‘Actual Sunlight’ Review: the Heart for Anything


“Anything can become universal,” to lift words from poet Robert Pinsky. “Any moment, any person’s idea at any one moment. Any artifact, if you could understand it well enough, would be a portal into the whole rest of the universe.” And if there is any label most befitting Will O’Neill’s Actual Sunlight, it is “artifact”. Document of a life, or kind of life, a window.

This is the rare case where no controversy need come from declaring “not a game”, and not only because O’Neill does it himself in the game. It’s not a game, not even the way To the Moon is one. It’s not even a story, though there’s story in it.

What it is is an hour-long exhalation, a dry run at depression honestly. And if it’s powerful, it’s powerful for this first, whether one finds its content powerful notwithstanding, which reception so far suggests many have.

If you find power in Sunlight, it will most likely be of the reflective and not revelatory kind. Anyone who’s experienced depression, suffered negative body image or weight issues, feels or has felt listless, meaningless, lost – will recognize in Evan Winters something of their self or life. Of course, those whose personal and professional paradigms connect dot for dot with Winters’ will recognize most, but even if few or none of yours do connect, the specificity itself is relatable, a road parallel to your own, to feelings and fears similar or same.

(“If I can get to the heart of Dublin,” James Joyce wrote, “I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”)

Some of Sunlight‘s weaknesses come by necessity, or inescapability. It needed a title, for obvious reasons, but this doesn’t change the fact it would have been better off without artifice even this assumed. The “Actual” is subtle in its suggestion the ‘player’ differentiate the experience from games which include what O’Neill calls “raw emotion that is evoked through sad music or blurry camera angles, it has no context and it isn’t really about anything“, but its utility as undertone suffers when the words appear in the script literally. Putting aside the fact they’re attributed to another character and situation (Sunlight is the elucidation of Evans’ and O’Neill’s own, after all), this inclusion is one of a few occasions the game makes concessions towards precisely the kind of experience it wishes to contrast. (Another such occasion via spoiler:when it’s ‘revealed’ the transcripts from Evan’s therapy sessions were the tortured musings of his conscience.)

Though Medium is inescapably Message, content and not form is the gravity of Actual Sunlight and why it matters: the intent of the content even more so. Discussion of whether it’s a game, or how effectively it uses its form (nothing, no matter how little bothered with form, is without it), is a separate one. The game invites conversation on its subjects, and subject in Winters, not necessarily as an effort to correct societal or corporate vexations of Winters’/O’Neill’s, but to illuminate subject and subjects in stark clarity, as stark as the black and white text-boxes it tells most of its story with. Clarity, in this case, meaning reality. Actual.

While I reject O’Neill’s conclusion about other games and think if he scrutinized it more deeply – including the vague evidences for – he might find the statement itself without context, inapplicable to any individual case and therefore all (I challenge you to name a game which vies for emotionality with no context), I understand the message, flawed as its expression may be. And actually, I feel about Actual Sunlight likewise; I respect it for what it is to such degree I refuse to analyze it in the ways and by the means I perhaps should. I wish no more to “critique” it than I would had it been written as a sensitive email sent in confidence.

At one point Evan remarks how it seems he’s lost “the heart for anything”, this preceded by meditations throughout on how depression, dismay and despair, when voiced, are greeted with a peculiar sternness. Get over it. There are others much worse off than you. No one but you can make you care. How there are moments inside of our despair when we admonish ourselves this same way. How in little spontaneous slits of optimism, should they come, we ruler our own wrists red. What are you smiling for? You’re still _________, _________ and ___  _____. 

Depression isn’t relative: it doesn’t brighten here when it darkens there. Your blues are as blue and you as the veins that map your arms, and the broken edges that catch you catch you from inside. Or it feels, at least, this way.

If there’s any analogue for hope I can offer myself, it’s how a mirror, once broken, becomes many. How there’s a lesson in piecing a thing back together that couldn’t have been learned when it was whole. The parallel universes of the self laid bare, to be reclaimed or, if not, replaced.

If you hadn’t already guessed, this is not a review. And it’s not a game.