Writing a review in a room with the blinds drawn about a game called Actual Sunlight. Fitting.
Actual Sunlight is a game about a very specific feeling that I’m almost certain most people think is unique to them. It’s a game about drowning, about struggling and about deferred responsibility. It’s about a lot of the most depressing things that a lot of people have to deal with, and because of that it is quite possibly a dangerous game. Rarely does a game have the kind of effect that the media clamours after, a game that could drive someone to depression or worse because games usually aren’t that great as art forms. Sure there are exceptions, and in the last year we’ve had some get closer to real emotional impact or thoughtful significance than ever before (Spec Ops:The Line, The Walking Dead, Journey) but Actual Sunlight has in many ways surpassed those, even if it’s just for a fairly specific audience.
It is an interactive story really. In principle it sounds like a terrible idea, like a book that requires you to complete some arbitrary tasks before it lets you read the next page, and some games in the genre (To the Moon) have definitely felt like that at times. But it allows the creators to blend together a mixture of sound, visuals and personal responsibility that you don’t get from any other kind of medium, and it also makes a lot of things more feasible than they would be if you were creating a film on the same budget. So while the shell of Actual Sunlight has been created in RPG Maker, the game is a long way from any kind of RPG. There’s no combat, there’s no statistics, it’s a story that you are being told, and in some small way you can be part of it. More than anything I think it’s a statement.
You begin the story in a small apartment with an alarm clock going off. You get up, you switch it off and you go back to sleep. Then you do it again. Everyone who has just read that and can empathise, you are the intended audience for this game, and hopefully that’s quite a range of you. If you’re the type of person who gets up first thing and achieves all of your goals each and every day, well you probably don’t play videogames and spend your time reading reviews. The story takes you through a couple of days (split across years) of the protagonists life, and you get no choice in what happens. There’s no branching story-lines binary moral decisions or dialogue choices. You go from place to place, analysing what you want and you have things explained to you. This isn’t lazy programming, this is intentional and effective. This is a brilliant example of an artist who has exploited their medium in a way that adds to the effectiveness of their message, rather than just using it as a means to an end.
Nearly every object and character in the game can be interacted with, and while some just come up with a simple statement about the object, many takes you to a new piece of writing with ideas and thoughts on a wide range of topics. There’s transcripts from an interview with some kind of therapist, there’s monologues on topics such as corporate employment, consumerism and relationships, sometimes there’s just short thoughts that the character is having. It starts off fairly humorous, as is the case with a description of a wardrobe in the very first room, but quickly gets to a bleak and harsh reality when you realise how close to the bone all of this is.
As I was playing, the game made me reflect on a number of things I do. It felt personal, almost as if the game was an attack on my personality and way of life by someone I had never met or spoken to. But not a vicious attack, a kind of tough love, a piece of constructive criticism. I alt-tabbed out of the game at one point to check my bank balance because I was appalled at the character in the game saying it didn’t matter how much money he had because he would just spend whatever was there and then get more to pay off the interest. It was a reflection of what I do and rationalise nearly every day, it made me change, if only for that moment.
The game does get bleaker, and it could be deeply unsettling to someone who was already in a bad place. You’re almost dared to try and distance yourself from what you are seeing, because much of it is true for nearly everyone. Through the narrative we see how destructive it can be and we are faced with the consequences in a way that not many games have ever dared to do. It’s a joy of the indie scene that a developer can do this without being afraid of alienating his audience, without having to deal with some kind of public backlash. Games like this are art, and art needs to be challenging and powerful, even if that means upsetting you.
There are a few issues with the game but they are entirely down to the nature of a game made in RPG Maker. The characters look a little off, with a style that does not match the tone of the overall product. The sound effects and music are effective and at times haunting, but not as grand as you might hope for thanks to being spoilt by big budget titles over the last decade. There’s also zero replayability, but that could be a good thing, I’m not sure if it’s the kind of experience you’d want to go through twice. All the graphical issues might be updated in the future as the game even reminds you towards the end that this is still a work-in-progress in some ways.
At the moment Actual Sunlight is free, and can be downloaded from www.actualsunlight.com, it takes around an hour to complete and although there is a save function I suggest you put aside some time for it and go through in one playthrough. It might be the most profound and personal game I’ve ever played.