For a terrible moment, Actual Sunlight convinced me to kill myself. The moment was not long, maybe ten seconds at most, but it was palpable, real and terrifying. It’s a place I had never been to before, have never returned to since, and I hope the visit was a once in a lifetime experience. It is important to note, however, that in the moment, the passing thought did not scare me. In fact, the fear was the first sign that the thought had passed. During the moment, I felt resolved, I felt content. For those ten seconds, I felt better.
A funny thing about human beings is their total inability to handle cognitive dissonance. We have a strong genetic distaste for nuance, for nuance is complicated and nuance takes time, and when you’re not at the top of a food chain, it’s preferable to have things both quick and simple. Now that we’ve unburdened ourselves of that predicament for a few hundred thousand years, cognitive dissonance is far easier to experience, yet no less of a nightmare, psychologically speaking. The very definition of the term lets us know that “The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.”
The simple idea of cognitive dissonance is that it is the psychological experience of contradiction. We feel it it when we hold two thoughts in opposition, or when our actions betray our values and beliefs. It’s what you feel when laughing at a joke which punches down. Many people’s reaction to calls that a work they like is racist or sexist is to ignore, to get to that consonance as easily as possible without having to push through and change. It is why it is so hard to escape the status quo, it is why it is so hard to change deeply held beliefs. It is why we have to always actively try to be a good person. Our brains want avoid it at all costs.
To explain it from a completely different perspective in terms the kids will understand, have a timely as fuck reference.
Morpheus, who is always right, turns to our hero and says “You have to let it all go, Neo. fear, doubt, disbelief.” To achieve ones aims, one must not waste time on worry, regret and other such dead ends, they must achieve consonance. This is an idea that’s been around since literally forever, it is a core sentiment of many a religion, and it is as necessary to a popcorn flick as saving a cat. The human race sucks so much at dealing with cognitive dissonance that it is the villain of Star Wars. He takes off his visor!
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to push through it, it simply means that we should be aware that our brains are literally conspiring against us, they yearn for simplicity. Holding onto complexity is a constant battle. One needs to look no further than game criticism for evidence of this, from the prevalence of metacritic, to how many people just care about the score in a review, to end of the year lists. Psychologically, it is just easier to know whether a thing is good or bad, and move the hell on. Neo’d never make the jump if he was too busy thinking “I love so much of Mass Effect 3, but I hate the ending, what do I do?!” Despite how we know it is not accurate to reality, our brains would simply prefer to see games, or any art, as complete and whole, and able to be qualitatively judged. The same is true of people, and any one of them is way more complex than Mass Effect 3.
The way we judge anything is specifically through its relationship to us. Neo (in this analogy) is coming to Mass Effect 3 as a fan of the prior two games, which he played whilst listening to his sweet illegal minidiscs that he holds so dear. He loves those characters (he plays FemShep and romances Thane, obviously), he loves that universe, and wanted nothing more than an emotional conclusion to the story which he’d been so attached to for so many years. He cried like he’d never cried before when Thane told him that his prayer was for Shepard. He cried as Legion sacrificed himself for the greater good of the collective, and used the pronoun “I” for the first time. When he reached that ending, it was not a lacklustre section of a video game designed and created by hundreds, if thousands of individuals, it was a visceral and personal betrayal. He did not care about the artistry in the final areas, he did not care about the quality of the voice acting, he was coming at it with a specific perspective, and judging against specific, emotional criteria.
I have to stop that analogy there because it’s the worst and the last two things I want to write about are the Matrix and Mass Effect 3, and yet here we are. However, it is to illustrate a larger point: although we are aware of the multiple ways in which we can interpret things, cognitive dissonance is painful; our brains only have space for one, and it is always the one that affects us most directly, and fighting against that aspect of psychology is hard. We know, intellectually speaking, that Steve’s having a hard time at home, and he needs space and time to recover, but christ, isn’t he such an asshole?
Actual Sunlight is a game bursting with complexity, and I suspect this may have something to do with its lack of profile, compared to say, Depression Quest, a game with similar aims and themes which has blown up in the indie space. Both are games I would recommend first and foremost to people without depression, to better understand what living with the illness is like. Both are games that evoke a strong sense of melancholy, and both are intensely personal tales from their creators. But what Depression Quest strives to make clear, Actual Sunlight strives to make difficult. Where Depression Quest offers empathy, Actual Sunlight offers distance. Where Depression Quest finds hope, Actual Sunlight finds the proof of hopelessness. Do not take this to mean Actual Sunlight is confusing, distant and hopeless, for whilst it is, it is also the opposite. It is, despite appearances, a complex game.
The core success of Depression Quest is the core success of any great piece of populist entertainment with something artistically meaningful to say: clarity. It communicates its ideas through a single, powerful mechanic, which in this case is the subversion and illusion of choice. It presents you a list of options, with the one that would solve everything right there, but crossed out and unable to be clicked. Immediately it communicates to someone who’s never so much as had a low day, that depression is not having no answers, depression is knowing the answers and being unable to choose them. The rest of the game is well written, well scored and well paced, but everything hangs on a single mechanic, which allows the game to share its ideas directly to the player in a manner that leave them satisfied.
On the other hand, Actual Sunlight extends no such courtesy to the player. Mechanically, there is no way to influence the story, nor is there a surfacing of the ways in which you cannot influence the story. You must continue forward along this path which very clearly leads nowhere good, constantly fighting the system, constantly searching for the option you may have missed which can maybe improve the state of things, even just a little bit. The player has two choices: to stop trying to find anything that helps, or to continue trying and grow increasingly frustrated. Now what does that sound like to you? Actual Sunlight is a far more effective simulation of depression, but a far less effective communication.
The game is the story of Evan Winters, an overweight man in his mid-30s, trapped in a lonely life, with an awful job, and generally nothing to live for. It opens with a black screen, and the quotation:
“Why kill yourself today, when you could masturbate tomorrow?”
It sets the tone from the off. Despite the fact that it is very much about human empathy, Actual Sunlight is not attempting to be an ’empathy game’ in the traditional sense, although it contains many of the hallmarks of the genre (in that it is a game intended to portray what it is like to be in a certain situation). The main difference is the manner in which the story is framed, unlike Depression Quest, or Cart Life, or I Get This Call Every Day, you never get the sense you are playing as Evan Winters. You are an invisible companion on his journey, the disconnect between player and player character is fully enforced by the writing and design.
