CW: Depression, suicide.
Just a quick warning to give to anyone thinking of playing this; this game is absurdly bleak. When I say this, I don’t even mean bleak as in it will make you cry or anything; I’m talking that this game can completely shatter your sense of hope. If you suffer from depression or have had suicidal thoughts, this game will trigger them; especially if you are around the age of thirty. So yes, it goes without saying that the writing in this game is powerful, almost too powerful in fact.
The reason for this is just how well it puts you into the mindset of someone who suffers from severe depression. It pulls no punches and hits the player with every depressing detail; and it does so by making you care about your main character. If you have ever wanted to know what suffering from depression is like, there is no better game than this.
Actual Sunlight is part of a sub genre of adventure games that I personally like to call “RPG Maker movies.” Generally, these games are made in RPG Maker, but feature no real gameplay other than walking around and making choices. One of the more well known examples of this specific subgenre is To the Moon, for example. This type of approach is different from visual novels in that you can see the characters moving around on screen, but there is less of a focus on the art style.
The game’s sound effects and animations are all well placed and give off their desired effects perfectly as well. What is also handled well are Evan’s thoughts being simple text on a black background, which creates a perfect contrast to the overworld animations. The music, while not particularly memorable, is very effective based on the circumstances and is used well. However, this is the type of game that is driven entirely by its story and writing; as such, they are most critical elements to making this game good. Thankfully, Actual Sunlight excels in this category.
At first glance, Actual Sunlight looks very similar to Depression Quest in terms of central themes and approach to design. Both games are very short and can be completed in about an hour or so, and both deal with a man who has heavy feelings of self loathing and social anxiety. Lastly, both are meant to show exactly what it is like living with clinical depression, and the sense of hopelessness and despair that comes with it.
What makes all of the difference here is the execution, and everything Depression Quest does wrong, Actual Sunlight does right. Actual Sunlight stars Evan, a 30 year old man who is stuck at a dead end job, has very little social interaction, is overweight, and has very little motivation. Right away, one can see that there is no attempt to glorify anything. No “you’re being too hard on yourself and everyone actually loves you” messages here.
Normally, stories touching on depression tend to have our main characters be overly harsh on themselves when they are actually much better than they think and that people care about them. While this is definitely true in some cases, there are others were life is simply much more harsh. The way that others perceive Evan is left mostly ambiguous and we only see Evan’s thoughts. What really makes them interesting though is how they are framed. Instead of simply being told straightforward through a narration, they are told using framing devices such as Evan speaking to a therapist, or him speaking about his book on a television interview.
However, what makes these sequences interesting is that it is revealed early on that these are not actually happening. They are, instead, made up scenarios that Evan plays out in his mind. It is through this framing device that the harsh tone of the narration makes much more sense. This is Evan’s mind speaking directly to him telling him he should kill himself.
This also explains why there is never any attempt to tell Evan or the player that things are okay, or that suicide is even the wrong choice. This is not like It’s A Wonderful Life where all of your friends appear to save you from suicide and show you how important you really are. The closest you get to this is a message to players confirming to anyone in their early 20s that they are NOT in Evan’s position, despite the similarities they may see. Since they are still young, they have a chance to make sure they succeed later in life by planning ahead. Despite it seeming like a nice gesture at first, it becomes much more horrifying when one considers that it is basically saying that if you ARE around Evan’s age, then you are pretty much screwed and cannot do anything to save yourself.
Some critics of the game have claimed that it sends a poor portrayal of depression because it reinforces the belief that depressives can’t do anything to help themselves. They say that, because Evan takes several self destructive behaviors and does not try to seek any form of therapy, that he is bringing it on himself. What these people are missing is that this is one of the major points regarding Actual Sunlight’s approach to its narrative. This portrayal of what depression, when left untreated, can ultimately lead to.
I myself suffer from severe depression and have had very strong suicidal thoughts in the past. As such, a lot of what was going on throughout this game was very familiar. Evan, as a character, is one who very much knows well that he is doing nothing good for himself and that his actions are self destructive. Despite this, he goes ahead with them anyway because he does not know any better and his own mind is actively driving him to.
Human beings are often times, slaves to their own emotions. Despite knowing what the logical choice is, they often do not go with it because they are already set in their own ways and it is too difficult to stop. The reason these people turn to suicide is because they are so weakened emotionally that they believe ending it all will be easier than going through what they need to do in order to change. Of course, people who know nothing about depression will just assume that they need a more positive attitude when it is not that simple.
Ultimately, that is why Actual Sunlight succeeds so well at portraying depression; it successfully puts you into the mind of someone who suffers from depression. It does not just tell you what clinical depression is like, it shows you. You see firsthand what it is like, and for someone who does not suffer from it, this will be an eye opening experience. However, even as a standalone story, Actual Sunlight is brilliantly written. You will get attached to Evan’s character, and that will just make his downward spiral all the harsher. The only problem with this game is that it can be a bit too effective, to the point where it may be alienating to some who view gaming as an escape. Otherwise, this game is a must play.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on September 10th of 2015, and has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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