Despite being primarily a visual novel, Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight is a video game which could only be a video game. Despite telling a story so universal in its themes and so text-heavy in its presentation, it understands innately the power of the medium as a form of artistic expression. Despite the writing undeniably being the game’s strongest aspect, it is given meaning through action; through the futility of choice; through the monotony of routine. Despite Actual Sunlight being dark and tragic and upsetting, it is beautiful and uplifting and inspiring. The inexorable self-destructive spiral its protagonist is swirled around is, in the confines of the game, unavoidable. Not so in life. And despite Actual Sunlight being ostensibly “about” Evan Winters, it wants you to know that:
“Don’t you fucking dare.”
Evan is, from his opening written monologue, a man teetering on the brink of suicide. He’s overweight. He works a job he hates just to earn enough money to buy things he doesn’t need. And he’s bitter. His depression is not his fault, but it manifests in ways which require a scapegoat: others’ success, the unfairness of society; an army of straw men which he summarily alights, as though their burning can stave off the encroaching darkness.
In many ways, Actual Sunlight is about that darkness. It is not representative of suicide, specifically, or even necessarily depression, but hopelessness as a black whole. The inevitability of Evan’s fate is made abundantly clear in the game’s opening scenes. There’s no way out. There’s no “good ending”, no matter what a lifetime of playing video games might have conditioned you to expect. You can’t save Evan from himself. On the contrary, you’re the one who will eventually have to walk him to the edge.
The weight of that responsibility pervades every moment. You’re encouraged to interact with everything in Actual Sunlight, and initially you do so out of curiosity, quietly expecting a different outcome each time. Pretty quickly, though, you realize that every person and thing in Evan’s life prompts only his grim missives; a PS3, an orthopaedic chair, a co-worker – all conduits for a bleak, pseudo-philosophical worldview. But Evan’s writing is so eloquent, so inherently compelling, that it supplants the initial intrigue as your primary motivation. You seek out more of Evan’s skewed perspective, even though you know that in doing so you’re rapidly shortening the existence he so frequently bemoans. In a way, you tell yourself, you’re doing him a favour.
In the game’s earliest moments, creator Will O’Neill breaks the fourth wall to issue a warning. He’s concerned, perhaps justifiably, that Actual Sunlight suggests no other destiny for those burdened with depression. So he interrupts his own narrative to let you know that’s bullshit:
“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.”
In any other medium that warning would be a foreword, or a DVD extra. It wouldn’t have a place in the story itself, because a story about hopelessness cannot acknowledge hope. Evan dismisses any possibility of things getting better, because that’s what the story requires of him. But that doesn’t mean the hope isn’t there.
So in as many ways as Actual Sunlight is about the darkness, it is also about the light. Nobody wants to be Evan Winters. He’s undeniably talented, maybe even morbidly fascinating, but he isn’t likeable. He isn’t admirable. You’re attracted to the eloquence, not the misanthropy. You can be better than Evan. And in such a brutally honest depiction of a man’s life self-destructing, Actual Sunlight is showing you how.