Title: Actual Sunlight
Developer: Will O'Neill (@willoneill)
Platforms: PlayStation Vita, Steam
Boy, where do I begin with this one? How about here:
“Why Kill Yourself Today When You Could Masturbate Tomorrow?”
This is the opening line of creator Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight. In fact, let me go back even further. While this is the opening line of the game itself, this is the first thing you see when you turn on Actual Sunlight:
“PLEASE NOTE: Actual Sunlight deals with extremely mature themes, including depression and thoughts of suicide. Player discretion is strongly advised.”
Clearly, this is going to be a dark game that deals with some dark themes in an assumedly dark way. But back to this masturbation business for a minute. “Why Kill Yourself Today When You Could Masturbate Tomorrow?” is actually the title of an “article” written by our protagonist, Evan Winter. Evan’s thoughts and experiences are often conveyed through these pieces he’s penned that are scattered throughout the game world. It’s the primary vehicle through which we learn about Evan and his character. Evan is an overweight, clinically depressed, eternally lonely man trapped in the mundane cycle of the sameness of his everyday life. He gets up in the morning, gets dressed for work, rides the bus — with at least one seat between him and the nearest passenger — to his ridiculous corporate job, works all day and night with people he generally despises, returns home late to maybe play the latest video game he can’t stand, and rinse and repeat. It’s a generally miserable existence, and it’s the crux of what Actual Sunlight is based on and explores.
In all honesty, this a difficult game to review. Not only in terms of the subject matter it tackles, but in terms of the game itself. In fact, classifying Actual Sunlight as a “game” at all may be a bit of a stretch. It’s probably more accurate to describe it as a short story or novella. The game essentially consists of reading white text on a black screen 80% of the time. Occasionally, you’ll take control of Evan directly and move him around the game world. And I use “world” in the loosest sense of the term here. Evan’s “world” basically consists of his apartment complex, the inside of the street car he takes to his job, and the office building where he works. Even when controlling Evan, your only objective is to find the next object to interact with in order to trigger the next black screen with the next string of white text. While the visual novel genre has seen a boon in recent times, Actual Sunlight is even more minimalist in its approach to gameplay and aesthetic, making it difficult to even categorize it as this.
I say all this not to knock Actual Sunlight or its approach to game design. It’s actually quite the opposite; Actual Sunlight’s design and structure allows its whip smart writing to shine through. In reality, the writing is the thing that drew me to Actual Sunlight in the first place. In the lead up to the game, it was always described as a mature title that deals with often taboo issues while featuring really strong writing, and I can vouch for that claim here. Evan’s poignant observations about life, depression, corporate America, and everything in-between are conveyed with a style that is both serious and darkly humorous. Topics like depression and isolation are strangely engaging behind O’Neill’s sharp pen. It’s deep, self-deprecating, and almost Holden Caulfield-esque in much of its tone. I was especially fond of Evan’s therapy session transcripts and his ongoing series of writings documenting his fake guest appearance on a late night talk show. The game’s dialogue also has a nice a rhythm and cadence to it, and I’d be interested in an O’Neill written game that focuses heavily on conversation. If you can handle the subject matter, the writing alone is worth a read for the $4.99 asking price.
There’s no real plot in the traditional sense of the word in Actual Sunlight. As readers, we’re privy to a few days in the shoes of Evan Winter, and then the game concludes. The way everything plays out in the end is a bit awkward, but this is due more to the way time lapses towards the latter part of the game than anything else. About ¾ of the way through, Evan’s story reaches a stirring climax, which I, of course, will not spoil here for those of you that wish to experience it. Things eventually settle down, and the story picks up one year later. From here, the game quickly builds to its next crescendo, only to end shortly thereafter. It was a little off in terms of pacing, but there is some powerful material during the last quarter of the game, nonetheless.
While you can see everything Actual Sunlight has to offer in a brief 1-2 hours, I still feel like there’s much more to mine from this game to those willing to take up the axe and explore. I can see this game — and it’s very serious topics concerning depression, suicidal thoughts, and isolation — being a subject of study in a college level literature or psychology course. It’s clear creator Will O’Neill is channeling his own thoughts, revelations, and probably experiences through Evan’s writings. There is a lot to take in, and much that deserves a second and third read-through in order to soak in the underlying message. Actual Sunlight’s dark themes, minimalist style, and relentlessly hopeless nature are definitely not for everyone. On the other side of the coin, to those that are comfortable in their own shoes and willing to explore taboo subject matter, Actual Sunlight is worth a play (read?). It’s a unique experience in gaming, and one that has me curious to see where creator Will O’Neill goes from here.
This review is based on a digital copy of the PlayStation Vita version graciously provided by creator Will O’Neill.
- Strong Writing
- Willingness to tackle mature subject matter
- Unique experience
- Hopelessly dark tone
- Lack of any real gameplay
- Pacing in game's latter portion