Actual Sunlight by Will O’Neill has been out for years now, though it’s only recently made the jump to Nintendo Switch. The game is designed to immerse the player in an abyss of depression, to provide insight into the hopelessness that it brings. On that level, it succeeds. However, it is not a game for the faint-hearted or for those who may suffer from depression already. This is our Actual Sunlight review for Nintendo Switch.
I have to be honest here. I have struggled to find the right way to write about Actual Sunlight. Not only is the subject matter difficult, but the “gameplay” — and I use that term very loosely — lacks in any way that could even be construed as a game in the first place. Let’s begin with the latter point.
The game’s developer has, in fact, said that “This game is not a game. It’s a portrait.” That certainly helps with its definition and to understand what it is that O’Neill is trying to accomplish.
As with most games constructed with RPGMaker, Actual Sunlight is, to be honest, more of a semi-interactive novel with an occasional top-down SNES-styled graphical portrayal of the main character’s home, office, and the commute in between. The protagonist is Evan Winter, an overweight 30-something mid-level corporate drone whose life mainly consists of sleeping, working, and drinking away his free time in an attempt to medicate his depression and loneliness. Nearly all of the two hours of game time is spent reading long passages of conversation and descriptions of his abysmal office and personal lives. Each of these long textual passages is themed around one of three things: An imaginary late-night comedy television appearance complete with a laugh track, conversations Evan has had with a psychiatrist or bitter prose written by Evan about the hopelessness of his life. These are not conversations that can be read lightly and, even warned ahead of time that this is Evan’s life, not ours, it’s easy to internalize his feelings as our own. Those who may be inclined to suffer from depression may find themselves identifying with Evan.
As you read through the morass of Evan’s life, it’s easy to see his depression, his anger, his hopelessness, and his inability to stop his inevitable end. Nearly from the beginning of the game, we understand that Evan will not make it, that his life and circumstances will overwhelm him. The developer makes no bones about how this story will end. The player sees the inevitability of Evan’s suicide as a passive viewer and someone unable to help the character. We can’t stop the downward spiral of Evan’s life. We can’t stop him from taking that trip to his apartment’s rooftop. We can’t “make it better” or “fix things” or “suggest he get help”. By witnessing this catastrophe without any ability to assist is clearly the point. We are shown vividly — and tragically — what depression truly is. We understand that sometimes those suffering from such debilitating depression never really “get better” but simply manage to learn to deal with their reality.
Actual Sunlight is not a game to entertain but is one made to instruct. While I can appreciate the lessons it offers, I am flummoxed by the developer’s lack of any type of information about suicide prevention or resources for those afflicted with depression or those who are watching a loved one suffer. Perhaps this is by design to further illustrate the futility of Evan’s life and death. However, it feels irresponsible in today’s day and age.
In the end, Actual Sunlight is a worthy addition to anyone’s library if they are seeking to better understand the nature of depression and how it affects those they love. It is a harrowing journey so be prepared.