I recently finished playing Actual Sunlight. It’s not the longest game or the prettiest game and you probably never heard of it to begin with ( I mean, if you have, good on you!).
But all that fits in perfectly well with the game itself and its protagonist: Actual Sunlight is not a happy game. It’s a game about depression and loneliness.
The short description on steam reads:
Take a walk on the thin line between hope and despair in Actual Sunlight: A short interactive story about love, depression and the corporation.
Steam also gives a disclaimer: The game is not supposed to be played by people under 18 and I think that’s a very important thing to note: It contains strong language, sexual allusions and – obviously – references to depression and suicide.
I am not sure if I’d say it’s not made for players under 18 … I feel like we usually underestimate children’s and especially teenager’s capacities to deal with these sorts of topics. But please be a little self aware: These topics are very prevalent in this game. If you have an issue with that – no matter what it is – please know yourself well enough to not continues reading, consume any content related to the game or play it yourself.
In case you are suffering from depression, loneliness or any mental health problems yourself, please check out this link for help lines across the world. I know these might seem like empty words but things can get better and they will. Sometimes it takes a little self urgency for it to happen, though. In the end the decision is yours anyways, and I am in no position to judge you for or urge you to anything. Your life, your choices and I respect that. All I’m asking is that you take care.
So after a long but incredibly necessary disclaimer let’s get started: I felt like discussing the game in a somewhat critique manner but it turned out a bit more stream-of-conscience-style than I had planned. Still: Let’s open up the discussion.
I can’t say I enjoyed the game. That might sound like a bad thing but in this case … It’s not. I don’t think the game is supposed to be enjoyed. It’s supposed to give you food for thought. And that’s what it did.
Evan Winter is a 30-something white man living in Toronto. His life is pretty basic: Corporate job – at an ad agency, from what I’ve gathered – single flat, video games … A life that probably a lot of us could relate to. And a life Evan isn’t happy with. Not at all:
He never really developed any meaningful connections with is co-workers – there’s this one woman at work who he has a short relationship with but nothing huge – the women he shows an interest for don’t seem to give him any attention, a young and abrasive collegue seems to get everything he wants, he soley eats processed food, spends money rapidly and thoughtlessly …
On Evan …
Evan wasn’t really a protagonist I could click with … And that’s something that seems to be very weird to me: I started playing the game because I wanted to go through my unplayed stea, agmes and it simply came up first. And so I picked it up, when I myself wasn’t in a good place. I had a couple of things to go through back then. I don’t necessarily want to get into it but I’m still sorting things out.
What i’m trying to get at: We all have our experiences with depression and loneliness. These are all emotions we can realte to. Most of us are just lucky enough to not have this be their constant state of mine. We all have these moments in our lives. So do I.
Still: I didn’t click with Evan, even though I was going through similar feelings. And that made me feel weird about myself. Less empathetic.
… and the concept of lonliness
But: It makes absolute sense: We’re all different. We hold different positions in life. Our experiences differ and our perceptions of things are completely different. And while those higher concepts and emotions apply to every single one of us, the ways we deal with them may not.
The creator conceived the game to deal with his own issues. My way is different. So is yours.
I may also add that Evan is a 30-something white man. I’m a 20 year old white woman (girl … to be honest). The focus on what I want in life and the troubles I am going through are vastly different than what I might be going through at 30 and I will never be able to fully understand the perceptions and experiences of a man, since I am not one.
Things are different when you’re 20
There is also text snippet that stood out to me, since it adresses the player directly:
„If I have any fear about putting this project out, it’s that somebody who is in the midst of a difficult time growing up will see this game and think that it applies to them.
I’m not saying I wasn’t a lot like you. I probably was. I’ve struggled with feelings of anger and depression since I was very young; no more that 12 or 13 years old.
I don’t need to get into what the problems both causeing and caused by this were and still are. I think the things that happen in this game make them pretty clear.
It’s also pretty clear where all of this is headed.
But listen: The fact that you are young means in and of itself that you still have a lot of time to change things. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything you want, but I promise that you can do a lot better than you will if you give yourself over to despair.
It’s when you get into your late twenties and early thirties – like the protagonist in this game, and like me – that a lot of the choices you made earlier can start to come seriously into play.
A lot of doors begin to close. A lot of things start to go on without you.
I have been the way that I am my entire life, but let me tell you something: It’s different now. And I’m seeing more and more how things will only get even more difficult over even more time.
In the end, that’s what this game is about: An endgame.
Somebody whose pain has slowly risen in excess of their ability to deal with it. Somebody whose options have become totally disconnected from fantasies and regrets that they can’t turn away from.
This game is not a game: It’s a portrait.
I’ve created it to document something that I think is human and beautiful and real, and if you appreciate that, great – that’s what art is.
But don’t get it twisted. It’s about a 30-something corporate dead-ender with no youthful energy, no people his own age who haven’t moved on in life that he can turn to, and no time or money left to change or undo any of those things.
