When the closing credits began to roll, I found it hard to fight back the tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I could think about little else apart from the game I had just played. Actual Sunlight had wriggled its way into my subconscious and paralysed me with its potent, unsettling and mature narrative but I’m pretty sure that was the whole point of the experience. It’s rare for a game to have such a profound impact and I guess that’s a testament to how powerful something like Actual Sunlight can be.
Actual Sunlight is, for the most part, not a conventional game in the traditional sense of the word. It’s essentially a visual novella, or visual short story, with an emphasis on very mature, adult themes of depression, loneliness and suicide. Created by Will O’Neill, who describes the game as 100% autobiographical, Actual Sunlight is one of the most shocking, haunting and real games I’ve ever played. Released as a free download in early 2013, the game went on to be a critical and popular success, ultimately leading to a Steam release in 2014 and in August 2015, then made its major console debut on the PlayStation Vita.
Actual Sunlight tells the story of Evan Winter. A 30-something, overweight man who hates his job, his apartment, and most of all he hates himself. Without spoiling too much, the game hinges on Evan Winter’s dark, innermost thoughts and paints a bleak and intimate picture of a mind, heavy with depression, falling apart at the seams. It’s a very personal tale that makes for some very uncomfortable reading.
Though the story is potent and fascinating stuff the gameplay on the other hand is, like most visual novels, very minimal. You spend much of your time in Actual Sunlight wandering through an average day in Evan Winter’s heavy shoes, clicking on objects or people of interest which then opens up diary-like trains of thought that reveal snippets of Evan Winter’s inner conflicts. These diary entries flesh out Evan Winter’s numerous, everyday fears and expose a lonely man who feels trapped and cornered with no control over the life that he lives.
At its core, Actual Sunlight, is very much a collection of interactive confessional poems, with echoes of Charles Bukowski’s or Sylvia Plath’s darkest moments. If you enjoy bleak, confessional poetry, then Actual Sunlight may well be for you. It’s the closest thing to poetry I’ve felt in a game since Silent Hill 2 (which is one of my favourite games).
Ultimately, Actual Sunlight is not a game for everyone, but what it does do, it does incredibly well. It’s not an enjoyable game to play but it is an unforgettable one. It’s not, however, an experience I’d unreservedly recommend to most gamers. It’s also not a game I’ll be rushing to play again anytime soon, if ever. It can be finished in about an hour but there’s not much reason to return to be honest. It has left its mark on me, an emotional gaming scar that I won’t soon forget, but those looking for a gameplay first experience should very much look elsewhere.
If you’re willing to immerse yourself in some very dark, uncomfortable places – the hopeless and suffocating thoughts of a lonely man riddled with depression – then this fascinating, bonecrushing portrait of a man on the edge may very well be an experience for you. Be warned – Actual Sunlight is definitely not for the faint of heart.
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