There are no conversation wheels, there are no dialogue trees, there are no branching story paths. You control your character in a space, and interact with objects to gain insight into them, and the world around them. Many reviews and write-ups are quick to stress that Actual Sunlight is not really a game, instead more of an interactive narrative, but by the previous sentence it is clearly has no less “game” than your average corridor shooter. I don’t want to get into these not-a-game arguments, because I feel I’d be dignifying them with an undeserved response, but I think in this case, the reasoning is interesting and it all comes down to immersion.
We say games are often power fantasies, but what does that mean? First and foremost, it usually means allowing the player to inhabit the skin of someone cool, powerful and successful. The only difference here is that Evan Winters is the opposite of those things, an uncool, weak failure. A game is your story (Neo is not witnessing the story of Shepard, he is Shepard, and Thane is in love with him), but an interactive narrative is not. It is someone else’s story, and thinking it as such allows you distance. Whereas many games, in order to increase the player’s empathy with the main character, would attempt to encourage self-insertion, Actual Sunlight actively discourages it. There is a phenomenal level of specificity to the situations, the writing is confrontational, and even occasionally breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the player. You are not invited to imagine yourself in this situation, you are in conversation with Evan, you are a witness to his psychosis, you are told how Evan is feeling and never once allowed an opportunity to change it. You do not fight his depression, you do not even experience it.
All you do is enable it.
Leigh Alexander, whom I follow on twitter, posted something once that hit me like a truck: “dating someone who has no friends is like entering a field where suddenly, no birds are calling.” Truly lonely people are very rare, and usually they’re that way for a reason. It can be bad for you, emotionally and sometimes physically, to grow close to someone with certain kinds of mental illness. No one deserves to be alone, yet no one deserves to be in a situation that causes them pain of any kind. So what do we do for those whose very nature causes people close to them pain? It is one of those great pieces of cognitive dissonance.
That specific example is emblematic of the two main approaches to mental illness which we have in society today. One which comes from the perspective of the greater good, and so stigmatises mental illness and blames the individual: things like “get over it,” “it’s all in your head,” “you’re responsible for your own happiness so do something about it.” Or, one with more sympathy for the individual, so treats it as an illness and seeks to help: “that’s just the depression talking,” “it’s not your fault,” “focus on getting well.” But where does the illness end and the person begin? Such a separation is impossible and clearly cannot exist, and is a matter of looking at a complex matter simply. Even this paragraph, for the purposes of communication, simplified a cultural debate that’s been going on for centuries about responsibility, illness, wellbeing and public safety, into two broad sides.
For some, including myself, mental illness is a core part of a person’s identity. I cannot imagine what I would be were my brain differently wired. It has shaped me into the person I have become, for better and worse. We rarely talk about the worse.
The thing is, depression is ugly. It’s vicious, and it is mean. We all know about low moods, low motivation, and can romanticise it to an extent. The tortured artist, who creates beauty from his despair, unable to see how much joy he (and it is always he) brings to others. Truly, a tragic figure right there. He probably has curly hair, and plays guitar like no one else. But, unfortunately, he is not real. He is a shallow portrait of depression, perhaps not the easiest possible form to understand, but to accept. He has no sharp edges, he will not cut you if you get close.
The player experiences the story of Actual Sunlight in two main ways. First, there are moments where the screen goes black and we are presented with Evan’s internal monologue, in the form of various hypothetical situations – what he’d say were he on a talk show, what he’d say were he at the doctor’s, and most importantly, what he believes those people would say back to him. Evan here is at his most nakedly angry, he spits so much bile it would appear he has nothing but hatred inside of him. But these text screens reveal more than just “Evan is an angry person,” they reveal his sense of humour, they reveal his irrational hopes and dreams, they reveal his crippling self awareness.
Those are the moments in which you feel the most close to Evan, and the least in control. By having the screen go black, the illusion of Evan acting as player avatar is deliberately shattered, and highlights how this whole experience exists to explore the mind of a single person – as Will O’Neill says to the player on one of those occasions: “this is not a game, this is a portrait.” The writing that appears on these pages is where the game gets its complexity: it is dense text from an unreliable narrator, with layers of meanings peppered throughout.
In addition to this, Actual Sunlight features direct dialogue and interaction with a variety of characters, either at Evan’s work or outside his apartment building. It is here where the game gets structure, it is the emotional hook and way in for the player. Were the game just a formless section of opinions from a bitter thirty year old man, it would be far easier to just flat out disregard all the harmful opinions and self destructive ways of thinking that Evan reveals to the player in those private moments. But where that writing is specific, a mental collage and character study, the traditional narrative of the game is achingly familiar.
Gameplay employs monotony in the way many ’empathy games’ that were touched on earlier do. You shower. You go to work. You ride the subway. You live out the soulless routine of the current low level corporate employee, as the game lays bare the hypocrisy and cruelty of corporate society with surgical precision, describing the entire culture of those successful within capitalism as “”really just a bunch of white people pushing piles of money around in circles, while reality occurs in parts unknown.” When we get to see into Evan’s thought process, we see a deeply broken person, to whom relating with is probably a symptom of depression within yourself. But outside of that, the game asks: what broke him? Any human being is a product of their genes and their environment. What kind of environment produces someone like Evan? Produces thousands like him? How, and why, do we allow it to continue, and is it even possible to change?
The questions posed by Actual Sunlight are nigh on impossible to answer, and the game isn’t interested in trying. For whilst Evan may talk about large, societal concepts, the game works on the smallest scale, and is ultimately about the difficulty, and limits of empathy. By taking the player on a relatable journey with Evan, it gives you investment in his stakes, but by allowing his thought process to be separate from the player’s, it gives you distance from him. It is a game which actively punishes you, emotionally, for attempting to empathise with the main character.
