Actual Sunlight is the story of Evan Winter, a 30-something man, living in Toronto. He hates his job. He hates his apartment. He hates himself. But never have his energies or introspections manifested; an angry, iconoclastic prophet Evan is not. Rather, he's trapped and inert, determined to do something, but equally driven to nothingness and stasis.
Contrary to almost every video game, Actual Sunlight tells of a protagonist who doesn't achieve, who never improves, whose lack of agency, inexplicable to both himself and others around him, has become the defining part of his character. Anyone who's laid awake at night wondering what they're doing with their lives, who's noticed their ambitions receding in slow motion, and managed only a shrug in response—they are Evan Winter. This is not a game about success, or the karmic rewards of personal struggle. Created by Will O'Neill, an independent developer also from Toronto, Actual Sunlight is the story of a career you never wanted, a gym you never joined, the novel you didn't even start.
"A lot the things I wanted to write, about being stressed or being overweight, were hampered by the idea that you had to have a narrative that went somewhere or developed positively—where the main character would turn it all around," explains O'Neill. "But that really didn't read true. I wanted to do something that captured the finality of that state of mind, and the idea that there are some things that are not going to get better."
Described by O'Neill as "almost 100 percent autobiographical," Actual Sunlight is painfully true. As Evan, you navigate your apartment, your workplace, and Toronto's public transit, and reflect in kind on your banal, immovable dissatisfaction. In comparative terms, the mechanics of Actual Sunlight—walk and examine objects—are limited. Along with Evan's inescapable situation, they reflect his hard-wired sense of inertia.
"I was able to make that game because I don't really have anyone in my life who would care if I did it or didn't," says O'Neill. "I am that person in Actual Sunlight. The apartment is modeled very closely after my own. Even things I softly allude to are things that were going on in Toronto at the time.
"But I couldn't have made this game in my 20s. It would have been too raw and too personal to admit this was the direction my life was headed in."
From the mindset that comes with long-term depression, somehow both febrile and resigned, to the subtle confines of a white collar job, Actual Sunlight examines the day-in, day-out life of a trapped but moneyed individual, on his way to middle age. Video games, naturally, are a part of Evan's life. With that facet of his character in mind, O'Neill found the crux of his story.
"Once I understood that a lot of what I wanted to write about was video games and having your life revolve around them, that's when it felt right to do it as a game," he explains. "But for a game that criticizes games and gaming culture, releasing Actual Sunlight has only made me double-down on my engagement with that culture. All of a sudden I'm not just a loser addicted to games. I'm a game developer with something to say."
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O'Neill says that in the past he has worried whether or not the game is accessible. Today however, he's less apologetic. Even and especially considering the hardcore gamer crowd, Actual Sunlight, he says, is for everybody.
"I want everyone to play my game, and I don't think the writing that I do is inaccessible," O'Neill explains. "I think the vast majority of people, certainly the people you think of as stereotypical 'gamerdudebro' types, they could get a lot out of Actual Sunlight. Whenever I see a review on Steam that's like, 'I don't know what the fuck this game's talking about,' and they've got something like 7,000 products registered to their account, they know what this game is about—they know exactly what it's about."
"I think we just haven't reached the point yet where we put games into two separate baskets. Nobody in literature confuses a Harlequin novel with a high-end piece of fiction. And nobody says, 'Which of these two things should really exist?' But in games—on Polygon—they (commenters) still argue about what should get a higher score between Gone Home and the latest Call of Duty, even though that argument makes no sense."
Though only in North American for the time being, Actual Sunlight is now available on PlayStation Vita. O'Neill has since moved onto his next project Little Red Lie, the short story of two characters who each use lying as a means to navigate their day-to-day lives. It's being made in Unity and a demo is due this month.
"When the events management agency I worked for when making Actual Sunlight crashed out of business I transferred to being a freelancer," says O'Neill. "For a while it felt good and like I was an independent businessman. Now it feels less like I'm an independent businessman, and more like I'm just part of a precariat, a freelancer who doesn't get offered benefits or the other things that are associated with full-time employment."
"One character in Little Red Lie is an unemployed woman who's looking after her parents, and has to use deception just to navigate her daily existence and survive. The other is going to reflect that F. Scott Fitzgerald idea that the rich are different, that they just don't see the world like you and me. He's also influenced by Rob Ford. That's kind of a local angle, but he showed how you could be totally full of shit out in the open and still thrive because you're just that rich or that powerful."
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In response to perceived false emotions, both in video games and real-life, O'Neill describes Little Red Lie as depicting a "post-emotional world." Like Actual Sunlight, where despite his frustration, his determination, and his introspection Evan never accomplishes much, in Little Red Lie, characters' thoughts and feelings are rarely a substitute for power, money, or employability.
"The games a lot of people acknowledge as mature or emotional are really only achieving those things through spectacle," O'Neill says. "Raw emotion that is evoked through sad music or blurry camera angles, it has no context and it isn't really about anything. It's like that internet expression: 'It hit me right in the feels.' People want emotions that have no context because it's too painful to confront things that actually do. They just want to feel sad or melancholy without really thinking about why."
"People now are just so emotional about everything, and I don't know if they're prepared for a world where those emotions won't matter. You have no money. You're in trouble for real and now you don't have a cell phone to go complain about it. I want to avoid the overt politics of it and just say this is the state it's going to be if we keep going the way we are. Things will become so stark economically. It won't matter how you feel."
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