Actual Sunlight (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Actual Sunlight (2013)

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Around this time a year ago, I was on a special kind of antidepressant that accelerates the effects of the three antidepressants I was already on.  It's easier for me to joke about now (accelerating an antidepressant feels like a contradiction in terms), but at the time I was either sleeping or dealing with massive headaches as I got used to the medication.  A year before that, I was struggling to keep my dignity while taking samples of my feces for a medical test.  The year before that, I was crying at work because I could barely keep my impulse to throw my computer and scream at length.  Thankfully, a coworker saw me as I tried to leave quietly and could tell how terribly I was doing, and my therapy started two weeks from that point.

I had a breaking point with my depression cocktail (depression, anxiety, and PTSD) that made me uncomfortably close with Actual SunlightSo close I had nearly direct parallels to everything that happens.  Quit a job because of a girl?  Yup, I ended my theater job shortly after my girlfriend there broke up with me.  Seething loneliness in my apartment?  Been there too, though I call it "getting existential in the shower."  Breaking all the things I thought were weighing me down?  Stupidly so, after a horrible few weeks involving losing my promotion, getting walking pneumonia, and a different girlfriend of then a few years I sold off all my videogames and anything "nerd" related.  Member of the Something Awful forums?  "I am protected."None of those made me feel better in the long run, and I wonder if I encountered Actual Sunlight during those times I might have gotten help sooner.  But then I might not have met my wife, been encouraged to start this website with Danny, finished school...the list goes on.  Part of the duplicitous power of depression involves convincing myself that I didn't deserve these things and Actual Sunlight's player character, Evan Winter, has hiked that road so thoroughly he's in a rut of cycle of putting off pleasure until the next day.  Heck, the first thing we see from him is an essay entitled, "Why Kill Yourself Today When You Could Masturbate Tomorrow?"  Even self-pleasure is a day away.

The speed of Actual Sunlight's text rollout is important for revealing Evan's mindset.  "Why Kill Yourself Today" is seen first, making me think I'm going to see a list of reasons.  "When You Could Masturbate Tomorrow? is the acidic self-effacing punchline, insofar as anything in Actual Sunlight can be said to be a joke.  But a sense of humor is present, especially in the moments where Evan's detailing a fictional interview with a television host that cuts into the mask people put on when they've got a camera in front of them.  Creator Will O'Neill sees through these self-delusions clearly and often to devastating empathetic affect, the most painful (and one I had to make peace with) when Evan talks about a sick coworker - the kind who can't get disability but is always suffering through their day.O'Neill's use of RPGMaker grants a unique window into depression.  Where Evan sees himself as a stocky balding guy, all the people around him are cutely portrayed in wide-eyed sprites with closeups of equally charming faces.  It's part mask as many try to put their best face forward for strangers (which also echoes the fake television interviews), and subtly reinforces that Evan sees almost everyone else as happy when he's increasingly miserable.  I've only recently been digging into conversations about "asset flips" and so on, but no such accusation can be leveled here.  The style keeps Actual Sunlight in the familiar territory of menu-based RPGs while altered just enough to show how dishonest the world feels to those suffering from depression.

Aside from walking around, the primary means of playing the game comes from interacting with people and objects.  Framing it as interacting kept Actual Sunlight from getting into its own rut as interacting could mean I'd be seeing one of Evan's essays, a more detailed image of his environment, or pop-up discussions.  It's also a key insight into the self-rationalization coupled with depression.  Much of the dialogue and descriptions aren't lies exactly, they're reasons to not get attached or stay distant and unhappy.  "Be depressed at things" isn't quite accurate for Actual Sunlight, but it's also honest - unlike O'Neill's other game Little Red Lies.

Taken together, I can see how the focused self-rationalization of depression in Actual Sunlight led to the sprawling lies of Little Red Lies.  It's also why I didn't want to give up on O'Neill's work after the lingering distaste of playing Little Red Lies.  He's got a knack for repurposing standard game mechanics in a way that sheds light on the characters, how we play games, and how we make use of what assets are available to us.  Both show he's a sharp writer, prone to digressions that are as entertaining as they are painful, but the honest precision of Actual Sunlight hits home in a ways the eventually hypocritical Little Red Lies could not.

Most importantly, O'Neill doesn't make the mistake other depression-influenced media has.  There's no self-harm, no depiction of suicide, no negative consequences that can't be reversed in the long-term.  I don't see the end as someone teetering perilously close to the edge, I see someone who has broken and leans for support as he starts the long process of putting himself back together.  Actual Sunlight is that breaking point, and it's up to Evan to decide how he'll reform the pieces.

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Posted by Andrew

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