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Emotional Games: Actual Sunlight
Exploring mental health issues through video games with 'Actual Sunlight' creator Will O'Neill

Image courtesy of Will O’Neill

Lately I’ve been writing and thinking about how games as a medium can be used to create powerful and meaningful experiences, so Actual Sunlight couldn’t have found me at a better time. This entire game is an experience, and a powerful one, because it deals with very real, very heavy issues. There has been a pretty big shift in the industry towards indie games that aren’t constrained by the money machine that is the triple-A studio, and games that are more introspective rather than fantastic. Actual Sunlight is a prime and wonderful example of this shift.

Actual Sunlight is the story of one man’s struggle with depression. It doesn’t hide that behind metaphors, game mechanics, or fancy graphics. Unlike most games, the idea is to not give the player much choice, and it helps to recreate the feeling that depression brings that everything is inevitable. You know exactly what’s going to happen, especially if you’ve ever gone through it yourself, and as a player, you actively try to fight it (every time the game told me to go up to the roof, I did whatever I could to distract myself, or at least I tried to).  But there’s nothing you can do to change anything. The game excels at creating a feeling of helplessness and atmosphere of despair, while at the same time featuring very witty and smart writing that helps to draw you into this man’s world, even if it’s not one that you would choose or even want to live in.

The fact is, we need more games like this. One in seven adults in Canada will suffer from depression or other mood disorder in their lifetime, and yet mental health awareness and empathy remains low. Games that deal with ‘real world’ problems have the potential to reach people in ways that other mediums can’t, and maybe even change their way of thinking.

The game is set in Toronto, and even features an incredibly accurate (and funny) depiction of the TTC streetcar at rush hour. Its creator, Will O’Neill, is also a lifelong Torontonian, and I interviewed him about Actual Sunlight, his love of Toronto, and the importance of reality in games.

Congratulations on reaching your Indiegogo goal! What do you plan on doing with all that sweet, sweet moola?

I’ve got a great team already working on new, original artwork and music that will help create a much bleaker atmosphere for the game. $2500 is probably the smallest game budget of all time, and it won’t magically transform it into something palatable for people who hate reading, but I think it’ll go a long way in adding to the experience at key moments in the story.

This game is obviously a very personal story for you. Did you find it harder to put yourself out there like that, more so with a game than, say, a short story or a film?

I’ve done stand-up comedy where my goal for ten minutes was for people to laugh at how much of a miserable waste of life I am. Nothing you get to hide behind a computer monitor for scares you after that.

I’m sure I have terrible reasons for wanting to radiate like this, but I think I have some good ones, too — I want to write poignant and affecting things, and if my life has turned out in a way which dictates that those things won’t be pleasant, I can carry it.

Did you always know that you wanted to make a game? Did you know it would be this one?

I’ve played video games fanatically since I was just a kid with an Atari 400, but for the vast majority of my life there weren’t any tools that would have allowed me to make one, so it never really occurred to me. I’m not a programmer or a designer, and I bailed on math after grade 11. I’m really just a writer. Actual Sunlight is my first game, and part of the reason I chose a personal story was definitely because there was already enough about making something like this that I didn’t know anything about.

That being said, once I realized that the idea was really about diminishing agency, and about choices and outlook narrowing over time, I realized that a game was an ideal way of telling this story, because I could literally control and enforce how the player had less and less choice as the game continued.

Why do you think it’s important to make games that are more about real world issues as opposed to the standard “saving the world” type fare?

As an artistic medium, I think games inherently generate empathy in a way that other forms can only struggle to emulate. They offer an audience the opportunity to interact with characters in a story on a possessive, mechanical level that can be incredibly powerful. I think a tool like this is too important not to use to tackle real world issues.

Were there any other games/movies/books that you took as inspiration when making Actual Sunlight?

A lot of games have extraordinary writing — Star Control 2 is probably the greatest of all time — but the thing that really made me believe that walls and walls of text could still result in an amazing interactive experience was Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story.

The choice that game ended on, and the way it forced you to confront how deeply invested you’d become in a certain character, was absolutely paralyzing. I aimed for something like that in Actual Sunlight, too.

Atmospherically, I’d say I’m really inspired by games like To The Moon and Silent Hill 2.

In the game, you describe it as “a portrait, not a game.” What do you mean by that?

At that point in the game, when there’s sort of a break between the harrowing stuff and the really harrowing stuff, I wanted to remind players — especially younger adults who might be playing — that it was important to understand that the game really was a character study, and that they should consider the distance between themselves and the character they are controlling. I want the game to be thought-provoking, not just something that makes people miserable (or worse) for no reason.

Why did you decide to keep the setting in Toronto?

Toronto is the only home I’ve ever known, and I have an irreplaceable affection for it, but I feel like I’ve witnessed it become a much uglier and intractably problematic place over the course of my life as well. The way that the main character in Actual Sunlight feels about who he is — conflicted yet unchanging, comfortable yet uncomfortable — reflects a lot of that feeling as well.

Do you think Toronto is a good city to be an indie developer in?

Definitely — there’s a very young and vibrant scene, and while I am neither young nor vibrant, there is clearly an active and collaborative culture going on between developers, especially for things like TOJam where people come together to make games in the social incubator of very small periods of time and space.

If I still had it in me to stay awake for three days on nothing but coffee and friendship, I’d be all over it.

Once Actual Sunlight is finished, do you have any plans to make more games?

I’m already working on another game, and I think it will really surprise people who expect another Actual Sunlight. I’m going to continue making games that tell mature and sophisticated stories, but this next one is going to have a lot of warmth and heart. It’s about family.

Is there any other way people can support this game even though the Indiegogo campaign is over?

Yes! Now that funds have been raised, the next step is to move on to Steam Greenlight. I would love it if people would check out the game there, play it, and give it an upvote if they appreciate the experience. Please follow me on Twitter @willoneill for updates.

Unrelated question: Best gamer hangout in T.O?

Games With Friends at Bento Miso, no question. If you’re an aspiring game developer, hate Actual Sunlight, and want revenge on me for stealing an hour of your life, I invite you to come out and kick my ass at obscure Neo Geo games while I drone on like an old man about how it isn’t enough like Street Fighter II.

The original build of Actual Sunlight is available for free on the official website.  The upgraded version is expected to be released this May.


Megan Patterson is the Science and Technology Editor at Paper Droids and currently a Toronto Standard intern. She also tweets more than is healthy or wise. 

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard and subscribe to our Newsletter.

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