by Jed Pressgrove
Note: This article originally appeared in Pixels or Death, a defunct online publication. A special thanks to Pixels or Death Editor in Chief Patrick Lindsey, who edited this article for its original publication and was very enthusiastic about the prospect of it being republished at Game Bias.
“In the midst of winter I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus
Actual Sunlight‘s insight into power structures and human nature has mostly gone unrecognized. While the critical focus on the game’s portrayal of depression is warranted, developer Will O’Neill’s story goes beyond the mental illness of protagonist Evan Winter. As suggested by Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey, Actual Sunlight has a substantial Marxist reading. This reading compels me to reject the common label of “interactive fiction,” a term that says nothing about the power structure that Actual Sunlight opposes from a standpoint of philosophy and genre. Most importantly, a Marxist reading suggests that O’Neill did not necessarily intend for the game to end in the protagonist’s suicide.
From the very start, Actual Sunlight presents a Marxist interpretation of modern society. One of the core ideas of Marx’s theory is that capitalism systematically alienates workers. Early dialogue in Actual Sunlight reflects on this idea, as Evan Winter goes to work and asks, “Do we work in marketing? In finance? For the government? For the people? For good? For evil? Does it matter?” With “[n]o raises, no promotions, no hope, no future,” Winter sees his labor – and therefore his life – as pointless and without immediate or long-term benefits. Paradoxically, Winter’s dedication to alienated labor trumps an early wish for suicide. Shortly after the game begins, you can go to the roof of Winter’s building with the intention to jump, but Winter points out that he must go to work.
Much of the game’s writing highlights the Marxist idea that capitalism exists to exploit workers for the minimum possible cost. The management in the story wants Winter “to do more with less” with a “very, very high quantity of work.” One of Winter’s coworkers, Troy, illustrates how exploitation affects far more than the depressed protagonist. Troy is significantly older than Winter, makes a long commute, and works weekends, but Troy has reaped no rewards for his seniority or dedication. In fact, Troy’s exploitation gives us the game’s title: “I can’t even imagine the last time he [Troy] saw the house he spends every day paying for in the actual sunlight.”
One might ask why Winter continues working if he is so conscious of alienation and exploitation. Actual Sunlight presents more than one explanation, but the most important reason relates to Marx’s idea of the opiate. While people often interpret Marx’s statement that “religion is the opiate of the people” as a personal refutation of faith and spirituality, the phrase is primarily a social critique of how religion gives laborers the illusion that they can be fulfilled human beings under a capitalist system. Similarly, the first line in Actual Sunlight has largely been interpreted as personal, but it is also part of a social critique: “Why kill yourself today when you could masturbate tomorrow?” This question from Winter resembles a depraved but revealing marketing slogan for the capitalist system.
Consider that Winter’s addiction to porn (“so much to jerk off to”) is made possible by modern technology sold in stores. With its emphasis on modern technology, Actual Sunlight confirms the general lack of spirituality in video games. O’Neill therefore substitutes Marx’s opiate of religion with the opiate of consumer electronics (dealt by holy prophets like Steve Jobs). Winter himself describes the powerful opiate effect of consumer electronics in relation to his depression: “There has never been a better time in the history of mankind to be completely, cripplingly, devastatingly alone.” Winter also calls videogames “a shitty, anesthetic way that we have spent our shitty, anesthetized lives.” While modern technology subdues Winter’s suicidal thoughts, he later destroys his consumer electronics out of recognition that they keep him complacent in an oppressive system.
But so what if Actual Sunlight explicitly critiques the capitalist system like Marx? If that represented the contribution of the game, it would be little more than an obvious political statement. What makes Actual Sunlight special is its attention to the theoretical foundation of Marx’s critique: the concept of “species being,” which states that human nature is tied to labor. Marx explains that while animals like beavers and birds also perform labor, humans can change the circumstances of their existence through implementing new ideas that they conceive. Because capitalism tends to prevent humans from fulfilling or controlling their lives through labor, the system perverts human nature itself.
Driven by Marx’s thesis on human nature, Actual Sunlight raises questions about power structures in society and games. For example, game critics might reconsider capitalism as the ultimate power structure in society. O’Neill’s protagonist grapples with his white male privilege throughout the game; he even questions whether he, as a white male, has the right to be depressed. The game’s critique of capitalism, however, shows that not all white males ultimately benefit from the system. As Marx argues, recognition of alienation and exploitation can unite workers across backgrounds.
As an unsentimental RPG, Actual Sunlight provides a clear answer to a question from The Matt Chat Blog: “Are CRPGs good for nothing but reinforcing capitalist values?” This question sounds like the beginning of a rant from Actual Sunlight’s protagonist. With its commentary on alienation, exploitation, the opiate, and the perversion of human nature through an economic system, Actual Sunlight substantially diverges from the typical “light vs. darkness” RPG conflict, as well as the genre’s generally unquestioned emphasis on consumerism, materialism, and loot (see Stephen Beirne’s “Level 99 Capitalist”). Of course, some will immediately disagree with me for suggesting that Actual Sunlight is any sort of RPG. However, like Mattie Brice’s Mainichi, Actual Sunlight gives new sociological meaning to “role playing.” To insist on the banal “interactive fiction” label is to deny that these games play with the power structures within RPGs.
Besides providing insight into power structures, O’Neill’s very creation of Actual Sunlight celebrates Marx’s idea of human nature as inspired labor in action. This claim might seem contradictory given that most critics have interpreted Actual Sunlight as a literal “endgame” with Winter committing suicide. I can understand why this interpretation dominates the conversation about the game. After all, O’Neill breaks the fourth wall early in the game and calls Winter a “corporate dead-ender” who, unlike those under the age of 25, is on a fast track to destruction in his 30s.
Moreover, with a “Yes/Yes” choice, the game forces you to go to the roof of Winter’s building when he has his strongest suicidal urge at the end of the game. The lack of player choice in this particular action leads many to conclude that the game ends with Winter’s death. Dialogue like “You missed your shot” supports this interpretation.
Nonetheless, Winter doesn’t die in the game, contrary to John Walker’s claim that Actual Sunlight “dismisses any possibility for things to get better.” As a player, you have the choice to imagine what ultimately happens to Winter. In light of the game’s Marxist foundation, O’Neill’s ambiguous final image allows a possibility other than suicide. Is it not potentially positive that the final image of the game has Winter seeing the “Actual Sunlight” that Troy has missed in his utter dedication to the system? With this interpretation, Actual Sunlight‘s ending is not unlike a Jim Harrison story: a lost protagonist finding meaning and self-worth in a reconnection with nature (in this case, sunlight).
When O’Neill breaks the fourth wall, he basically declares that Actual Sunlight is not all fiction, tying himself to Winter as a mirror of his experiences. The successful creation of Actual Sunlight implies that Winter, or O’Neill, survives. Instead of committing suicide, Winter goes on to create a game (rather than write more cynical essays). The game is the result of labor not dictated by the capitalist system. The game is here because a depressed man has fulfilled some inspiration in his head despite the unfortunate circumstances of his life.