Importantly, it is not as if the game starts out with Evan in a good place, falling to a bad place. It is not about how the corporate world can wear someone down, can take the potential from someone, for it is very easy to feel sorry for someone we already care about making bad choices. Actual Sunlight tells you at the start that there is no way for this to have a happy ending, it presents to you a character who’s view is already twisted and nasty, and then asks you to care, though you know that letting him in will hurt you. You know, intellectually speaking, that Evan’s depressed, trapped and needs help, but you can’t talk to him, you can’t relate to him, you can’t reasonably be expected to do that. Just like the corporate environment did to Evan, that will suck the soul out of you.
Because the worst thing about Evan Winters is how he is always right.
After all, how can he not be? He has considered every possibility and made his mind up long in advance of expressing a single thought or desire to change. Evan is clearly smart, and every single twisted position he holds has a whole book of evidence and logic to back it up. His intelligence is a prison, and every cell in his brain is dedicated to logically finding the worst in everything at all times. He has thought of the counter argument, the counter counter argument, and so on to the infinite power. No matter how cogent your argument may be to break him out of this self destructive journey before he hits the inevitable destination, you will not change his mind. He is always right.
That’s not the worst thing about him, though. That’s what depression is, at its most potent, your brain conspiring against you to make it seem like you have no hope, like there really is no good choice to make. It’s frustrating, but it’s something you can compartmentalise and understand to an extent. No, the worst thing about Evan Winters is how he is always right.
Actual Sunlight is by necessity, an unnecessarily angry game. The arguments Evan puts across in his imagination, and sometimes out loud to others in moments of weakness (or are they moments of strength?), are things we must not allow ourselves to believe they are true. We must not be cynical. We must not fall into despair. The game tells addresses you and tells you as much. But what if Evan’s right? For all the conclusions he draws are influenced by his skewed logic, Evan’s perceptions are extremely sharp and cutting. He makes valid points about the emptiness of many people’s lives, about the abusive system that is capitalism. He is self aware about the absurdity and unhelpfulness of his own positions, and as you play the game, you recognise the nuggets of truth, and are left to ponder the question:
What if Evan’s right?
I can’t remember how old I was when I realised that high self esteem existed. I was in my teens, at least. I’d been sold this narrative that we’re all fucked up, that we all struggle with body image, that we’re normal and need to remember that. I was never even able to contemplate the idea that someone may wake up and not be consumed with hate and disgust for the skin in which they live. It still seems like a foreign concept.
I truly realised I wasn’t slim at my 12th birthday party. I invited people from school around to mine for a sleepover, I was bullied and made to feel left out and alone at my own damn celebration. At some point, everyone took their shirts off for reasons lost to the years. I followed suit, and was bombarded with laughter and insults. I realised years later what had happened: they were just finding an excuse to show off their new muscles, to boast to each other about the gifts puberty had bared. But I, being larger and not toned in any way, should just put my shirt back on for the good of everyone else. I learned how little I mattered, how my very physical presence at my own party was bringing everyone else down. I wasn’t part of the normal people club, so I should kindly let them continue on their way.
Every six months or so, people in a passing car shout insults at me about how I look. Usually some combination about being ginger, chubby and having glasses, and yes, they’re always in a passing car, and there’s always a few of them. Such inspiring courage that they show. Once, my photo was shared by an acquaintance on facebook in the album “people so unattractive you have to feel sorry for them.” A comment from their friend read “looooooooooool, poor guy.” I got on the tram at Croydon to go home on a Friday night, a group of girls on a night out pointed at me and laughed as I walked down to find a seat. For years, the only times I was ever complimented on my looks were as a set up to a prank in which those conspiring would publicly reveal none of the compliments were true, it was all a lie, and no one would ever love me. That probably sounds familiar to many of you, because high school is the worst.
School was never easy for me. I didn’t pick up on social cues, I said the unfunny thing, I was a pretender trying to fit in. There were times throughout school in which I was physically bullied, but these were the easiest times. For me, being punched was refreshingly simple, I was a victim of an identifiable aggressor. Usually I was just quietly shunned, made fun of behind my back, pointed out as the weird one, and could never figure out why. To help me, my teachers told me how they were just kids who would grow out of it, that as I got older things would change, that I was just mature for my age, and soon the other kids would grow up too, and respect me. It was far too late when I realised how much they were lying.
As I went through, and finally left school, I got to see many of the people that made my life a living hell week in and week out, grow up into well liked, well adjusted, happy people. Obviously, you can’t assume everything about a person purely from observation, but you can tell how different you are. You can feel the ways in which all these acts have made you a hard person to like, made you coarse and untrusting. It might not be true, but you know that they don’t feel bad for what they did to you, for their individual actions were so small as to be negligible. It might not be true, but you know they’re never going to realise they were complicit in creating an environment that destroyed your entire youth. It might not be true, but you know they aren’t even going to remember you as you leave their lives, as anything other than occasionally “that odd kid in our class.”
It might not be true, but you know they’re going to have better lives than you. In a world in which you grow up with extremely popular stories about how the bad guys never win, about how help is given to those who deserve it, can you imagine what that realisation does to someone?
The one comfort people try to give is to tell you of how there are so many people across the world like you, that you are not, and do not have to be alone.
Like all of us, Evan Winters just wants to be loved. We live in a society obsessed with love and sex, but which is terrible at communicating the truth about either. We get so many contradictory messages growing up, that it’s hard to reach adulthood without the sheer volume of warring thoughts in your heads, the amount of cognitive dissonance that just comes to you as people try to say the right thing, leaving you scarred in some way, Alien vs Predator style. You’re told that you have to look a certain way, but that true love means people love you for who you are on the inside. You’re told that it doesn’t matter what others think of you, but that having friends who care about you is one of the most important things. You’re told that falling in love is just a thing that happens to you on the way to the natural endgame of life, whilst at the same time your mother is terrified about how you’re going to afford to live and eat now that your father is demanding half the money for the house.
Much of Actual Sunlight’s “love” story is inferred, whilst the depression is acutely conveyed through O’Neill’s sharp writing, and the chilling effects of corporate culture shown through the player forcing Evan through the motions, the player is rarely present during the two relationships Actual Sunlight presents. You see Evan’s opinions on love in the abstract, during many black screen segments, as he talks about how much it would mean to him to be wanted, even if for the wrong reasons. At one point, Evan talks about the choice between being “a bad-guy or a non-guy,” in a particularly moving moment of the game. Evan’s angry with everyone and everything, but on some level, he knows how much he’s hurting others with his attitudes, and he doesn’t want to hurt people he cares about. So he decides that the kindest thing he could do is to not even try. Is it selfless or selfish to completely stop trying, if everything you’ve tried has only hurt others? As always, Actual Sunlight doesn’t attempt to answer.
