As a warning, Actual Sunlight contains themes and descriptions of depression and suicidal ideation. If these things are triggering for you, you might want to avoid reading the rest of this review.
Set the alarm for 5 AM. Press snooze for 2 more hours. Get up. Shower. Go down to the street cart for a breakfast. Ride the bus in silence. Work. Go home. Sleep. Repeat ad nauseam. Evan Winters is not a happy man.
There are monsters to fight and no damsels to save. The challenge in Actual Sunlight is to stop your character from killing himself. Evan Winters is driven by his failures and by his inaction. He is angry, yes, but mostly he’s stuck. A corporate drone in his mid-30′s, Winters is alone, unhappy and fat. There is a layer of anger there as well, a product of the women that wouldn’t love him and the man he could never successfully be.
DOCTOR: You’ve had access to education and security. You’re a white male. There’s a great deal of privilege intertwined with nearly everything about who you are.
EVAN: I don’t know. I feel an awful lot like a member of that club in name and sight only. I don’t have some friend with a cottage, I’ve never participated in any mud-based fitness challenges, and there are no adorable blondes meeting me for blind dates at ironic board game cafes…
There are layers to how I feel about this game. On one hand, I believe it should be lauded for it’s successful ability to depict depression. In Winters life, there is little wrong. He has a job, a family that calls to check on him, a friend who checks on his well-being. He is making a comfortable amount of money. He doesn’t have a family, but it seems like he does not initiate contact with other people. That is why the depression feels real – his suffering is internal.
Most of the game is depicted by light action, moving to an object, and then hearing an internal monologue about personal failure. This is both a strength and a weakness of the game as a whole. On one hand, the language is right for the portrait created of Winters as a man stuck. On the other hand, having to listen to his middle-aged white-man angst is a bit overwhelming. Actual Sunlight is punctuated by Winters feeling that the world owes him something. That isn’t to say that he is mad at the world — for the most part the rage seems internal. He is a frustrating character to play because he lacks the drive or desire to do anything other than what is expected of him, and is clearly heading towards the inevitability of his own demise.
Linearity is a concern here. It becomes rapidly apparent that there is no way to “save” Evan Winters. He is stuck. There is even an authors note inside the game that alludes to this inevitable conclusion. In some ways, this is a weakness. There is strength in the utilization of inevitability, of forcing a character through scenes that they know will be uncomfortable, of heading towards a precipice that cannot be avoided. In this case, the tone of Actual Sunlight as well as the linearity creates a feeling of despair that permeates beyond the monitor.
Ultimately, the game is of note, primarily for its accurate depiction of depression. The art in the game is also interesting, with a combination of some of the standard RPG Maker assets as well as some beautifully done stills of the main characters.
The game was recently Greenlit, and should be live on Steam today. You can check out more, or buy the game directly from the developer, at the Actual Sunlight website.