Actual Sunlight’s Will O’Neill: Games Need to Have Their HBO Moment

Will O'Neill, creator and developer for interactive fiction game Actual Sunlight, talks about linearity in games, the future of gaming, and his own work.
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Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Will O’Neill, the writer and developer for the game Actual Sunlight. With an interesting RPG aesthetic, Actual Sunlight is a snapshot into the life of a middle aged man battling depression. 

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Will talked to me about the state of games, gathering hope from hopeless games, and his next project.

Gameskinny [GS]: One of the reviews I saw online said that Actual Sunlight was a hopeful game. Do you view it along those lines?

Will O’Neill [WO]: So my personal interpretation is not of it being hopeful, but I do understand to a certain extent that some people do take a strange kind of inspiration from it. It makes me think a little bit about the fact that I was doing a lot of interviews at first for the game and people would say things to me like “Wow, you really captured the sort of distorted perspective of a person who is going through depression,” and it took me a bit aback at first because I was like right… the distorted. Cause to me it’s not distorted. It just is my perspective.

So my perspective on the game is that it’s not hopeful at all. It’s as dark and as unrelenting as I intended it to be, to me. But over time I’ve come to understand that other people see it in radically different ways and if people can take hope from it, I won’t say that’s my intention, but I certainly don’t want to deny their interest in it.

People who say things to me like “Wow, you really captured the sort of distorted perspective of a person who is going through depression,” and I was like right…the distorted. 

GS: Do you think games need to take on darker topics?

WO: I think games need to take on more adult topics. I think maturity in games needs to be about actual adult relationships, actual adult issues and problems. I don’t think maturity needs to be about horrible sexual objectification or gratuitous violence to be mature. I think games need to have their HBO moment. You know? I’d like to see…forget the Citizen Kane of games, I think we should be trying to make the Wire. I think we should try and make the Sopranos. The True Detective. Stuff that is smart, but also successful and genuinely mature. That’s where I’d like to see games go.

GS: Why did you work in RPG Maker rather than something in traditional IF (Inform 7) or something like Twine? One of these sort of pre-existing interactive fiction engines?

WO: So you’re right. I had a lot of choices for someone who’s not really a programmer. I was interested in RPG Maker because I really liked the atmosphere, like in something like To the Moon. There’s something about the mechanical empathy of actually controlling a figure on screen that I felt was sort of integral to how Evan connects the objects he’s interacting with the memories that he’s ruminating upon. And I also like the idea as a guy who grew up playing lots of video games and was kind of a video game addict, almost saw the world in a JRPG way. It was a look that was really reflective of a guy in his thirties that had been playing video games his whole life.

There’s something about the mechanical empathy of controlling a figure on screen that I felt was sort of integral

GS: Were you concerned about the lack of choice in Actual Sunlight? I could be wrong, but it seemed very linear. I was wondering if there was a concern about the lack of choice negatively affecting viewers?

WO: Linearity was actually exactly what I intend. The game is very much…the best way to put it, and you don’t have to use this quote, since it’s someone elses.. in Rock Paper Shotgun Porpentine said that it was about “fatal inertia”. I thought that was a better description than I had managed to find. And that is why the linearity is so important. Because I was trying to tell a story about someone for whom it wasn’t too late to do anything, but it was too late to do a lot of things. And he didn’t have those choices. I certainly understood that that linearity was going to make people enjoy the game less, I knew it would impact the popularity, but I didn’t give a shit.

GS: I gathered that from your sign.

[Quote is taken from the sign and is as follows:]

Your Life is Going Nowhere

Still, you think about how things could have gone differently I realize now that I should have just let my game end with a QTE sequence, or at least some kind of non-fat/non-male nudity. I could have been crowned Indie Suicide Jesus while 99% of my gazillion-plus-downloads were quietly driven by the part where the protagonist embraces his grimy despair at some racist massage parlor. I could have simulated human collapse in the form of a plot you’d find in a $20M AAA narrative gaming masterpiece – one that would be laughed out of the worst book publisher on Earth.

I could have (should have?) made this banner a more broadly appealing advertisement for what I paid thousands of dollars for what I paid thousands of dollars to come to PAX East to exhibit. But I didn’t.

