Actual Sunlight is a game about suicide. Primarily a visual novel, but with player participation, it's a superbly written, but ultimately incredibly dark and hopeless game. I think it's also a very good game, and I find it terrifying to write about. As such, at the bottom of this post there are links to phone numbers for every country's suicide prevention helplines. It's a bleak to play, so please feel forewarned.
There's something enticing about an eloquent misanthrope. That vicarious opportunity to hate, hate, hate, while still being entertained by a nice turn of phrase or particularly effective jab. It's like observation comedy for the bitter - "Yes! I hate that too!"
Actual Sunlight is about the other side of it all. It's about 28 year old Evan Winters, who has mostly given up. It's about his misery, his depth of depression, voiced through his talented writing. From the game's opening moments-
"Why Kill Yourself Today When You Could Masturbate Tomorrow?
By Evan Winter"
-you read his missives, enjoy the dark bitterness of his perspective on many matters, all while guiding him through the mundanity of his life. And get sadder and sadder.
Winter, and by proxy the game's creator Will O'Neill, has a great skill with aphorisms. Winter says to a colleague in his office,
"All I'm saying is the worst thing about nice things is the people who can afford them."
It's a line that perfectly captures the tone of this really extraordinary game. It's a brilliant line - in fiction. Whether growled into a microphone, or uttered by the wacky-faced comic wiggling a cigar at the side of his mouth, it deserves a laugh. But say it reality and it's genuinely nasty. It's dripping with hate. His colleague reacts sadly, because you would.
Winter's worldview is bleak, but ultimately selfish. His is a depression formed of the despising of others' success, rather than his own failure. Worst, his perspective is driven by an incredibly hollow pretence at a philosophy of recognising the unfairness of society. He bemoans an existence with an education, food, shelter, but there are so many without, so who is he to... carry on complaining in his educated, well-fed shelter.
His hypocrisy makes him unlikeable, and yet his writing is absolutely compelling. And you get so much of it. In his opening written monologue he opines at the aforementioned disparity in conditions, and concludes,
"There has never been a better time in the history of mankind to be completely, cripplingly, devastatingly alone, and yet here you are: Thinking about giving up on the good times. Not realising that you still have so much to live for - that there is still so much to jerk off to."
A review of A. Wake he's posted on SomethingAwful contains the line,
"It's not great that the game has ten different endings that require over a hundred hours of average playtime to see - that's just a way of making you feel like you could be special, which is exactly what you never have."
His own instructions for assembling a chest of drawers in his bedroom finishes,
"6. Turn structure around completely, exposing open rear side of dresser, and remove top drawer entirely, rendering entire dresser as giant open hole.
7. Realise that nobody will probably ever see how fucked up this is, that it wouldn't be a criteria if any girl was actually willing to come here in the first place, and that you're probably just going to leave all of your clothes hanging over furniture or stuck in the dryer anyways."
So Evan is amusing and unlikeable. But this is a game about depression, and his being unlikeable becomes far more complex. Yes, he's unlikeable because he's a prick about everything, but he's a prick about everything because he's mentally ill. Transcripts of possible moments with a therapist delve further into this, but the inevitability toward which the game is aiming for a breakdown is perhaps its most harrowing aspect.
So much so that in the earliest moments, creator O'Neill has a moment of panic, and interrupts his own narrative. A message to any young people playing the game that they live with opportunity to change their destiny, rather than view this game as an inevitability of their depression. It's not pat, it's raw. "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." Emotionally, he ends this intervention with the words,
"Don't you fucking dare."
By the time everything is falling apart (even O'Neill himself notes in that message near the start, "It's also pretty clear where all of this is headed"), those excellent lines are still coming.
"ALCOHOLIC VOMIT IS COOLNESS LEAVING THE BODY
By Evan Winters"
But what follows is just pure wretchedness. It's the gruesomely honest version of the humorous hate from before. It's the anger stripped of its safety nets. And from then on, it's an inexorable descent toward suicide.
Actual Sunlight is a brutal depiction of a man's life self-destructing, and it's a game whose central character can only find hope in his own death. And as such, his own death is the only hopeful moment in the game. Which is just beyond uncomfortable.
So as O'Neill interrupts his own game to give his message, I am interrupting my own review with my own: Actual Sunlight depicts the sense of hopelessness that drives a person to suicide, and because it's presented from a first-person narrative, it only comprehends that hopelessness, and dismisses any possibility for things to get better. And that's a lie. A lie necessary for this story to be so well told, but a lie depression tells a depressed person.
There's always hope. There is, no matter what a depressed mind will think, always a way for things to get better, for life to offer more hope than death. This game honestly captures the deception that there's not for this one fat, 30-something man, but it is a deception, and there always is hope. And I say this as a fat, 30-something man with anxiety depression. I appeal to anyone who finds their own feelings echoed in Actual Sunlight to recognise the catharsis of being understood, certainly, but to hear another voice, one saying that hope always exists. If you're in the UK, the Samaritans can be called, anonymously, at any time on 08457 909090, or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're in the US, the NSPL are at 1-800-273-8255. If you're anywhere else, this page has links to every nation's own line.
Actual Sunlight can be downloaded for free from here.