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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: Actual Sunlight (Sony PlayStation Vita)

Games don't have to be entertaining.

It's an idea that we continue to debate in some circles of the industry, but really, it shouldn't be the subject of debate at all. Films don't have to be entertaining. Many of the best films are emotionally crushing experiences that couldn't be further from the idea of entertainment. Books certainly don't have to be entertaining to wind up on canonical "must read" lists. I don't think anyone would rightfully call a painting "entertaining." Deep, important, meaningful, beautiful and fulfilling? All these words describe the finest paintings, but "entertaining" isn't really the right word to describe the impact of looking on a beautiful paining. 

So why do some insist that games must be entertaining to have value? It's something that continues to befuddle me, but I can only assume that people who loved films back in the 30s and 40s struggled against similar perceptions from their peers until Citizen Kane came along and forced the entire world to re-think the value proposition of film.

And that brings me to Actual Sunlight, which isn't going to be the Citizen Kane of games, but nevertheless stands as proof that a video game doesn't need to be entertaining to be worthy. Actual Sunlight is an emotionally draining, richly realised narrative experience that won't entertain you in the slightest, but it should get you thinking about something that we, as a society, need to take far more seriously. 

It is a game about depression. Not the kind of "depression" that you generally see represented in the popular media, which is more akin to a blue day. No. Actual Sunlight is about a real person's very real experience of very crushing depression. The kind that affects your ability to work, colours your view of the most mundane of objects, and makes you contemplate, day after day, heading up to the roof of your apartment block and throwing yourself off it.

Real depression makes you go from being pitied by your co-workers to being loathed by them. It has you buying meaningless distractions, as though raw consumerism will dig you out well of despair that you've dug for yourself. But it won't. It'll make you hate yourself more. Real depression will inspire you to try and do something creative, only to, in the cruelest twist of fate of all, give you a bad case of the writer's block, and unable to get any meaningful feelings to paper. This is the kind of depression that Actual Sunlight represents.

It's the kind of game that needs a giant trigger warning, because it's going to resonate with more people than any of us like to admit. It's a narrative game, with very minimal actual interaction, and yet every second of it will drag you in and keep your attention. I'm sure there will be people who will question why the developer chose to make this as a game, rather than a book or film, as players don't have much agency over what goes on, but I think that is precisely why the game format was perfect for Actual Sunlight. 

Because depressed people don't have agency. They are lost in a world where they feel trapped in routine, with no way out, much less a reason to continue on. By giving players the ability to move their character around his home, workplace, and favourite shopping haunt, but not giving them any control over what they actually do in these places, the "gameplay" of Actual Sunlight, quite ironically, better fits the theme of the game than almost any other "real" game out there.

The other presentational features also support this theme. The repetitive soundtrack drums on, quite deliberately, to represent the loop that out protagonist finds himself in. The RPG Maker-like sprites that represent the bulk of the user interface are so positively mundane that they offer a really quite shocking juxtaposition with some of the thoughts and statements you'll be reading as the man reflects on his life.

And then there's the odd piece of still artwork that is both beautiful, and achingly sad at the same time. Those stills show us a man - a very normal, everyday man, complete with his very real vulnerabilities and melancholy on display for us all to see.

And ultimately that is what Actual Sunlight is all about; humanity. Through a lens, watching the most desperate of us play out their lives, we should all see at least something of a mirror into our own lives; a reminder of when we're at our lowest. The idea that someone could actually experience that fleeting (for most of us) moment of complete misery into perpetuity should make us all want to immediately go out and donate a lot of money to charities for depression.

I honestly hate the idea of giving this game a score, because with an experience like this it's far too reductionist; even when compared to other games. But that's the system we've got at Digitally Downloaded, so, going by our own rules, for a game that I think this is this essential, and this important, there's only one score I can really give it.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Review: Actual Sunlight (Sony PlayStation Vita)
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