Release Date: January 28, 2020
Rating: M (Mature)
System: Nintendo Switch
A code for this game was provided by WZO Games, Inc.
What's It About?
Actual Sunlight is a self-described bleak tale about depression, anxiety, and suicide. Its main character, Evan Winter, is an overweight 30-something whose life is going absolutely nowhere. The game itself is structured like a visual novel, as you'll spend most of your time reading interactions (either real or imaginary) between Evan and a host of other characters, including interludes with his therapist and a recurring fantasy where Evan is interviewed by a late-night talk show host. Despite its heavier undertones, Actual Sunlight still has plenty of (pitch black) humor. And although it's presentation and heavy subject matter may turn off some players, the game provides an experience that feels unique and is sure to stick with you for a long time.
The narrative of Actual Sunlight is the primary focus, and it's a fairly good one. Everything we see is from Evan's perspective and mostly from Evan's voice, which can go from noir-style tidbits that sound like The Watchmen‘s Rorschach to real downer material reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield. At one point, the game's writer Will O'Neill even breaks the fourth wall.
We see Evan's interactions with his co-workers, people on the bus, and homeless people outside his apartment building. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about his co-workers' lives and how they change throughout the story. I won't spoil anything here, but don't start this game and expect a happy ending for everyone. It's not that kind of game. Also, don't expect everything to be presented in a clear, completely spelled-out way. Actual Sunlight succeeds at letting you infer a lot–while keeping some things (like the ending) seemingly ambiguous.
The game is short, but it feels as long as it needs to be. The story is told, and it's one that will stick with you. Days after beating it, I'm still thinking about it. I'm still thinking about Evan, and how his life reflects aspects of my own (or those of my friends). In fact, I'm convinced anyone who plays this game will feel at least some part of Evan's life applies to them. Like Evan, I'm now in my thirties and play lots of video games. Unlike him, I have a wife and kids and a job I love. Still, he's a completely relatable character despite our differences.
The entirety of Actual Sunlight feels more like an experience than a game. Part of that is the subject matter, and part of it is the game's design. I'm not sure I've ever played a game so minimalistic and driven by written words. But if you've got a spare hour or so, think of it as a short story that sometimes requires you to click a button or move around.
There's not a lot to complain about. I'm sure some folks will complain about how depressing this game is, or that they disliked how much reading was required. I knew almost none of this prior to playing, and it didn't bother me at all. It made the game feel unique and interesting, and it kept me wanting to play to find out what happened to our grim protagonist.
My only real complaint is that I wish the locations and sprites were enlarged. Playing handheld on the Switch, everything seemed incredibly tiny and took up only a fraction of the screen. Maybe the minimalism was the point, but it hurt my old man eyes having to squint. Besides, this also means large portions of the gaming screen is simply black. It feels like a lot of wasted space.
I wouldn't normally fit this under “The Ugly” category, but since all of our reviews have them, I'll put his warning here: this game is a major downer. Yes, it has some pitch black humor, but it deals with extremely heavy subject matter. Several times, for instance, your objective is simply to get to the roof of your building and jump off. Personally, I've lost three friends to suicide in my young adulthood, and this game can bring up some very personal, emotional feelings. There's even a warning before the game starts, and if you're prone to feelings of depression, I'd heed the warning and possibly stay away from the game entirely.
Several times while playing Actual Sunlight, I had to sit it down and do something else. I'd hang out with my wife, play with my kids, or read Star Wars comics. I couldn't play it in one sitting because of its heavy tone and subject. This isn't a dig at the game itself or anyone who made it; I simply want to illustrate that it affected me, too. So, take all of this with a grain of salt before playing it yourself.
I can't say I enjoyed my time with Actual Sunlight. I don't think a game like this is supposed to be enjoyed. It's meant to make you think and to reflect. In that, it succeeds. I've never played a game like Actual Sunlight before, and I'm not sure I'll ever see something like it again. It feels wholly unique. If you're looking for a haunting, well-written narrative that sticks with you, look no further.