Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Actual Sunlight

Whenever someone asks me what the key to making a successful RPG Maker game is, I always have the same answer - Focus on your strengths and make the game based on them. Don't try and make everything perfect just to meet the RM community's absurd standards. Perfectionism is the great foe of the RM scene, as too many highly talented creators abandon their projects when they realize that their quest to avoid every possible criticism that could ever be given is doomed to failure. This philosophy has served me well and makes it highly satisfying when a game like Actual Sunlight comes along and gets raves from big-time gaming websites solely on the strength of its top-notch writing.

Created by Will O'Neill, Actual Sunlight is the story of Evan Winter, a highly intelligent and talented guy whose skills are rendered useless by the severe depression that slowly destroys his life. The story is unbelievably bleak from the first few minutes on, with details so specific and familiar that it becomes clear this tale is at least a little autobiographical. We follow Evan on his daily routine as he avoids sitting too close to other human beings on the bus, wastes his time at a miserable corporate job and buys new video games despite knowing that the novelty won't bring him much relief from the burden of angst he's always carrying around. The highly linear nature of the story is essential to its overall theme, which culminates in the brilliant, nightmarish finale that turns the simplest RPG Maker functions into a demonstration of how depression can render a person completely powerless.

The game is rightfully getting acclaim for its unflinching portrait of depression, but I feel like what's missing from the discussion is how much it nails the soul-sucking corporate world that preys on people of the protagonist's generation (and mine). Yes, Evan is ultimately responsible for his own life and his own actions, but our shallow, sociopathic society is not doing people like him any favors. The office scenes in Actual Sunlight are a nice demonstration of "presenteeism" - this idea companies push that you should never ever take any time off becuase your work is just so important, so important that you get paid like crap as the joy is siphoned out of your life. Buy into that for too long and you end up like Troy, a co-worker of Evan's whose relentless commitment to work alienates the very family he was working so hard to provide for. I identified with Troy even more than with Evan, despite being closer to the latter in age, but I suspect my impending fatherhood is the reason for that.

As a veteran of the RPG Maker engine, I can point out little things to criticize. The buzzing noise that accompanies most of the text gets old quick, the maps (using my friend Lunarea's modern tileset) are very sparse, and Evan's chibi sprite is unable to convey his supposed obesity. But you know what? I can point all that stuff out, but I honestly don't care about any of that because this game is special. It is not easy to put out something this personal without it being insufferable. I'm not sure I'd call it "fun," but it's a riveting and undeniably brilliant piece of work.

The game can be found at its official site, along with an Indiegogo campaign to beef up the art assets. I am looking very forward to seeing more of the creator's work.

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