Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: Interview with Will O'Neill, Creator of Actual Sunlight, Video Game-Fiction Hybrid

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Actual Sunlight by Will O'Neill

As the technology of book delivery evolves, some authors are getting creative, using technology itself as a storytelling tool.

Writer and game developer Will O'Neill has done something truly innovative in his first person player Actual Sunlight. Part video game, part multi-form fiction and all new hybrid, Actual Sunlight tackles themes as big as any meaty novel, including mental health, urban malaise and the difficulty of interpersonal connection in a tech-obsessed world.

Gameplay follows main character Evan in a nostalgic 2D bird's-eye view format as he goes about his day. Rather than the puzzle- or battle-based quests gamers may be used to, there are few choices or options. Rather, it is an intensely real, emotional experience, playing what is essentially Evan's life as he struggles with depression and hopelessness. This is immersive, not achievement-focused gaming, much closer to reading a novel than playing Zelda. Will includes moments of humour and flashes of anger and dark wit that round out the emotional landscape of the game as players read files, school reports, notes and more.

It's a meta-comment on how we live today; a video game that asks questions about the isolation and depression that can be exacerbated by technologies that replace real interaction — say, for instance, video games.

Will, who has written in the past for McSweeney's online magazine, speaks with us about the game's development and his motivations, as well as some of his influences as both a gamer and a writer and what he hopes players will get out of his creation.

Open Book:

Tell us about your game, Actual Sunlight.

Will O'Neill:

Actual Sunlight is a short piece of freely-downloadable interactive fiction in a Windows PC game format. It centers on the story of Evan Winter, a 30-ish professional in Toronto who struggles with depression, loneliness, and regret.

The ‘game’ aspect of it, though, is limited to how the player interacts with the diminishing agency that Evan has over his own life — for the most part, it’s just wall upon wall of text.

If you like reading, Actual Sunlight is your kind of game. It takes about an hour to play through entirely, and while it’s pretty heavy, I also think there’s a great deal of comedy and sentiment to it. I’m exceptionally excited to see what an intensely-literary audience will think of it, and as a game creator I really want to bridge the gap between games and literature overall.

OB:

Do you see yourself as a writer or a game developer first on this project?

WO:

A writer, definitely, and I tried to hold myself to that standard in a serious way. Some people won’t like my saying this, but the unfortunate reality is that a lot of games which are upheld as having ‘great writing’ are as riddled with bad clichés as they are with gaping plot holes. There are definitely game developers (and publishers) who see that as less important than gameplay, or a release date, but I’m a writer. I don’t.

In a nutshell, I think it needs to become as unforgivable to release a game with a story that makes no sense as it would be to do the same with a book from a discriminating publisher. I don’t think games can be taken seriously as an artistic medium until that happens, and I think that matters.

The good news is that many other game developers — particularly independent developers — are tackling this as well, and not just through text.

OB:

The game utilises multiple forms and genres of writing. How did you decide how to present your content? Are you personally drawn to any one form of writing over others?

WO:

I really wanted to write Actual Sunlight in a way that would draw the player into Evan’s hopelessly fantasized and sadly assumptive world. I tried to use every form I could to do that, and by utilizing a wide variety of approaches I also hoped to convey how horribly ubiquitous his miserable perspective really is — that he experiences nearly everything in an incredibly unhappy and obsessively wishful way.

OB:

What do you hope players will get out of this game? How do you compare the experience of playing Actual Sunlight with other video games?

WO:

I want players to find the game thought-provoking, but also emotionally powerful. A lot of the story centers around Evan’s history as a gamer himself, and I want it to be a video game that makes people who have played a lot of video games consider the impact that it has had on their lives — a experience of confrontation instead of escape.

OB:

Do you think this game will resonate particularly with people who have struggled with depression? Or is it a game for everyone?

WO:

I think most people can relate to depression, be it from personal experience or someone close to them, so in that regard I think it is for everyone. It’s also about a lot of things that are just depressing — about the toxicity of contemporary life itself — and that should be understandable to pretty much everybody.

That being said, it’s extremely harsh, and I don’t think someone in the midst of serious depression should be exposing themselves to it any more than they should be whistling through The Bell Jar. It’s mature in a different way than “mature” games typically are, i.e. through porn and violence, and it can be very powerful.

OB:

Did you always know that a game was the right way to present these particular pieces of writing? Do any of the pieces pre-date the game?

WO:

The protagonist’s essay in the first scene was originally a piece that I had planned to submit to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, but which I ultimately decided not to. Since they published "The Society of Pain" in 2010, I continued (unsuccessfully) submitting things to them that were far more horrific than hilarious, though hopefully at least a bit of both. The one you see in Actual Sunlight was the most vicious of them all.

A few months later, that essay ended up being the thing that gave me my first real piece of traction on writing the game itself.

OB:

This is a hard question to answer with brevity, but could you share a couple of your all-time favourite games and books?

WO:

My first experience as a writer was in theatre, and part of that never escaped me — I love the monologues and plays of authors like David Mamet and Eric Bogosian.

Book-wise, a few of my all-time picks would be Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, Money by Martin Amis, The Middle Stories by Sheila Heti, and Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. I like games with lots of intensely written moments as well, and a few of my favourites would be Star Control 2, Silent Hill 2, the Fallout series, and text-heavy masterpieces like Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex.

If I had to choose a favourite literary work that strangely inspired Actual Sunlight, though, I think I would go with Say Goodnight, Gracie, a play by Ralph Pape.

OB:

What are you working on now?

WO:

I’ve started to work on another piece of interactive fiction in a style similar to Actual Sunlight, but this one will be far less of a character study, and more plot-focused. Broadly, I want to touch on themes of family and loss, and look closely at some of the difficult and harmful things that can arise from the hope that people have for each other. Please follow me on Twitter @willoneill for the latest updates!


Will O'Neill is a writer and independent game developer from Toronto, Ontario.

For more information about Actual Sunlight please visit the official game website.

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