Evan isn’t just unsuccessful with relationships because of his depression and what it’s done to his brain, but because of the way he looks. A large part of Actual Sunlight deals with the psychological and physical issues that come with being overweight, around what it is like to have broken your body for no tangible benefit, except the fact that you know that when you eat something, you will feel better. Evan wrestles with the idea of losing weight in the abstract sequences, but never with the practicalities of doing so, for such a task would be too painful. Would it make him a happier person, or has he become so twisted that it doesn’t matter what improvements he makes to his body at this point, nothing will be able to bring a smile to his face, nor will anything he does be able to bring a smile to someone else? Having to find out the answer to that question would cause so much more pain than the effort involved with starting to exercise and diet. And besides, it’s been a terrible day at work, no one has talked to him in weeks, he may as well order a pizza just for today, just to get him through to tomorrow.
Whilst the easiest thing would be to shut down, to never have to bother anyone, to pretend he doesn’t want to fall in love, and just survive on his own bitterness, happy that he’s made the decision to make people’s lives better by removing himself from the equation, he still knows that: “sometimes you meet somebody, and you just… Don’t have a choice. Maybe all that pain just seems worth going through all over again.” This is the basis of his relationship with Tori, a pretty, cheery co-worker with whom Evan appears to have a stable, solid friendship, which is being slowly weighed down by his depression. This relationship is by far the least interesting aspect of the game, by design.
It’s your standard “fat guy likes hot girl, but quite clearly has no chance” story. We’ve heard it and seen it a million times before, and unlike other aspects of the game, it is strikingly simple. He is in love with her, she is not in love with him. The end. Despite all the mean things he says at other points, despite all the hate he spews, it is within this relationship that Evan is the most openly unlikable, because this is the one aspect of the game which isn’t covered in complexity. Evan still has his self-awareness, he still knows this goes nowhere good, but he switches it off and pushes on anyway. Usually Evan’s depression is so airtight that coming up with a counter argument against his view without rejecting the premise is impossible, but here not only is it possible, it is glaringly obvious. It creates a situation which reveals one of the saddest truths: Evan is somehow harder to like, the less depressed he is.
The relationship is comprised of only a couple of interactions, but the player can infer greater meaning from the moments they are there for. Tori is the only character which calls Evan on his bullshit, and still wants to talk to him afterwards. She does not like that part of Evan, but is still kind to him and genuinely wants better for him. The next time we see them, she’s quitting her job, getting married and cutting Evan out of her life. It is never made explicitly clear what Evan has done to upset her, or if he’s even done anything wrong at all, aside from be himself. In their final interaction, Evan says to her, “Damn, Tori. You sound more like me every day.” And he’s right, this Tori is sadder, almost as if the very act of being close to Evan has poisoned her somehow. Almost as if someone content, happy and adjusted, through their kindness, was put into a situation where they had to ask themselves that question: what if Evan is right?
Far more fascinating, however is the relationship that forms between Evan and Jackie. Whereas the dynamic between Evan and Tori is simply inevitable, the one between Evan and Jackie is inevitably complex. Jackie is disabled, described by Evan as “the kind of sick that doesn’t quite get you on disability – it just fucks with you dead in the middle of being able to have a job, but not able to be any good at it.” Evan occasionally accompanies her to the hospital, and as we meet Jackie, we see that he does genuinely care for her, in that he’s actually bitter about an injustice that doesn’t directly affect him. But unlike with Tori, in which he “can’t help it” and is just “in love,” here his depression is in full force, working against any chance these two have of being friends, let alone partners. Evan describes accompanying her to a hospital appointment, but he’s really describing his perspective on their entire relationship, with heartbreaking indifference: “She was alone. I was around.”
We barely get to know Jackie, compared to how we get to know Tori. This is because, like Evan, she is extremely closed off and clearly very distressed. But unlike with Evan, we don’t get any insights into her mind, and through framing the game in the manner it does, Actual Sunlight shows us the difficulties two broken people have making a connection. Yes, there are so many people across the world like you, but what good does that really do? What’s the actual likelihood of two deeply unhappy people somehow, magically, through the power of love, snapping each other out of their cycles of sadness? That’s not how sadness works, that’s not how love works, and that’s not how people work.
In the black screen segment that affected me perhaps more than any other, “THE STORIES THAT WE LOVE,” Evan describes their relationship, and why he thinks it’s doomed to fail.
“People look at you and me and think we’re the same; they don’t even know how right they are.”
Here is where, for my money, Evan is at his most despicable. The way in which he is horrified that Tori would excise him from her life in a polite fashion, letting him down as softly as possible, and yet he allows the relationship with Jackie to dissipate in a manner that leaves her mentally distraught. Indeed, the last words she can say to you are “It’s my fault…” Throughout her few lines, it is clear she wants Evan around more than Evan wants her around, as he hangs on the fantasies that his friendship with Tori provides. We never know how much of the gulf between them is truly both having a negative effect on one another, or merely Evan projecting his awful feelings onto her, and making his mind up before he’s even given that relationship a shot.
Because he’s right: we do love that story more than anything. We do love the idea that we can transcend our ugliness with sheer force of honesty. We do want a light to crystallize within ourselves, because it has to exist if somebody else can see it. Is that just a lie most people buy into, or is that just a truth Evan is so close to reaching and yet so far? Is Evan right to emotionally close himself off from Jackie, or is Jackie right to keep trying for something between them? Is it possible for two broken people to fit together like a puzzle, or will they just rub up against sharp edges and vulnerable points, leaving both far worse than before?
