Awkward, uncomfortable and sad, Actual Sunlight reminds us that games can be poetry.

While most people would equate video games with fun, it’s important to see video games for what they truly are: a medium. Like a book, a film, or a painting, video games provide the framework through which a creator can engage their audience. “Fun” doesn’t always have to factor into it.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Actual Sunlight – a dark, sobering piece of interactive fiction that addresses depression and suicide – has succeeded so tremendously in what it set out to do.

Actual Sunlight

Depression may be the topic that developer Will O’Neill is trying to engage you on, but Actual Sunlight doesn’t look at the disease in general terms.  Instead, Actual Sunlight is a character study that explores one man’s struggle with depression.  And, as with any mental illness, the underlying symptoms will vary from person to person. 

In the case of our protagonist, Evan Winter, depression manifests itself as a combination of apathy and angst.  While he may be an adult, Evan’s perspective on life is not unlike that of a disillusioned teenager. Initially this was a bit of a turn off for me, leaving me as the reader incredibly uncomfortable.  

But I think that may have been the point.  

Depression is a disease that leaves you feeling detached from the rest of the world. Actual Sunlight is a game that leaves you feeling detached from the character.  This is not a coincidence. 

In storytelling, a sympathetic protagonist is needed to provide comfort to the reader; but this isn’t a story that’s meant to provide comfort.  Once you can accept that reality – that rather than going on a journey with the character, you’re merely examining his interactions as you might observe a science experiment – you’ll find that Actual Sunlight provides a unique window into the mind of a depressed, self-destructive individual.

Actual Sunlight

Stepping back from the game itself for a moment, it’s hard to not recognize Actual Sunlight‘s unique spot in the evolution of gaming.  We’ve seen a lot of experimentation and activity in recent years by those looking to blend storytelling and gaming in a way that elevates both mediums, but Actual Sunlight marks the first real example of a character study in video game form. For once, we have a story that’s less about the plot than it is about the protagonist.  In terms of storytelling in games, that’s a huge leap forward.

The flipside, though, is that a character study doesn’t leave a lot of room for player participation. Players will control Evan in an exploratory fashion as he walks around his environment, interacting with different objects and people throughout the course of his day. Overall though, this is a very linear, text-heavy experience that limits any real sense of choice for the player. While a great experiment in interactive fiction, I’d be hesitant to really call Actual Sunlight a game.

Actual Sunlight

But that in itself speaks volumes for what Actual Sunlight represents. Rather than simply writing a short story, Will O’Neill created a piece of fiction using a medium that few writers would dare to explore.  And O’Neill is most definitely a writer. While it might look like a text-heavy RPG based on screenshots, O’Neill proves himself to be a master wordsmith. If you’re cringing at the thought of a game maker getting into fiction, don’t worry; Actual Sunlight feels much more like a writer getting into game making.

The only criticism to be had, if any, is that the story doesn’t manage to include any of the positive things that happen in everyday life that Evan no doubt ignores.  The argument can be made that if Evan ignores it, the reader shouldn’t see it either – but it’s still a direction I’d like to have seen explored.

Actual Sunlight deals with heavy, dark themes. It’s unconventional, both as a game and a story.  But if you’re prepared to brave its uniqueness, you’ll find an experience that reveals a striking portrait of a broken man.