To me, there’s no game quite like Actual Sunlight. As an RPG Maker title, it may not be the prettiest title, but Actual Sunlight delves deep into the subject of depression, and how a mental illness that many ignore can have subtle (and not so subtle) effects on someone who may otherwise seem like a normal person. Despite being a short, two hour adventure, few games have stuck with me like this one has through these past four years.
Actual Sunlight originally released in 2013 (it would later get a PlayStation Vita port), and creator Will O’Neill originally released the title exclusively on his website at the time. I cannot quite remember where I heard of the game, but I do remember really wanting to review it. In 2013 I had just begun writing about and reviewing games professionally on a small time site. Actual Sunlight seemed like the perfect “different” sort of game to review—unlike all of the Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creeds of the world, this was a small game that had a story with real emotional impact.
Eventually, I contacted O’Neill and sat down with a copy of Actual Sunlight. I was ready to write up a review on how this title handles depression and mental illness. What I didn’t expect, however, was how the game made me look at myself. It hit too close to home, and my own life was crumbling around me.
Actual Sunlight is the story about a man dealing with depression in Toronto. Most of the story is quick and straightforward, but interspersed with the character’s musings on everything and anything (from fake therapist appointments to mental ramblings), Evan’s inner monologues are the most powerful part of Actual Sunlight. They paint the picture of a mentally strained man with little hope for the future, and do so in powerful way that I believe many can relate to.
When I played Actual Sunlight all those years ago, I was not in a good place. I had spent several years at a slightly-above-minimum wage food service job. I was toiling away simply for the right to live with a roommate, and stealing food from the place as I couldn’t afford many groceries. I was in a long-term relationship that was fracturing under the pressures of having to support an unemployed student, amongst other things. While I had finally got a paid gig to write for a gaming site, I’d more or less given up on my dreams of doing anything in the industry. After all, someone that made bad decisions in the past that had to pay (quite literally) for them has no time to chase dreams.
In other words, I was depressed. Throughout Actual Sunlight, Evan oftentimes had a voice in the back of his head telling him “Go to the roof of the building and jump off.” That spoke to me, and I could empathize with his struggle. I also had that same voice in the back of my head, telling me that nothing will get better and to just down the bottle of sleeping pills that I knew deep down I bought just for the occasion.
There was one thing that really stuck out to me about Actual Sunlight, though. It was a letter of sorts to the player by O’Neill himself. It was addressed to the younger players who might be playing this powerful game.
“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 it applies to them.
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.
I don’t care how fucked up you think your life is: If you aren’t at least 25, that ain’t you.”
I was 25 when I first played Actual Sunlight, and of everything I’ve done these past four years, little has stuck with me more that letter, as I worked through my life. When I originally played the game, I pondered on that a lot, first being quite negative about it. How could I change my life? How could anything pull me out of this terrible, depressive rut?
The next year, I got a different, slightly better job. My boyfriend at the time broke up with me after getting a job of his own. I took on more writing gigs, a mix between stubbornly working myself to the bone in order to “make it,” and a need for a secondary income to help me live alone in a city without any friends or family to provide support.
Things got worse, but then better. I got better paying office jobs and promotions. I quit games writing for a while after burning myself out by taking on too much work while going to school, and for the first time I had actual free time. I eventually met a man who was kind and supportive, someone who even urged me to follow my dreams (which is why I’m even here writing this in the first place). My life is by no means perfect, there’s still a lot that’s wrong with it, but I’m slowly picking my life from the mess that it was and I’m building something better.
So now, here I am in 2017. I recently replayed Actual Sunlight a few weeks ago. I wanted to experience this game again, to put it simply. Surprisingly though, my thoughts while playing through the title seemed a lot different than it was four years ago. Instead of being somewhat jealous of Evan and his office job, now in an office job with a toxic atmosphere myself I can see his frustrations with it. I also recognized Evan’s wanton spending on luxuries he couldn’t afford as something I did a lot in the past as well, and something I didn’t quite realize until I lost a lot of material possessions in my break-up. There’s a lot of small differences in how I felt in the past and how I feel today, and that reflected a lot in how I reacted to Evan’s situations in Actual Sunlight.
My biggest shift, though, was with the ending. It’s rather open-ended actually. It finds Evan at the end of his mental rope, standing on the roof of his apartment complex before it cut to credits. When I played Actual Sunlight originally, I was almost sure he jumped off the roof. Finally ending his misery of living a life without hope. Now, though, I feel different. I’m not so sure if he went through with the jump. There’s an almost wistful look on his face in that final graphic. Is it a final moment of peace before jumping, or a change of heart that makes Evan go and finally seek help? I’m too cynical to think it’s 100% the latter, but maybe, just maybe, that hard road was taken for a better life, instead of a meaningless death.
Actual Sunlight is available now on PlayStation Vita and PC. Will O’Neill’s latest game, Little Red Lie, recently released on PC last month.