It is telling that many of Evan’s fantasies revolve around what he would do if he were a success, what he would say, what he would change, what he could say to others. Early on he speaks of a fantasy about he and his hot wife going to his parents’ house for a happy Christmas, but the description of that event is covered in so much sarcasm that it rings insincere. It feels like the fantasy that he fantasises about having. Were he in a better place, maybe that is what he would wish for, but the Evan that we meet is incapable of wishing for that without detachment and irony, without his bitterness seeping in through the edges. The Evan who inhabits those is warm, kind and loving. In the few lines he’s mentioned, he feels like a completely different person from the voice that is describing him. However, the Evan on the talk show is the same old Evan, with his anger intact, but one that’s just been more fortunate, able to channel his feelings, and now has the platform to finally attempt to get the empathy which he craves so much.
So, near the final line of that section, as he explains his break up of sorts with Jackie to the player, he says the one line that’s been obvious the whole time, but vocalising it seems to make everything clear about Evan’s inability to feel, and receive love.
“We are so horrific that what we really want is for someone not to love us, not to need us, but to forgive us. For being so wretched.”
In my twenty years on this earth, I’ve somehow managed to never go on a date or so much as flirt with anyone else. The closest I got was this group outing with someone who had decided I was going to be their boyfriend before hand, because you know, being fourteen is a real dumb scene. When we went off alone from the group, I knew this was the moment you’re meant to start to make out, because that’s how teenagers work, but I couldn’t do it. I just kinda talked to her awkwardly as she grew more frustrated. Actually, less frustrated and more confused. I had been set up as a real cool person by our mutual friend, and quite clearly was instead a weird nerd. Obviously, I was “dumped” the next day, and that was the closest I came to being a normal teenager.
Not that I wanted to be a normal teenager. I’ve always had that odd sensation of feeling like I don’t belong, but not wanting to belong to the community that’s available to me. Growing up, I did hold onto the idea that it is possible to find someone, and carve out your own space where you are able to, through sheer force of honesty as it were, live your own life with the few people you care about and shut out the wider ‘way the world is,’ no longer having the fact you don’t fit into it eat at you every single day.
Anyway, two guesses where this is going. A year or so later, in the summer we graduated secondary school, that mutual friend and I got together. We were both unhappy people at school, both attending super cool grammar schools that were ostensibly the best at what they did, but for us they were the exact opposite. We had grown extremely close over the last two years, supporting each other as we dealt with all the bullshit that comes with being trapped growing up in an incredibly suffocating environment. The first year we were together for was easily the best in my life in many ways, I went to a different sixth form college, I left the environment that had been so toxic, I even lost some weight. It wasn’t perfect, but for the first time, I felt like everything had just clicked into where it should be, and that finding this space was what growing up was.
Something changed in the second year. Things got harder, as they obviously do in any relationship as time goes on, and we grew apart in many ways. My panic attacks, my anxiety, my depression all became more and more alienating. We’d gotten together when she was in a bad place, and when I was in a good one. She’d found lots of friends at the college she’d gone to, but I hadn’t found any. I still didn’t belong, but I didn’t really mind at that point. The last year was like watching someone who was once like you finally be able to step out into the real world, and finding yourself incapable of following.
We broke up the week of my exams, so I didn’t exactly do as well as I should have done. She wanted to remain friends, but I knew I wasn’t strong enough for that, as much as I wished I was. I was happy for her, I was happy she was doing better, and I knew that I wasn’t as in love as I was a year earlier, either. It would be easy to blame it on my mental health or something external, but that’s not at all true. It was just a relationship that came to an end simply because it was over, just like many others do and are. But I knew that without her, and with everyone leaving to go to university, I would be completely alone, and I needed to focus on moving on, finding my own identity and group of friends.
Over summer, I worked an office job, and then went to university in the autumn. Childhood had ended at the worst possible moment, and as I got to experience the real world for the first time, I saw how similar it all felt to the worst parts of school. I had no one, with no idea how to even approach making new friends, not to mention getting into another relationship again. I faded into the background, trying to write, trying to hold onto the parts of life you can do alone without letting negative thoughts gnaw and gnaw and eventually take that enjoyment too. The one thing that could reliably cheer me up for half a second was having something tasty to eat, and I gained all the weight I had lost and then some. There was only one difference from school, and it was that I couldn’t say to myself “It’ll be better when it’s over.”
Everything about Actual Sunlight evokes a feeling of loneliness. It sports a fantastic RPG Maker aesthetic, populating this modern world with standard JRPG fantasy protagonists, as Evan walks around in a scarf, as if he is only capable of seeing passers by as people living out his childhood dream that he never got, their very presence a constant reminder of how wrong things have gone. From just one look at Evan and the world he inhabits, you can tell exactly the way in which he’s been painfully left behind. It’s one of those excellent moments of design necessity creating meaning that would never have even been considered without the limitations in place upon creating the game.
A 3D Unity version was made later, which I have played, but feel it’s lacking something compared to the original. It’s understandable why it’s been made, it’s extremely hard to market a game about depression to a wider audience if it looks like a faux SNES RPG that’s clearly using pre-existing assets. The colours are muted and the people mere shadows, which sure as hell conveys Evan’s outlook and mental state, but it removes a subtle layer that I really liked about the original, that the world was not drab, the world was not depressing to look at. But it was assembled from ready made parts, from tilesets that have been used countless times before and since, and the world felt instantly recognisable and relatable in terms of common video game aesthetics, and controls. How many old RPGs begin with our hero waking up in their bedroom, after all? And in almost all of those, you would play the chosen one, the hero on a magical quest to save the world. It all draws attention to the mundanity of Evan’s existence in a different way to the silhouetted Unity version.
Take the controls. In the original, Evan controls just like anyone would in an RPG maker game, arrow keys to move square by square through an environment. But in Unity, the movement controls are unwieldy, and the environments surprisingly tricky to navigate. It shows the difficulty Evan has just getting out of bed by literally making it difficult to get out of the bedroom. But in doing so, it reduces the ease in which the player can relate to Evan, and conflicts with some of the ideas present in the text. As he says in one of the conversations with the hypothetical therapist, Evan goes to work, Evan puts on a mask, Evan isn’t bed-ridden with depression. His manifests as an active, subtle anger, twisting his thoughts at all times, not something that he must fight against to get through the day. The truth is, his depression is not his enemy. Sometimes it feels like his only friend.