I made this banner for the type of person who would still be reading it, and I made this game from the absolute gutter of my heart.

You are welcome.

GS: How important do you think choice is in games in general? Or do you feel like linearity is just fine? 

WO: I think like anything else, choice is a tool you can use to tell stories. I do everything in the story as a means to an end. There’s no right or wrong way objectively to do something, but it’s just whether or not it is the most effective way of doing what you need to do.

GS: Do you consider Actual Sunlight a game?

WO: Yes. Absolutely. Even as limited as the choices are, when those choices in the end of the game are really truly taken away from you in a way that they weren’t prior, then you are really faced with a mechanic that did something that I feel is gamelike. Even, in a sense, I used a little bit of choice, a little bit of game-likeness for the purpose of taking it from the player in the end. And for that reason I would say it’s absolutely a game. Even if all I did with the game format was take it away.

GS: What are you working on next? 

WO: So my next project is called Resorecta. Whereas Actual Sunlight is very much about depression and mental illness, Resorecta is about chronic physical pain and it’s cause and the main character has debilitating chronic pain but lives in a time where there’s a fake drug that I’ve invented called Resorecta, which essentially is a perfect painkiller.

But rather than being about the pain itself, it’s about what happens when the pain gets taken away.

GS: No addiction? 

WO: No addiction, no side effects. It essentially brings her back to life, hence Resorecta. And it’s sort of, and it’s a sort of rumination on living with chronic physical pain. But rather than being about the pain itself, it’s about what happens when the pain gets taken away. 

GS: How does that pain define you?

WO: Yes. And how she goes on to lead a more positive existence. But of course, like all things, this drug really has a price. It’s very much based, spiritually on a short novella entitled Flowers for Algernon. So if you’ve read that, you might have an early sense of what it is. 

GS: Will that also be interactive fiction? 

WO: Yes. Very text heavy. I’m actually rolling out a prototype in Adventure Game Studio, which has a really unique interface to it, it’s going to be done in a Monkey Island style. But rather than all the traditional choices, you only have two options. Lie and money, so you basically navigate the world through dishonesty and excessive force. That in and itself is going to be a commentary on her and the world in which we live. It’s still very early on. It’s coming into focus slowly. 

GS: Is that also in a sense autobiographical? Or is that more of a departure? 

WO: It is autobiographical. I have some chronic pain issues. I talk a little bit about disability in Actual Sunlight, but it is autobiographical. But the character that I’m going to portray in Resorecta is somebody who is much deeper into it than I am. Without this drug she’s a person who is essentially bedridden.

I recognize that the people interested in what I do is a lot more narrow than a more traditional type of game. So really, this banner is my way of saluting them.

GS: So, why the sign? 

WO: Why the banner? I figure anyone who’ll stop and read this banner is exactly the kind of player I should be talking to. I recognize, as a developer, that the people who are interested in what I do is a lot more narrow than more traditional type of game. So really, this banner is my way of saluting them. And the people who want to see more games like this. As well as, of course, to take a little shot at all the big budget games in the world who have world class art, world class sound, world class animation, and emotionally dishonest stories and it’s something I will never understand. 

I think one of the biggest privileges we don’t talk about is being intelligent. And being educated. Because a lot of the people who are interested in issues of privilege are themselves entitled to that privilege

GS: Which falls into the argument that “if you’re privileged you don’t know that you’re privileged.”

WO: I got to tell you. I grew up pumping gas and moving furniture with guys who will never play Actual Sunlight. They just won’t. It’s not that they’re bad people, or that they don’t care about storytelling games, they’re just not interested.

GS: I heard some people walking by and going “oh, it’s a depressing game. I don’t want to play that.” 

WO: Right. That’s their prerogative, I understand.

GS: And when it comes down to it, that’s sort of the choice. If you feel that games need to step forward, then you have to play hard games.

WO: And I like to be entertained. My feeling is entertainment is escapism, art is confrontation.

 You can find out more about Actual Sunlight, as well as purchase the game, at the Actual Sunlight Steam page

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Amanda Wallace
Former rugby player, social media person, and occasional writer.