I don’t care how fucked up you think your life is: If you aren’t at least 25, that ain’t you.“
There’s alot to uncover here, so let’s start with the most obvious:
This text is the only one in the game that was written by the creator himself – Will O’Neil. It’s non diegetic (a term that’s usually for film music that’s not part of the action itself but I’m gonna use it here). It breaks the fourth wall. And it does so at a very unusual point in the story:
Usually the author of a piece will adress their audience outside the piece: Especially with games. If you want to know about their thoughts you’ll have to seek out interviews, press conferences or some special edition that contains them. When an author of a work adresses their audience within the piece, they usually do so either at the beginning – before the story even starts and comepletly outside of it – or at the end, after the story has ended. If you want to know more about the creator and their intentions soley by their work you’ll have to read between the lines.
I found that to be incredibly interesting but I do not fully support it. I am a fan of subtlety – And I think some things are up to the audience’s interpretation. That’s what completes the story and gives it meaning. And it’s what furthers discourse, something I would not like to miss. A direct explanation of the author takes that away and I do not like it.
Hope and Dispair
This text in particulary gives the player hope. However, when I played the game I read it as more of a personal attack. Another patronizing talk about how my generation does not know how good we have it and how our problems aren’t as huge or meaningful as the ones of those that came before us. A notion I truly reject. No matter how small an issue seems to you it might present a huge problem for the person having it. Talking down on that does neither solve the problem nor elevate said persons mood and is therefore incredibly unproductive.
Going over it now, it feels more hopeful. It reads more like a pep talk with an unexpectedly positive outcome and it leaves you with a choice:
„You can do a lot better than you will if you give yourself over to despair. Get out of there or wallow in self pity but the latter is probably not going to make you happier.”
I also very much support the notion of depression and loneliness as „beautiful and real“. Maybe more real, than beautiful. Because they are. You will not be able to avoid down days. And sometimes these days don’t end. And that’s ok. We all have those days.
I wouldn’t necessarily see them as beautiful, though. Romantization of these issues can be a huge problem and a reason for people not to change their ways.
And lastly this little excerpt pretty much clarifies what I’ve just said: It’s a portrait. It may deal with these abstract feelings but it’s telling a concrete story.
Loneliness is not just lack of romance
I still had some issues with Evan, though. Particularly his focus on not having a girlfriend.
Again parts of that are probably due to the fact that other people have other priorities in life but there is just something that rubs me the wrong way about people thinking they could only complete themselves through others. It also makes him appear to be incredibly creepy (at least to me as a young woman).
I am sure parts of that are intentional but it’s just something I am not comfortable with.
There is this young woman at Evan’s work – Tori – who seems to be just a little older than me. He keeps hitting on her and seems to have some sort of entitlement towards women.
First of all nobody is ever entitled to another persons time, privacy or life. Not if you’re being friendly, not if you have a crush on them and especially not if they’ve already told you off.
Secondly, don’t do it at work. It can be incredibly unprofessional and uncomfortable. There is something different about chatting somebody up in a bar – where some people go specifically to meet others – on the street – where there’s almost always a way to leave and get out of a situation – and at work – where people most likely have to be and have no way of getting out of an uncomfortable situation.
It’s something that’s been bugging me when I was waitressing: Patrons would try to talk me up all evening. I couldn’t leave that situation. I had to stay there even if it was incredibly uncomfortable. Some people even waited outside the location until my shift had ended.
And you can hear these kind of stories from all sorts of women. Most of my friends have been in situations like that. I do not want to know how all of this must feel if you’re working with that kind of person, where you have to see them every day. Deal with that sort of harrassment every day.
Depression is not an excuse for selfishness and thoughtlessness. That’s on you, not your illness.
Almost a dialogue with the player
All throughout the game you get small text snippets about certain things: Therapist logs, Poems, Stories, Essays, Talk Show logs, … Which are the main interaction between player and game. And I loved that. It is an interesting way to tell a story. It is also a very reduced way of storytelling and I can see why that’s not for everyone.
One of the big revelations of the game is the fact that all of these are made up. Evan keeps playing through these situations in his head, imagining all of it, even the therapist sessions. It’s at that point that the game gets incredibly dark – though it’s been dark to begin with – and Evan completely falls off the edge into toxic behavioural patterns.
I really liked that twist, though. I thought of them as of remainders of a previous life or something like that. Maybe that’s because I tend to think in a very complicated manner … I don’t know. I liked it still.
All in all Actual Sunlight is an ok game. It is very particular and I’d say it’s not for everyone (I’m trying to say this without sounding pretentious), due to the heavy subject matter and it’s way of storytelling. If that sounds like something you’d like to play, I definetly encourage you to do so. Form your own opinions and please, tell me about them! I myself might replay the game in 10 years, just to see what has changed and how I might read into it now. But for now, I’ll just have to wait and see.
Get the game here.