Depression is a fairly common mood disorder that, despite its frequency, is still not considered a serious issue by many. Sadly, some people think that a simple attitude change will fix all of the ailments; that it's a self-inflicted state of mind. This is simply not true. Actual Sunlight by Will O'Neill is a short, interactive, text-heavy story that puts you right into the shoes of a troubled young man named Evan Winter, whose life is gradually consumed by his dark inner-thoughts and self-loathing. It will boldly and unapologetically give you a short glimpse into what depression can look like, and the suicidal thoughts that may accompany the crippling disorder.
First and foremost, this is not much of a game. It features some tiny characters that have distinct inflated heads and some not too impressive 8-bit inspired environments. Only the short cut-scenes provide an enhanced artistic style, and these fully demonstrate what the characters look like. Not that it matters, because most of the story plays out through a black screen full of text; the stylistic choices only act as a vehicle for delivering the story, and no other reason. You can argue that this could have been a short story published in some fancy journal, but would it reach the same audience?
Evan Winter's tale is a tragic one. His life revolves around only a few things: waking up, going to work, eating, getting drunk by himself, masturbating, and playing video games. His lack of accolades and mediocrity has clearly frustrated him. Most of his daily interactions occur in his head, where he plays out different situations; his relations with other characters are short and clearly display his inability to connect with others. You're forced to feel the monotony and soul crushing daily life of Evan.
The gameplay is incredibly limited. The only thing that you can do is walk around with the d-pad (not that there is much need to walk around) and push the action button to interact with people and the environment. Still, you'll want to interact with everything and everyone possible to get the full picture. Here's where things lack a bit: it's supposed to be a game, but it's devoid of any decision making and there's very little actual game being played. Naturally, we understand that that's what the title's going for, but the story could have arguably had more impact with a little more player involvement.
At this point you may be asking yourself, "What's so fun about it?" Well, it's not necessarily a fun experience; the writing and morbidly grounded story will be the reason that you stay tethered to your screen. You'll be clicking away as you want to make a difference, but all you can do is watch the tragic and uncomfortable tale unfold. In fact, it can be so dark in places that those sensitive to these sorts of situations are perhaps best advised to stay away. After all, it's hard not to project at least some of Evan's struggles onto your own life, because, in one way or another, we've all felt some uncertainty in our lives.
Actual Sunlight's ability to stir discomfort is its greatest achievement. It depicts the difficulties of trying to beat depression alone, and while that makes for some pretty heavy material, it's successful in what it sets out to do. There's no punch pulling here; there isn't any back slapping to make you feel better about what you're seeing. As such, this won't necessarily improve the mood of anyone that's dealing with depression. It will, however, give perspective to someone on the outside looking in – and that's powerful.