After wasting a few afternoons crawling my way laboriously through Yaughton in Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, I wasn’t terribly excited to be re-entering the world of narrative-heavy games any time soon. I had heard of Actual Sunlight when it first released on PC, but now that it’s on Vita, I set aside an hour or so and played through the short story of Evan Winter, a young man suffering from depression.
While it doesn’t hold much water as a video game, Actual Sunlight is a fascinating, if brief, look at what depression does to those who live with it, offering insight into an invisible monster that many people can’t comprehend.
The story follows Evan, a young businessman living with crippling depression who serves as a surrogate for writer/creator Will O’Neill. Rather than focus on what’s happening in Evan’s life, Actual Sunlight finds players interacting with various people and objects, which gives O’Neill the chance to wax philosophical on the ways depression impacts Evan’s view of the world. Most of what Evan thinks about the world is unpleasant to say the least, although I never found him unlikable because of this.
Although I’ve never dealt with depression myself, I’ve watched friends do their best to cope with the disease while living normal lives. No matter what anybody says, it’s impossible to understand just what it does to those who deal with it. Having O’Neill implant us into Evan’s mind gives us the best glimpse we might get, eschewing metaphors and similes for blocks of text detailing Evan’s dreams being crushed by his own psyche.
It’s understandable that a lot of people don’t sympathize with Evan or even particularly like the guy, but a lot of his observations of life have crept into my head before. When he details how hard it is to give up overeating because of the comfort food can represent, it’s hard not to think back on failed diets or late night binges that leave a tinge of shame come morning. Evan’s sneering cynicism cuts through the practices of corporate businesses, echoing many people’s weariness at working for a company that sees them as an asset rather than a person.
I honestly found myself hoping for a triumphant ending, something that would find Evan overcoming his depression and embracing the truism that living well is the best revenge. Instead, each event pushes him closer and closer to the literal and metaphorical ledge, and all we can do is watch and cooperate as he reaches the end of his rope.
Although most of the game is drenched in this negativity, O’Neill himself breaks the fourth wall to plead with those working through depression to realize that life does get better. This short commentary saves Actual Sunlight from coming off as a parody of depression, instead showing what life will be like if someone with the disease lets it overtake their will to go on.
Despite the heavy subject matter, O’Neill actually sneaks some humor into the writing as well, albeit extremely dark humor. Barely clocking in at an hour, Actual Sunlight isn’t easy to get through in one sitting, but it benefits greatly from such a short running time. Forcing gamers to face this amount of negativity for any longer would be somewhat cruel, but the humor does help to soften some of the heavier blows.
Actual Sunlight isn’t the best example of how interactive storytelling should be done, especially given its extremely narrow linear plot. There’s not much agency on the player’s end aside from moving Evan, interacting with a small amount of objects and reading through blocks of text. It’s easy to say that O’Neill would have been better off making a movie or writing a story, but the interactivity, limited as it is, helps hammer the helplessness of depression home.
The port to Vita, although a few years late, works perfectly fine. It’s a solid title for the portable world, and the old-school adventure visual style looks great on the handheld. If you’ve already experienced the story, though, there’s no reason to return on a different console.
While many people claim that suicide as a result of depression is a selfish act that doesn’t take into consideration the feelings of those around the victim, Actual Sunlight refutes this by examining the mindset of somebody thinking about ending it all. In their mind, they’re doing the world a favor, releasing themselves from a burden that nobody can carry without going insane. It’s almost a relief when the inevitable end of the game is reached, and it certainly feels that way for Evan.
As a game, Actual Sunlight doesn’t offer much of anything, but it tells a short story that is extremely important and valuable in exposing just how crippling depression can be even when others can’t see it. It’s much more of an experience than a game, and while it’s unpleasant for most of its duration, it’s ultimately been beneficial for those who are looking for someone who truly understands what they’re going through. It’s a game that offers empathy to those who need it the most.
This review is based on a PlayStation Vita version of the game given to us for review purposes.
Actual Sunlight's unique interactive story offers a grim look at the way depression weighs on those who suffer with it.