Actual Sunlight: Depression, Repetition, Life and You

WARNING: this article contains spoilers for the entirety of Actual Sunlight. If you haven't played it I recommend reading my spoiler-free review in short which you can read here

I have never felt as bad after finishing a game.

Something happens early on in Actual Sunlight that I've not seen in other games; but is appropriate here. Talking to one of the people outside Evan's compartment building triggers some text directly intended towards the player. This is written by Will O'Neill, the game's developer and titled 'Please read this if you are a young person'. The letter warns about some of the upcoming tone and content and clarifies the purpose of the project. Two lines stuck in my mind: “It's also pretty clear where all of this is headed” and the concluding line; “Don't you fucking dare”. This is very forward to somewhat break immersion like that, but it has a deep effect. You know how this game will end, or at least you think you do. From then on you're controlling Evan towards the inevitable.

Actual Sunlight

But, what of those notes that you read? The chat show and the exerts from the book. They clearly haven't happened yet - it could be a sign that Evan gets through this, O'Neill's warning was a red herring and Evan gets through this. While you control Evan through his downward spiral you hold on to that, that things get better. Naturally, as an empathetic human being, that is what you want. But, as soon as Evan's mind worsens beyond saving, these text segments deteriorate to the point where they straight up say they are fantasy, a concoction from Evan's state and your hope is crushed. This was the devastating moment of the game. From then on the game forces you to play out the inevitable conclusion.

Evan's situation will be relatable in parts to many. He lives alone, has deep insecurities about his personality and its effect on other people, a fear of commitment, a steady but uninteresting and repetitive job and deep frustrations about his situation preventing his ambitions. Everyone has desires and dreams, but for Evan, the point where you can no longer see how these are achievable is now. If you haven't experienced any of those then you'll likely know someone who has or currently is.

Actual Sunlight

This is one of the hard hitting issues: I saw something of myself in Evan, something I don't particularly like to face, and guiding him through the linear narrative to his ultimate decision is tough. I can imagine this being the same for some other players. Evan's life isn't fantastical, he's not an archetypal hero; he's an ordinary person founded in reality. Evan becomes a type of personification of what you've attempted to avoid and improve for yourself, and you want Evan to improve too. He is not a bad person; just stuck in this cycle. His depression is a major factor in preventing him from making these positive actions.

Suicide is often represented in video games as sacrificial, heroic or beautiful; an ultimate decision of tremendous selflessness that will result positively for everyone else, or even save the world. I have never before seen the topic presented as a reality, coming from real-life issues, on a relatively small scale in a video game.

The concise presentation of Actual Sunlight doesn't allow you to fully gather your thoughts as you play through and it sticks with you considerably after you finish. It was both refreshing and harrowing to play through a game that discusses these issues with grounded contemplation and execution. The game affected me far more than I was anticipating, it's the part the player takes in controlling Evan after his decision is made, destroying his possessions and making his way up to that rooftop.

Actual Sunlight

So, these were the aspects of Actual Sunlight that hit me. Due to the game's length all of this happens in a short amount of time and makes you take it on board at once. The player involvement and interaction results in a powerful experience that you'll only be able to achieve through gaming. While the game left me feeling bad for a while, it was the good kind of bad. The game challenged me as the player and was uncompromising and honest.

Shortly after finishing Actual Sunlight I posted my initial thoughts on Twitter. I'll just leave this here.

Actual Sunlight

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