On your final journey to work, the carriage is full of people, and the way in which RPG Maker handles player movement makes the journey from one end of the carriage to the other extremely frustrating, as you bump up against all these moving characters to try to find a space to hide from them, heading for a work day that you don’t know if you’ll even make it through alive. The fact that it feels like a real frustrating moment from a real video game that you may have really played when you were younger affects your brain in a very specific way, making it feel both artificial and real at the same time. The immediate reaction from the player is “ugh, I need to get to that seat, if only all these people weren’t here,” and not “I wish I could control my movement better.” It is such a subtle moment that I don’t even know how many people will notice it, but it mechanically slips the player into Evan’s mindset and sets them up to be emotionally moved by the final act of the game. He’s just destroyed his apartment and filled with motivation to finally be better, and now he can’t get to his seat because there’s all these damn people.
For as much as many would say Actual Sunlight is merely a framing device to read a short story about a broken man, the ways in which gameplay is used to effect the player are powerful, if not tangibly noticeable. The writing may push you away as much as it pulls you in, it may present a complex portrayal of an unlikable individual, it may be a game that refuses to allow you to have a simple view of the situation, but as it hurtles towards the end, if you’ve not already clicked away, it makes sure you are along for the ride. The writing may highlight how different Evan is, but the gameplay highlights how similar he is. Actual Sunlight is complex, but in its most hopelessly hopeful moments, it manages to remind you that empathy can be so simple.
“All my other patients showed signs of improvement,” my counsellor said with the tone of a schoolteacher talking to that one kid who hadn’t done their homework. That was our last session. Earlier, I had brought up how I didn’t think the counselling was helping, that maybe it wasn’t right for me, and that was the response I was given. If everyone else had shown improvement, then the problem must be me. I must be broken. Maybe I should get counselling. Oh, wait.
Face-to-face treatment for mental illness is extremely hard. Hell, medicine is a complicated enough guessing game when both parties aren’t sentient human beings with thoughts, feelings and the ability to fuck up. I’d first gone to my GP a year ago, before that I’d not had any professional help. Well, that’s not entirely true, I’ve had ‘help’ since I was three years old and people knew I was at least a little different; teachers, psychiatrists, professionals, but my parents were against anything firm and diagnosed. It’s different when you’re growing up, too. I feel like all of the help I was given at school was all to make me less of a hassle, rather than to make me feel better. It highlighted the importance of staying quiet and keeping things to myself as people made me feel awful, and waiting for them to “grow out of it.” I was old enough to know how unfair and unhelpful that was, but not old enough to be taken seriously, so I kinda just got on by, telling myself all my problems would end with College.
Obviously they did not, and I spent the majority of the first year of University falling further and further into a deep, painful depression. I decided enough was enough, and went to the doctor. Since then, I have seen a variety of therapists, analysts and doctors, who diagnosed me with a variety of conditions (mental illness is like a box of chocolates, it’s very hard to choose just one) including depression, social anxiety, OCD, and I was referred to a specialist for Asperger’s and people on the Autistic Spectrum. This year, with all this extra help… I have continued to fall further and further into a deep, painful depression.
The experience of feeling yourself getting worse as people, both professionals and not, try desperately to help you, is not one that I recommend. My mother, who is the most understanding and loving person I have ever known, broke down in tears at an assessment once, when they wanted to talk to her to get another perspective on my situation. “I never get to see him happy,” she forced out as she cried. “Why him?” she asked the Doctor, “he’s so kind.”
I had talked to her in the afternoon. I try to avoid talking to her sometimes, because I know that she’ll want to talk about how I’m doing, and that’ll lead to a long argument in which I cry and break down, and she says she doesn’t know how to help, and we’ll both hang up feeling awful. This time, we had that talk again. I didn’t even have the courtesy to have new things to be sad about. I felt awful and trapped. I knew she would be happier were I not around, yet ending it all, or even breaking ties and trying to go it alone, would make her feel so much worse. Plus, I was having panic attacks over having a deadline the next day, I had to write a six page script that evening and couldn’t face it. I kept pacing back and forth, on edge, unable to find a way to calm down, unable to find a way to feel better.
This is where I was at when someone linked me to Actual Sunlight, a game I had not previously heard of, a game that was free for the day. I clearly had nothing better to do. I clicked download.
Evan walks into Russell’s office because I make him. I’m cross with him for how he’s treated Jackie, or cross with myself for hoping that might be this game’s happy ending, cross with myself for still having some tiny part of me that’s young and naive. At the same time, I’m cross with him for how he treated Tori, how that friendship became twisted into his only lifeline, when it is the one situation in which Evan’s bitter “there’s no point trying” worldview may have actually come in useful. I’m cross that there was still some tiny part of him that’s young and naive.
I don’t want to talk to Russell, because I know him. I went to school with him, I went to work with him, I ride the train with him every day. He goes to my university, he waits in front of me in the queue in the coffee shop, he sits talking to his girlfriend behind me in the cinema. He is all too familiar a caricature, a damning indictment of the world that created him, the min-max build of western civilisation. He is better than Evan. He is better than me.
His first words are extremely petty, and I consider how unfair that is. Evan’s pettiness holds him back, Evan’s pettiness makes him impossible to like, as every little act, be it kind or not, that anyone makes gnaws at him til all that’s left is bitterness, but this guy can get away with it. This guy’s allowed to have ego, allowed to think of himself above all others, and whilst there are those that hate him for the way he is, all of them are beneath him.
Then, he tells Evan how fortunate he is, and how benevolent Russell is just allowing him to stay in the job he has, because in capitalism we have created the belief that those with power and money gift the right to live to those without it, and giving that gift should be seen as a kindness, a kindness that you have to earn. I flash back to my lecture earlier that day, how cheerily my lecturer said to the group that “you’re all competing against each other,” and that “you just have to want it,” as if turning livelihood into a game was an exciting and innovative idea. I think about the script I have to write, about how I’m struggling, about how my own mental health means I will never make it in the nebulous ‘industry,’ and my own politics and passions mean I will never want to either. I see my future on the screen.
They argue, even though Russell has no obligation to listen to Evan, and Evan has every obligation to listen to Russell. The deck is so stacked in Russell’s favour that Evan doesn’t even know what cards look like, but he has some pride, so he can’t just back down. He can’t admit to Russell just how much of a non-person he is, in this environment. He’s had enough of being treated like this, and can’t roll over any longer. Like everyone, he has a breaking point. And then the topic changes.
