Actual Sunlight is not your average video game. It deals with serious, mature topics such as depression, loneliness, and crippling debt. There is barely any interactivity, and don’t have any choice in changing how events play out. Actual Sunlight isn’t enjoyable to play, if it was, then it would have failed in its goal. It isn’t an RPG that transports the player into an amazing fantasy world, instead it is a harsh look at the issues that real people face in society today.
I’m so glad that Actual Sunlight isn’t a typical game.
Players are given the opportunity to watch a few days in the life of Evan Winter, an underachiever who lives in Toronto. Evan is a man with a boring office job that blames everyone else for his problems. You probably know somebody like Evan in your everyday life. In fact, you might even see a bit of yourself in Evan. Instead of changing anything about his life, he goes about his days in the same pattern. He always tells himself that tomorrow will be the day when everything changes. It never does.
Evan is also dealing with severe depression. He’s in debt, hates his job, and every relationship he has been in inevitably sours. Despite the game being observed from Evan’s point of view, Actual Sunlight does a great job of not glorifying depression. It is a serious issue, and is treated with the respect it deserves in the game. About a third into the story, creator Will O’Neill actually breaks the fourth wall by addressing the player directly to tell them not to be Evan Winter. Evan, despite being very unlikable, is eloquent with his words, and could be seen as an icon of sorts for the depressed. It is genuinely troubling to think about the young kids that might play this game and end up adopting Evan’s world view. Hopefully that will never happen.
There isn’t much in terms of gameplay in Actual Sunlight. Players explore a few nicely drawn 2D environments, and examine objects. Once an object is examined, you will get a few thoughts from Evan or a conversation occurs. That is really it. Your role as the player is to ultimately observe, this isn’t your story. This is the story of Evan Winter.
While some will complain about the linear story, or the brief moments of interactivity, but it ends up being one of the game’s biggest strengths. Will O’Neill knew exactly what story he wanted to tell, so he told it. Any alternate endings, or ways to lessen the story would only serve as a cop out. Linearity is not necessarily a bad thing, rather it can be some game’s biggest strengths.
Necessary but Not Fun
Despite being a very short game, you can probably read through the story in an hour or two, I found it impossible to play through it in one sitting. Due to serious topics that the game deals with, I often felt uncomfortable while playing. Several times during my play session, I had to sit my PlayStation Vita down and go for a walk. It isn’t fun to live with depression, and it isn’t fun to play Actual Sunlight.
Which is fine. Gaming doesn’t have to be fun. The medium of gaming can do so much more than just satisfy, it can upset players. As mentioned before, Actual Sunlight doesn’t require much interaction from the player. This just makes the moments where the player must interact with the game feel more important. Inevitably, the story of Evan Winter will require you to do things that you won’t feel comfortable doing. These moments are powerful, emotional, and create one of the most memorable games that I have ever played.
One aspect of the game that absolutely must be mentioned is the incredible writing found within. Since the player will spend most of their time reading text, it had to be top-notch for the game to be any good. The inner monologues of Evan are fascinating, and the dialogue is incredibly human. The characters found in the game do not appear on-screen for very long, but they are all fully fleshed out. Few games have ever been this well written.
Actual Sunlight is an insightful look at how some people deal with depression, and the struggles of everyday life. It is a focused game that tells the story that creator Will O’Neill wants to, and is better off for it. Few games will make players this uncomfortable, and few handle serious topics with this much grace. It may not be enjoyable to play, but it is absolutely worth playing.
Review code for Actual Sunlight provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation Vita. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here