Actual Sunlight is a text-driven indie game that deals with the reality of depression. We catch up with Will O’Neill, the writer and creator of the game, to learn more about the motivation behind making such a dark game, and whether the game industry is ready for games like it.
None of the choices you make have any significance. In the end, only one decision carries real weight: to continue living, or not. It’s a bleak message, but one that free indie game Actual Sunlight takes very seriously.
Actual Sunlight is an interactive tableau which uses well-written text passages to paint the life of a very ordinary man named Evan Winter. Your interaction with the game is minimal. A series of notes, stories, and fictional encounters written by Evan take you through a typical day in his life, with a strong focus on his thoughts, emotions and bleak outlook on life.
The game is so text-heavy that it might very well have been a book, but for the game’s creator Will O’Neill choosing the videogame format made the most sense for his story. “Videogames are a unique medium in that they aren’t passive,” O’Neill says. “You might have the power to move Evan around, but the storyteller has control over how much control you actually do have.”
Videogames present us with choices that make us feel like we have the power to determine our fate, despite the fact that all the possible outcomes are pre-coded. To O’Neill, this is just like life. “We’re not as free as we think we are,” he says. “The videogame is an incredible medium for telling that kind of story. Because the player can be in control and not be in control, and they can experience the anguish that this can create.”
Moving through the monotony that makes up Evan’s life creates a sense of helplessness and a spiraling descent into depression. It’s a very real kind of depression. The kind where you lose motivation to even get out of bed in the morning. The kind where you suddenly realize one day just how pointless your life has become. It’s something that we’ve all felt to some degree sometime in our lives. The sad truth is that Evan Winter can be any one of us.
“Actual Sunlight offers a very real and unfiltered view of how difficult life can be,” says O’Neil. “I don’t want to sugarcoat it – I want to show respect for the hardships that people face, and for players to feel like it’s a piece of work that respects those hardships.”
No silver lining
Fittingly, the game doesn’t offer much in the way of hope or redemption. O’Neill believes that when the media tells us to ‘just get over it,’ the result can be “more dangerous and more depressing than something that is truthful. I wanted to create a piece of art that showed depression in a way that had integrity. I don’t think there’s any reason to do it at all if you don’t do it that way.”
Actual Sunlight is not a game about depression in the way many may traditionally think of it, challenging the notion that if you’re not bawling your eyes out you’re not really depressed. All things considered, Evan has a decent life with a stable job and a passion for writing. On the surface, he isn’t deeply depressed – just stuck in a life that’s “a huge grind.”
“People are very subject to their inclinations and habits,” O’Neill points out. “Especially as they get older and their behaviors become more ingrained.” Actual Sunlight might deal largely with depression, but it can also be seen as a cautionary tale about getting stuck in a repetitious life that you don’t enjoy.
Actual Sunlight explores these dark and negative themes with class and gravity, a refreshing change from what we’ve come to expect from mainstream games. A number of high-profile games try to stay on safe ground in terms of their themes, and use deep themes as a way to stir up controversial media attention. O’Neill, on the other hand, wants his game to be a “serious, dramatic work – I really feel like gaming needs to move towards that.”
Recently, some games have ventured into the more controversial themes and some question whether the industry is ready for that move. To O’Neill, it’s a no-brainer: “I think games are ready for anything. It all comes down to how it’s done. If it’s done well, with respect, and it isn’t exploitative sheerly for shock value, I think it’s right – and important.”
Until we admit that the game industry is ready for loaded themes, it might be up to indie developers like Will O’Neill to push the medium to be all that it can be: “A place where more games aren’t projecting mature themes and ideas through the supernatural or metaphorical. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in film and literature and other media you have horror and sci-fi and what not, but you also just have straight-up, non-fantastical drama. That’s the type of game I want to make and what I want people to experience.”
And that’s the game O’Neill has made. Actual Sunlight doesn’t need any monsters or battles – it already shows the very real battle many people wage daily on the monster of depression.