“Tori’s leaving because of you, you fat fuck!”
Evan’s speechless, and I hang my head a little. Of course she is. Why could she be leaving for any other reason? And right then I know what this is, I know beat for beat how this is going to play out from right now til the credits roll, this is game over. This is the moment Evan dies. Hope is a powerful feeling, and when you’re in a bad place you can twist anything, a person, a moment in time, an idea, whatever, into the thing that can save you. “When I move into a new house, everything will be better;” “When I finish this class, everything will be better;” “When this person loves me, everything will be better.” This is dangerous, and a part of you knows it is illogical and unhelpful in the long term, but it is a desperate survival tactic. You need to hold onto a reason to live, and when one cannot be found, one must be created. But it is only a delay, because the moment the illusion breaks, well…
Evan quits. He quits his job, right then and there, because he has to. Because it’s either that or break down in the office, collapse on the floor shaking or worse, fight back. I can feel myself shaking as Russell gives the inevitable monologue, about how hypocritical it is for Evan to call Russell fucked up, about how much better Russell has it. I think of how strong Evan is in this moment, and how he’ll never get credit for it. How much effort it must take to not fall to the floor, to not start to yell, to not start physically convulsing and screaming in terror. I feel myself shaking, I feel shivers run down my spine. I see everyone who bullied me at school, I see everyone who insulted me in public, I see my counsellor, I see them all on the screen, I see a chorus of people who don’t care on the screen, all singing in unison.
“I’m fucking living life while you’re wasting yours wishing it was something else. How the fuck am I fucked up?”
The screen goes black. I can’t breathe. I don’t want to press Z, but I do. I have to follow this through to the conclusion, I can’t leave this unfinished. The Doctor won’t stop, his words addressed to me equally as they are to Evan. Somehow, I just ignore the ones that don’t apply to my situation, and take the rest to heart.
Another pause. Another moment to breathe. (??? Time Passes) appears over the black, because it doesn’t matter anymore, not that it did in the first place. Evan’s room fades in. It is so empty, he is so alone. But at least the Doctor has gone away. At least the chorus has stopped singing. Finally, being alone seems like the answer, not the problem. I direct Evan to walk to the door. Everything is so quiet, the noise the the scrolling text makes echoes inside my head. I laugh as I have to choose between “Yes,” and “Yes” to the question of whether Evan should jump off the building. I laugh, because it is funny.
Evan reaches the roof. I let the noise of the wind run for a second before moving, I want to take this in. Then I push on, and I start to cry as the words come up on the screen, as I read what is to be his goodbye. “I’m never going to get what I want,” he says as I walk him across the roof. But that’s not true. I know that’s not true, because all I can think of I press the up arrow, as I hear the wind wash over me, is how little like defeat this feels. All I can think is how nice it is to let go of doubt, how nice it is to feel one thought in your head, how nice it is to be sure you’re making the right choice.
In stories we’re that suicide is giving up, giving in, resigning yourself, but Evan’s been resigned for so long as to disprove that. It must have taken so much strength to get to this point, so much thankless courage. And at that moment, I’m so glad he’s found peace. I wish I had that courage. There’s nothing stopping me from having it. There’s nothing stopping me, for once in my life, being strong.
“I was right about everything,” he says, as I smile through my tears.
Actual Sunlight is a lie because it exists.
The game is very much sold as a self portrait, Will O’Neill makes no bones about how much it is influenced by his own life and experiences. But Evan Winters was the one who jumped off that building. Will O’Neill didn’t. He made this game, and is following it up by making another.
It doesn’t advocate suicide, but it doesn’t not advocate it either. It actively abstains from taking a position of any kind, as it does with every other idea it brings up. It simply presents you with a character, a situation, a concept and a perspective or two, and leaves you to consider it. It is a powerful argument against the very idea that art must “have something to say,” for it is a game rich in ideas, but lacking any obvious thesis, and wants you to come to your own conclusion.
There is a concept within our culture at the moment, that what does not have a tangible achievement is therefore achieving nothing . It is why the youth club I went to forced us to take “AQA Qualifications” in things from cooking to DJing, purely to prove that we had achieved something, as if providing us with a place to stay and feel safe was not a worthwhile aim unto itself. It goes without saying these qualifications were useless in any practical context, and existed purely to prove that they existed, in a bizarre and all too common case of reflexivity. It is very much the concept that leads to the corporation which Evan worked for, and you get strategies and algorithms and middle management and eventually everything is tangible, but nothing is real.
Actual Sunlight, however, just is. It is what it is and does not feel the need to be anything more, which is such a rare thing in narrative video games. In this regard, Actual Sunlight is more in common with performance art, content to just exist and make no apologies for it. It creates a relationship with the player, and they walk away with their own, very personal reaction. They have to decide for themselves: “what now?”
But the subject matter here makes things tricky, and Will O’Neill is aware of that. I am exactly the person he was writing to during the section of the game I’ve referenced multiple times, where it breaks the fourth wall and talks to the player. He titles it “PLEASE READ THIS IF YOU ARE A YOUNG PERSON,” and it is a scathing, bitter plea. “It’s different if you’re young,” O’Neill says plainly, and ends it on the impossible to misinterpret line of “don’t you fucking dare.” But like any other screen in the game, it is complex. Will’s voice in it is different, calmer than when writing as Evan, but you can still see him in there. The line: “I don’t care how fucked up you think your life is: If you aren’t at least 25, that ain’t you.” hit the hardest, because although on the face of it it was simply a call to the young to remember they’re not done yet, that line shows another concurrent motivation, one which I recognise and respect. “Don’t co-opt my pain as if it is yours,” it says to me. “Allow me this. Allow my pain to be mine, for as you see in this game, it is sometimes all I have.”
And yet, for ten seconds after playing the game, I did “get it twisted” as O’Neill phrased it. I knew I wasn’t in the same boat as Evan, I knew better than to be that selfish, plus we’re very different people who just have similar illnesses. Yet getting it twisted is what that illness is best at. But that isn’t the game’s, and by extension Will O’Neill’s fault.
