unsentimental rpgs

Actual Sunlight Review — Actual Marxism

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.


The Game of Defining RPGs

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome!

Dear Chris,

Lately I’ve been thinking about how video games are identified as RPGs by different people. I’ve concluded that the identification of RPG video games is a game in and of itself. For example, Craig Stern has a very interesting piece that shares a universal definition for “computer RPG.” As meticulous as Stern is in rejecting and revising various claims, the comment section shows that a definition of an RPG video game is never quite universal. The reason for this seemingly perpetual disagreement relates to your third rule in The Rules of Game Worlds: “No-one plays alone.” Indeed, our understanding of RPG video games are influenced by “design, genre, fiction, and play practices that are sustained by a community.” But “Is it an RPG?” is nowhere near as simple as “Is it a shooter?” The reality is that people will continue to debate RPG genre parameters in video games due to different sentimental experiences.

To borrow from your broad approach to prop theory, our sentimental experiences are props that we use to put games in various contexts, including genre parameters. The original Final Fantasy on the NES was a sentimental prop that I used for most of my life in regard to defining an “RPG video game.” For me, Final Fantasy was not merely a benchmark in terms of design quality for a particular type of game (the RPG); Final Fantasy told me what could be considered an RPG in the first place. There are two sentimental reasons that this was true. First, a close friend of mine introduced Final Fantasy to me as an RPG, and he was the only kid that I knew who played Final Fantasy or even used the term “RPG.” Second, Final Fantasy was unlike any other video game I had played. Because of these two facts, I would go on to dismiss the idea, for instance, that The Legend of Zelda could be considered an RPG. Although I played The Legend of Zelda before playing Final Fantasy, no one introduced the former to me as an RPG. The Legend of Zelda was simply something all NES kids played back in the day.

Other people use the original Final Fantasy as a prop in understanding what a video game must have to some degree in order to be called an RPG. Sentimental experiences with Final Fantasy might differ, but it is a common standard for defining an RPG video game. We definitely don’t play alone — especially not as RPG-defining folk. There are other RPG definers we must fight, such as the people who say The Legend of Zelda is an RPG (nevermind that these people more than likely recognize Final Fantasy as a legitimate RPG!). Typically, when we debate what is or isn’t an RPG, we come as sentimental outsiders. But really, all we’re doing is debating other people with sentimental props. We’re not that different.

The funny thing about this RPG-defining game is that many of the Final Fantasy vs. The Legend of Zelda gamers understand RPGs mostly within the context of video games. They arguably “know less about RPGs” than those who started with the original tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. If I understand prop theory correctly, D&D people might experience RPG video games much differently than me, as they bring their personal experiences from that historically important game into the equation. Perhaps a historical perspective might argue that they, having played the original tabletop RPG, should have the final word on what constitutes an RPG video game.

Nonetheless, I’ve written two pieces — one about Mainichi and one about Actual Sunlight — that argue for a new type of RPG: the “unsentimental RPG.” Notice that this term differs from terms like “action RPG” or “strategy RPG,” which emphasize mechanical differences in combat and linkages to broad genres. My goal with the “unsentimental RPG” term is to challenge the idea that an RPG, by definition, must lean on our sentimental understandings — our individual and community props. I see value in this argument: games like Mainichi and Actual Sunlight can inject new sociological meaning into “role playing.”

I think an easy way to understand the potential sociological value of “role playing” is to look at the example of John Howard Griffin, who wrote the groundbreaking Black Like Me. Griffin, a white journalist, artificially changed the pigmentation of his skin to pass as black, with the idea to see how his place in society would change. People, even those who knew him, treated Griffin differently when he looked like a black man. Black Like Me explored uncomfortable social realities, and Griffin didn’t merely undergo stress during his experience — the threats his family received after the book’s publication drove him to Mexico for safety. By daring to role-play (or role-take?) in real life, Griffin revealed and dealt with the consequences of social power.

A game like Mainichi or Actual Sunlight allows us to see social reality from another perspective without the danger of Griffin’s real-world journalism. But these games aren’t simply stories about differential power in the real world; they comment on the power structure of RPGs and how we define RPGs — a power structure that, if not oppressive, is limiting in its sentimentality.

Perhaps I am wrong to call Mainichi and Actual Sunlight RPGs. Perhaps they deserve a different term, but I am convinced they must be called something in regard to “roles,” because they’re precisely about the roles we play in defining reality, even on that less important scale of defining RPG video games. I also believe calling these games “interactive fiction” is a joke. “Interactive fiction” is already muddy enough when it comes to text-based games, so the term doesn’t clearly describe an avatar-based game that resembles Final Fantasy during a series of stop-and-chats in a town.

In an interview with First Person Scholar, you mention the importance of nurturing “pioneering spirits” in video games. This raises an important question: how does one trumpet “pioneering spirits” in RPGs without sounding like one is playing alone?


Jed Pressgrove