Videogames aren’t very eloquent when it comes to expressing complex themes and emotions, despite the protestations of some art-minded gamers. Obviously things are getting better in this regard, as the industry goes through a state of developmental adolescence — ideas are now being communicated in a far maturer manner, but games still have some growing up to do. Well, at least in my opinion. However, every so often a title like Actual Sunlight comes along, handling weighty topics with assured confidence and making us realize how impactful the gaming medium can be. This piece of short interactive fiction, developed by Will O’Neill, has themes of depression and loneliness, and is absolutely free to play in its current form.
You play as Evan Winter, a sufferer of depression with feelings of isolation and worthlessness. The player slowly learns more about the mentality of the character throughout the game, from snippets of conversation, psychiatric transcripts, and journal entries, all presented against the backdrop of Evan’s mundane day-to-day existence. For this dynamic to work, obviously the game has to be entirely linear, with a large reliance on text-based exposition. If there is one thing about Actual Sunlight that is questionable, it is the fact that player interaction is minimal — you will spend most of your time bashing the space bar to progress lines of text. However, I don’t feel that this cheapens the experience at all, and the lack of player agency reflects the seemingly uncontrollable nature of the protagonist’s life.
I’m keen for this not to devolve into the ever-tedious ‘games as art’ debate, as it’s a pointless and cyclical discussion to which I see no positive conclusion. I’m a philistine who plays videogames, not an art critic. However, one thing I do know is that Actual Sunlight provoked a deep response in me, a feeling that few other games have managed to evoke. Evan’s doom-laden assessment of life, relationships and the corporate world is written in such a way as to make the player consider their own lives, and there are clear attempts to draw parallels between the gamer and the character. It’s hard to say much about the game without damaging the impact of the first play-through, but I hope my explanation has been enough to at least pique your interest.