Most people will know someone who has suffered from depression. Many of us have suffered ourselves, and despite rising awareness, it can still be a very taboo and misunderstood condition. In my day job, where the blinds are always closed and actual sunlight is a thing only for weekends, we have training courses to understand depression, spot the signs and offer guidance and help, and yet still I overhear management mutter that it is a ridiculous waste of time. Buck up, cheer up, it’s not the end of the world. But what happens when you can’t buck up, cheer up and it is the end of the world? Actual Sunlight is an attempt to deal with this scenario, and it does it very very well.
You’ve heard of Visual Novels, I assume. Well, this is more of a Visual Short Story. Running at only an hour or so, Actual Sunlight pushes you to the ground, kicks you in the face and leaves you in a state of shock. Your character is a man in crisis. No girlfriend, no wife, no kids, a mind-numbing job and nobody to care about him. The world around him feels cruel and superficial and because he doesn’t conform to what society generally considers normal, he feels worthless, like there’s no point to anything, like he missed all his chances and the only choice left is whether to go on for one more day or whether to simply make it all stop. Yes, it’s bleak, but it does feel very real. Don’t worry, there’s nothing preachy about this game. There’s nothing melodramatic. What it feels like is a collection of very private and very desolate thoughts that we shouldn’t really be reading. It’s an uncomfortable game that tries to put you in the shoes of someone who has had enough.
Gameplay is minimal. You’re in control of a little 8-bit man in his 8-bit world – apartment, street, bus, work. As you walk around and go about your day you are able to interact with people and objects, each of which will prompt a new internal monologue. Thought by thought, you will gradually build up a picture of how this man thinks and how the people around him think. Even on a crowded bus, this man feels very alone indeed.
The story being told in second person point of view adds to the intensity of the experience. It feels as though he’s not just talking about himself. He’s talking about you. “You get drunk, you take out money, you throw away the statement before you even look at it. Why does it even matter? They’re gonna find a way to make you work until the day you die, like an idiot.” Sound familiar? Anyone ever have a thought like that? I do, every damn day I have to walk out my front door and go to that money-grabbing corporation that makes millions while I do all their work and get paid bugger all, like an idiot. While the game doesn’t assume we’re all depressed and about to throw ourselves under a bus, it does assume, quite rightly, that many of us will have felt just a fraction of what he feels, even if it’s only in some teeny tiny little way. The point of view grabs at this and the effect is an uncomfortable, amplified and claustrophobic empathy.
The cute little graphics certainly are at odds with the serious nature of the narrative, and I suspect that’s deliberate. Looking in we see nothing wrong; looking out, a person may see only darkness. Or perhaps I’m over-analysing. Is this a game? Not really. It’s an experience. Not everything has to be about sneaking through bushes and gathering legendary weapons. The Vita opens its arms to games of all creeds, and Actual Sunlight feels like it belongs here.
Why would you want to play something like this? Well, why would you want to watch a sad or tragic film? Perhaps because we want to understand or because in some way we want to share the pain. Video games have come such a long way since a little yellow head was forced to eat a lot of pills and run away from ghosts. It’s an ever-advancing medium, and so witness its latest evolution.
With its narrative-heavy gameplay, Actual Sunlight is more of a collection of thoughts than a game. It’s dark, it’s disturbing and it doesn’t stop to spare your sensitive sensibilities. This is a raw and brutal insight into real depression and the extreme feelings of desperation it can lead to. Beautifully done.
S J Hollis Rating 8/10