Depression, suicide, and a final choice that isn’t what you think: the power of Actual Sunlight
Actual Sunlight is a game about depression, and suicide. The main character, Evan Winter, is a fat, good-for-nothing, go-nowhere, ugly, unlucky-in-love loser. Or so he tells himself and, by extension perhaps, the player controlling him. It is not what you would call “fun.” The game has garnered a lot of attention for its powerful and deeply-affecting – and troubling – words and game play, which I'll spoil now by saying they don't necessarily lead to a happy ending. Even the game's creator, Will O'Neill, interrupts the game in one of the earliest segments to warn players, “It's… pretty clear where all of this is headed.” And indeed, it is clear – brutally, unflinchingly so – where Evan's story and Actual Sunlight will end: at the edge of a rooftop.You control Evan, and all of his thoughts thus become your own. All of his worries, anxieties, and experiences are thrust upon you, so that when someone tells Evan, “you're a fucking loser,” it's understandable that it might feel to some like the game is saying, “You, player. You are a fucking loser.” The game is expertly written, and cuts deep with its words. It has to be this way in order to show the raw reality of Evan's world. That reality, however, is disconcerting. I asked the creator, Will O'Neill, to be my guide through it.
Snap out of it
“I was interested in making Actual Sunlight as a game because I wanted to create an experience of diminishing agency, and the illusion of choice.” O'Neill explained that the game was created using RPG Maker VX Ace for precisely this reason. “It was important to me that the player actually control Evan’s movements, and summon his thoughts on things by actually stepping towards and interacting with objects,” he said. Yet O'Neill also said that sometimes, it's the lack of control that needed to be shown. “Take weight loss, for example, which is a huge thing for Evan. The whole idea in our culture is that you just need to ‘get control’ of yourself, and then you’ll be fine,” O'Neill said. “But in real life, we know this isn't true. Statistics have borne out that the actual percentage of people who lose weight and then actually keep it off is abysmal.” O'Neill explained that other vices and bad habits within the game exist to stand between Evan and his self-improvement. He acknowledges he doesn't need video games, but buys them impulsively anyway. He knows drinking is bad for him, but he smashes his apartment when he goes off on a bender. People in depression can't just simply stop being depressed, nor can Evan simply stop his behavior and immediately get better. He doesn't have that control, and neither do you as his controller. “I’m not an expert in any of this, but I think what we will discover about neurochemistry in the next however-many years will radically alter our reasonable opinions about what constitutes personal responsibility. It’ll be morally and ethically uncomfortable for us,” O'Neill theorized. “I think the answer to the question of whether or not humans have free will ultimately be, 'Yes, but not nearly as much as you think you do, and even less when you need it most.'” I asked O'Neill about his warning, where the game breaks character for O'Neill to caution players to not think like Evan does. Was this planned from the beginning or were several drafts made? “Nearly everything in Actual Sunlight went through several drafts, as well as a ton of tinkering within them,” O'Neill told me. “I’m not an exceptionally talented writer, and I don’t really know ‘how’ to get things to a place where they’re any good – I just have a half-decent ability to recognize them when they finally do.”
You can't move Evan away from the ledge of the roof. You head toward the door, but he just turns back around, and every third or fifth step you take, you pass an archway that you can't retreat through. The game has told you to come here; it's taken away all of your choices save for deciding to turn the game off and walk away. You move Evan to where he wants to go, and the screen fades to black. Evan talks of flying. Of peace. This is what he wanted. Yet whether or not Evan actually dies is up for you to decide. The game never shows his death, and that's intentional. “Some people will think that’s unfair, or they’ll think that I’m just flinching. They’ll say, 'Come on – obviously he did. The whole thing drives and heads towards it the entire time.' And there was a period in the development of it, very early on, before I took a significant break from it - and started the entire thing over - that I do think I intended to imply clearly that he did,” O'Neill said. “But that wouldn't have been right, and it wouldn't have been honest. But it was absolutely right – and maybe even the entire point – to take him right to the edge of it. Ultimately, if you think Evan killed himself, you’re choosing something. You’re also choosing something if you think he didn't. In a game that itself has absolutely no choices whatsoever, it's the one choice that you do get.” Even if the suicide was carried through, Evan Winter isn't you, and Actual Sunlight, while crushing in its way, is still just a story; a lesson to be learned. We writers deal in hyperbole quite often, sometimes about things we know nothing about. “This game is like being on acid.” “This game makes me want to kill myself.” Etcetera. It is not hyperbole, though, when I say this game probably shouldn't be played if you have suicidal thoughts, a tendency toward self harm, or are just plain not having a good day. The game and its themes are powerful and universal enough that, as John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun did when he shared his thoughts on Actual Sunlight, I've included a link to a suicide prevention network. If you or a loved one is experiencing a state of mind similar to Evan's, please refer to this website, which contains URLs and phone numbers for a multitude of suicide prevention partners and organizations, both domestic and global.