Originally released in 2013 on the PC (later on other platforms, such as the Nintendo Switch), Actual Sunlight has been called one of the deepest insights into mental health and depression in gaming and has become a highly regarded lost gem in the indie gaming genre.
It is also a game that a majority of casual gamers (myself included) will have never heard of. I only came across Actual Sunlight through a recent video on my YouTube subscription feed, which compelled me to see if it could depict depression in a realistic light, especially since whatever the medium, depression and mental illness is extremely difficult to depict accurately and realistically.
By its end of its runtime, I was left in disbelief at how frighteningly accurate Actual Sunlight was. As such, there is a link to suicide prevention helplines for each country, should anyone feel the need to avail of them.
Less of a game, more of a visual novel
From this point on, I will not refer to Actual Sunlight as a game because I do not think it is one. Calling it a game implies that there is something entertaining about it; Actual Sunlight is not what I would describe as entertainment. If anything, it is more like a short interactive visual novel, albeit a very short and bleak one.
Its creator, WIll O’Neill, makes it explicitly clear that Actual Sunlight is nothing like a typical gaming experience and provides a necessary warning about what the player can expect when plugging in to its roughly two-hour story, which can be found wherever Actual Sunlight is for sale or on its about page.
“[Actual Sunlight] deals with extremely mature themes, including depression and thoughts of suicide. Similar to other forms of art that tackle these issues, Actual Sunlight can be an extremely powerful emotional experience – before downloading it, please first consider what your reaction to a book, film or piece of music in a similar vein might be.”
O’Neill also conducted an interview in 2015 describing the motivations behind creating Actual Sunlight, which is well worth watching to get a good grasp at what his intentions were while creating Actual Sunlight before diving into it.
The brief narrative places you in the shoes of Evan Winter, an overweight thirty-something from Toronto, whose life is a constant cycle of going to work everyday doing a job he finds no joy in, having a love life which is non-existent, having no friends to confide in, while all the time lying to his parents, co-workers, and neighbours that he is fine.
Evan also uses gaming and masturabtion as thinly-veiled painkillers, which do little more than stave off the voice in the back of his head telling him to “go to the roof of the [apartment]building and jump off.” These are thoughts which no one should ever have to contemplate.
You live through a few days of Evan’s life, getting an insight into how he “interacts” with the people and objects around him (I use the word “interacts” at a stretch), interspersed with snippets of conversations with his psychologist, some of Evan’s writing ideas, and an imaginary interview (which appears at the start), all of which paint a picture of a man struggling to keep himself together.
Hits uncomfortably close to home
Like its protagonist, Actual Sunlight only works when looking at its themes and essay-styled dialogue from a first-person perspective – and when you do, if you can in any way relate to the themes of Evan’s story, you will quickly find that it hits uncomfortably close to home.
Speaking from personal experience with depression during my childhood and teenage years, it was how I felt at a couple of moments. It forced me to take a step back and to turn Evan’s struggle into a metaphorical mirror reflecting back at me my own worst memories and thoughts.
From being caught in the middle of an extremely bitter break-up between my parents to lacking confidence from dealing with being bullied in school, amongst other things, it made me both empathise and sympathise with Evan, as I have known those intense feelings at one point. Thankfully, those memories are nearly a decade removed from the present day, and I am in a generally good frame of mind. However, I had not expected for this experience to bring them back to the forefront of my mind.
I cannot stress enough that I would discourage anyone who does not feel in a stable frame of mind to put themselves through experiencing Actual Sunlight; not because it is not worth your time, but because of the possibility of seeing the notion of suicide as a way out, as the conclusion to Evan’s story implies (however, this is left open-ended).
However, if you are someone who has felt like they have been to hell and back and have come out the other side, then this will make you not only feel deeply reflective on your past, but you might also feel a greater appreciation as to how far you have grown since being in whichever dark place you found yourself in.
O’Neill himself breaks the fourth wall early on in the story to offer younger people a message that they can find a way out of the darkness, and to keep moving forward and create a better future:
“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.”
This message is slightly soured by Will saying during this fourth wall break, saying “if you’re under 25, you can still make it.” I respectfully disagree with that sentiment, as I like to believe that you can pull yourself from the pit of despair at any point in your life. However, I do not think it a fair point of criticism, as he is describing life from his own perspective while creating Actual Sunlight, it is reasonable to think that Will’s frame of mind was still somewhat fragile.
An experience which lends perspective
Actual Sunlight achieves something that I do not think I have come across in any other experience as a casual gamer; it offers a unique opportunity for those who may have been fortunate enough to not have had any mental health issues to empathize with and understand why someone might be at the end of their mental rope.
Actual Sunlight also has another critically important takeaway, and one I sincerely hope everyone who experiences this short story takes from it. It gives those who feel mentally trapped within their own minds that one thing they longed for, but believe is not there – a voice which understands their pain, and understands there is nothing to be ashamed of with feeling alone, dejected, and depressed.
Despite it not being particularly hopeful, and while it does focus on some of the events and triggers which can drive someone to take their life, it should not be seen as ill-intended as a message, given that O’Neill himself has said the story was written from an autobiographical perspective.
If anything, it only adds to its sense of realism. It is exactly how a person with depression would think – they are so blindsided, they would see nothing but hopelessness around them. However, it is a lie depression tells its victim to allow those feelings to grow inside them. Unfortunately, it is a necessary one needed for this story to be told effectively. In the words of O’Neill himself, “art deserves the truth”. Actual Sunlight does that statement justice.
Just as O’Neill broke the fourth wall to give his message, I will end this reaction with a message of my own, from someone who has felt similar feelings to O’Neill at one point in my life:
If you are feeling lost, alone, or are perhaps lacking purpose, remember there are people who care for you, appreciate you, and want only the best for you, and even though they may not express it often enough, they do feel that their lives are enriched by you being a part of it.
Despite the negativity you might be feeling, if you have only one positive thing that is a part of your life, whether it is someone you care for, a cause you unshakably believe in, or have something you love to do that gives you an unlimited sense of joy and freedom, then you have already built a life that is worthwhile.
Lastly, show compassion, empathy, and love to those who have only known pain; try to show forgiveness to those who have wronged you; most importantly, show the people who mean the world to you how much you care, because for any one of us, tomorrow could be too late.
If you live in Ireland, you can contact Pieta House anonymously on (1800) 247 247 for support. If you are reading this from anywhere else around the world, this page offers contact details for helplines available in your country.