Thinking about Actual Sunlight in this context it raises some extremely interesting questions about the responsibility of art to be useful versus the responsibility of art to be honest. Evan talks in “YOUR FREE TRIAL IS ABOUT TO END” about how we hide the sad, ageing and useless from view, to preserve the hope and well-being of the young, and begin the cycle of disappointment all over again. Like anything Evan says (especially about the giant pile of evil that is corporate culture), it’s from a skewed perspective, but it’s hard not to recognise the truth at the centre of it. We do hide failure, we do celebrate success above all, despite how much erasing of truth that requires.
It would not be a massive stretch for a critic of the game to say that Actual Sunlight romanticises suicide and that it shouldn’t be played by anyone. After all, it’s not doing anything actively useful. But suicide is romantic, for some. After all, when the Doctor says: “And how does thinking about why you want to do this make you feel? Frustrated? Tired? Hopeless?” Evan replies with one word: “Reminiscent.” But to say the game actually romanticises suicide is to ignore the fact that nothing about the way the game portrays depression is romantic in a single way. It is simply aware of the seductive nature of those thoughts in a world which seems to have no place for you.
In the place I am in my life, I spend a lot of time worrying about Survivor’s bias. Everyone tells me “it will get better” because those who it didn’t get better for are either not around at all, or at least not available to talk to. But Actual Sunlight is willing to speak up for those which it didn’t get better, it is willing to show that these people exist, and are real and worthy of acknowledgement from others. Saying that art can’t depict what it is like to be won over by thoughts of suicide essentially prevents us from culturally acknowledging that people get won over by thoughts of suicide, and we know it only as one of those things that happens to the nebulous ‘other people.’
Is it immoral to release a work of art that would possibly trigger people to harm themselves, even with the warnings put up? To me, it’s certainly no more immoral than refusing to acknowledge these are valid stories that happen to real people in order to preserve the broken culture that allows those stories to unfold.
Actual Sunlight exists, and in doing so, forces us to acknowledge that it is true.
I want to break character too, now. Not that I was ever in character, but there have been many sections about many different ideas, in many different voices, and this here is the conclusion where I bring everything together. Actually, I guess the section where I showed my thought process playing through the final act of the game was in character; Evan’s not actually right about everything. A large theme of both the game and this piece is self awareness, and how it is a double edged sword, and this is me, making that clear, by addressing you directly and saying that. How very self aware.
After I finished the game for the first time, I kind of just sat in silence for half an hour, kinda crying. I posted a few tweets, I don’t remember. I was a wreck. I was glad I had played it, and it moved me immensely, but I felt more depressed, anxious and just generally sad than I had all day. An hour later, as midnight passed, I realised I had to get that script done, and wrote it in one burst. All the emotions swimming around my head at that time went into the script, and I think it is the most moving thing I’ve ever written (not that that’s high praise or anything). I was, and still am, incredibly proud of that piece of work, and playing Actual Sunlight gave me the confidence to write it as powerfully as I did. I went to sleep at three in the morning, and I felt just a little better.
I think Actual Sunlight is a beautiful game, and I want to thank Will O’Neil for making it. The fact that it tells a story where it doesn’t get better or offer any way that it could get better is brave and admirable, because those people exist in real life, and no one’s there to hear or tell their tales.
It is also a difficult thing to present yourself to the world in a way that is real, especially if you are depressed or, in fact, suffer from any mental illness. We spend so much of our time worrying what others will think about us, how easily they could dislike us and shut them out of our lives, terrified of rejection in any form, of any kind. To not only create a work of art born from the parts of yourself that scare you, but advertise it to the world with that information, takes so much courage that I wish I would accrue half as much as long as I live.
Originally this piece was going to be a short write up, 1000 words or less, on my reactions to the game, but I realised they were so personal and intertwined with my life and experiences that I needed to do something substantial. I’m definitely scared about putting myself and my own mental health worried out there in this way, but playing through the game and seeing how much such an honest portrayal affected me convinced me that this was worth doing, and the only way to go.
Everyone’s reaction to this game is going to be intensely personal, and I’m not going to be one to say that my interpretation is the be all and end all, in fact I’ve spent a bunch of time arguing the exact opposite of that. But to me, it all comes down to self awareness, complexity and cognitive dissonance. The reason the end of the game felt so cathartic is because the way it caused me to imagine suicide was not giving up, but instead letting go of complexity, finding balance, finding consonance. When you’re that kind of depressed, the kind where you are self aware about every single one of your negative thought patterns but unable to do anything about them, a thousand contradictory thoughts tear at your brain every day. You want to be loved, but find it impossible to love. You want to have friends, but find it impossible to be friendly. The big one though, for me and how my depression works, is a constant battle between two completely irrefutable facts: “I want to be happier” and “I am a bad person, and do not deserve to be.”
Those movies mentioned way back at the top portray overcoming doubt and achieving that balance as if it is a process to enlightenment, to a place where you are good and that’s that. But it is not, it is very much that constant battle for complexity. Being a good person, and even being a person at all, is not a point you eventually reach and no longer have to struggle, it is an active process.
Actual Sunlight is a desperate plea to hold onto complexity. Perhaps to you, Evan’s extremely unlikable, yet as you play through the game you find yourself sympathising with him, though never fully. The game is never that simple, it will not offer you up likeable protagonists and obvious antagonists, it will instead invite you to consider how you empathise with real people, how they can be so many different things at so many different times, and realise what a complex and yet worthwhile process that can be. The world we live in will never offer you concrete answers, instead just multiple contradictions that seem to be equally true in different circumstances, and whilst it would be easier to shut that out and think what you’ve been taught to think, it is never the right choice. It is easy to imagine and assume the realities of lives we haven’t lived. It is easy to decide that Evan brought this on himself, just as in our minds we know water is wet, Everest is big and the sun is yellow.
But actual sunlight hits the atmosphere and refracts, it is the blue sky on a summer day, it is the pink and orange and sunrise, it can be your only solace during the coldest days, it can be your mortal enemy during the warmest days, and if you ever look directly at it, you can go blind. Many can live their lives assuming things are simple and never feel any worse for it, and there is no tangible achievement for acknowledging complexity.
But there should never need to be.