick this one up.