by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
Depression: A Story Well Known
First and foremost, I must say that Actual Sunlight is less of a game and more of an artistic display of one of the most common human ailments: depression. It's something that almost everyone will experience at some point in their lives, sometimes it's minor and sometimes it's severe. Sometimes, it has you questioning the point in living. It may or may not have you contemplating suicide. Actual Sunlight is a very dark game that puts you in the shoes of a man who finds himself beaten down by life, but not in the manner you might expect.
He lives decently, with food in his stomach and a roof over his head. He has a decently paying job. He is unhappy with himself, and the mediocrity that has become the 'high point' of his life. He constantly tells himself that it could be worse, and at the same time he can't shake the feeling of worthlessness. When investigating these sorts of themes, it is important to remember that there is always a way out of depression. You may have to fight tooth and nail, but there is always a way. Sadly, this is not the case for our protagonist...
A Gray Cloud Of Bleak Emotion
The game starts off with a strong narrative from the beginning. Ethan Winter keeps hitting the snooze button on his alarm and every time he drifts back to sleep it goes to his thoughts dwelling on an appointment with his doctor. This is truly the central theme of the game: conversations with NPCs serve as a very brief foreground before entering Ethan's thoughts and constant internal monologues as he battles conflicting emotions. Sometimes, sparingly, he will be able to see the bright side of things while at others he is pulled further and further into his own madness.
As you take control of Ethan after this first initial dwelling on the words of his doctor, you will be met quickly with the most simplistic of control schemes: Arrows to move, Z or Enter to interact with objects and people in the world. INTERACT WITH EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE, I cannot stress that enough. Most of this game plays out more in what you read than what you actually do and it is spread through three environments: Ethan's apartment complex, Ethan's place of employment, and the streetcar that shuffles him back and forth through what he feels is a wasted existence. Interaction is the saving grace of what would otherwise make this a short, boring title trying to pull people in with a unique perspective that doesn't live up to the promises.
Day In, Day Out
Thankfully, this game is anything but boring. Through the expert writing of Will O'Neill, Actual Sunlight has managed to take the player to a dark part of the human psyche. As someone who dealt with a serious battle with depression in my past (though never to the point that Ethan does) I can say that the writing is stellar. It really captures all the feelings of hopelessness and emotional fatigue that I remember from that daunting time in my life.
Before the game gets really emotionally heavy, Will does a service to the player and issues a word of warning in game combined with an uplifting message: if you are depressed, you can rise above it. Even if Ethan cannot, you can. However, even on that note I would not suggest this game if you are battling thoughts of suicide. Come back to it down the road when you have fought your battles, and risen above what has kept you down.
The people Ethan meets show that they are experiencing their own battles, some with sickness, others with marital problems, some wear a tough exterior only for it to crumble later, and it all serves the overall narrative that everyone has problems. And everyone deals with them differently for better or worse.
Despite the excellent writing and compelling story, the lack of an actual game in this title leaves a lot to be desired. Granted there is only so much you can do with a title like this, but I still can't help but wonder what could've occurred if we were allowed more interaction? What if Ethan was allowed more interaction with those in his life than the one-track dialogue we are presented with? Could there have been room for a change in Ethan's life for the better? The only real choice the player is ever presented with in the game is to delay the inevitable.
The game is also incredibly short; my first playthrough offered up exactly 74 minutes of gameplay including the main menu and closing credits. To give credit, though, for such a short experience I felt more emotion from this title than anything I've played before. The main faults rest solely on the linearity and length in what is otherwise a great look at depression in an artistic medium. I was also impressed to see a game made on RPG Maker VX Ace that was so enjoyable - often the products of the RPG Maker series serve as a way for a creative mind to explore ideas, rather than making it to a level where it can actually capture an audience.
A well written, emotionally driven look at depression and what it can do to someone presented in various manners from character interaction to internal monologues.
Very little actual gameplay, took just over an hour to beat.