Also On: PC
Publisher: Will O'Neill
Developer: Will O'Neill
Before I write anything else about Actual Sunlight, I'll write this: if you're dealing with feelings of chronic depression or suicidal thoughts, there are people willing to listen and to help, wherever you are. I know that's kind of a trite thing to say, but in the context of this game, it seems like the most appropriate thing, too.
It's also the thing I feel most comfortable writing, since beyond that, I'm kind of lost. I'm fortunate enough to never have had to deal with chronic depression or mental illness. I've never had to stave off suicidal thoughts. Like most people, I've had bad things happen to me, but luckily I've always been able to shake them off and move on with my life; the point of Actual Sunlight, as far as I can tell, is to convey what it's like to be someone who can't do that.
I'll be frank: it didn't do that for me.
That's not to say the game doesn't do it at all. I have no doubt that some people will play Actual Sunlight and feel a terrifying jolt of recognition as they see their own struggles played out in the text on the screen. What's more, I hope that some younger people will pick up the game, and feel like creator Will O'Neill is speaking directly to them when he breaks the fourth wall about ten minutes into the game, and writes an impassioned plea to not give in to depression, to find a different and better path. And for those people, I'm glad the game exists, since anything that helps people deal with their own demons is, I hope, a good thing.
But as far as my personal experience goes? I kind of hated it.
I feel bad saying that. I know it's probably the wrong way to react. But it's the honest truth. Every moment I spent reading main character Evan Winter's angsty whining was a moment I spent hoping the game would just hurry up and end. That sounds awful, of course, since a grim game like this has only one obvious conclusion (spoiler?). But…I don't know. The more Winter retreated into his own head and the more time he spent obsessively going over all the ways the world sucked, the more I just grew frustrated and annoyed by it all. Again, I realize that's the wrong way to react. But I have to be honest: I've felt more empathy for the main characters in, say, God of War (where my onscreen avatar was literally a god) or Uncharted (murderous, semi-sociopathic treasure hunter) or Katamari Forever (little dude rolling things up for the King of the Universe) than I did at any point in Actual Sunlight.
In my defense, of course, Winter is not a main character that's particularly easy to love. Between his extreme solipsism, his implied alcoholism, his short temper, his rants about the homeless, his general misanthropy…well, you get the idea. And to top it all off, as if to drive home just how grating he is, the game accompanies his text-based downward spiral with a metallic screech. If ever a game actively tried to alienate its players, this is it.
Then again, as Actual Sunlight reminds players very early on, "This game is not a game: it's a portrait." To some extent, that feels like an easy out for the game, a way for it to suggest that its broader statement is more important than how that statement is conveyed, thereby rendering it immune to criticism. But at the same time…okay, sure, I'll buy that. Actual Sunlight does have a message for some people, and for those people it could literally be a matter of life and death. Though if it is…I'll just refer you back to this page one more time.