It's a me, barrio!
Evan Winter is selfish.
This is true. The game opens with a dispatch from the protagonist entitled, “Why Kill Yourself Today When You Could Masturbate Tomorrow?” That is a good question, Evan. Why destroy yourself when you can achieve a shining moment of orgasmic clarity, where the world makes sense and you are absolutely, genuinely right. This is Actual Sunlight’s opening salvo—the dispatch of a selfish man riding on the eddy of his eloquently spun aphorisms. Evoking a Holden Caulfield-esque kind of irreverence, Evan Winter lobs criticisms at pretty much everyone: the privileged, the corpo slaves, strangers on the street. Sometimes it’s bitterly funny, like when he squared off against the collective opinion of the Something Awful forum. A lot of times, his views are needlessly reproachful, like when he went off on a bender about the ulterior motives of friendly strangers. The messages and monologues cleverly hiding as item interactions show a well-spoken man raging against the artifice of the world.
Evan Winter is helpless.
As visible as his takedown of society, it is apparent that Evan Winter is a broken man. He slams himself as much as he chastises other people. He knows he’s a fat alcoholic because he lacks self-control. He lacks self-control because why bother? What is one more bag of fries? What is one more hangover when we’re all slouching towards end? But his is nihilism with meaning. And for him, the meaning of life is to shuffle bullshit around until we give this place the laugh.
The spaces Evan Winter inhabits confirm his worldview. He works in the corporate badlands; the minutiae and the managerial ruthlessness further alienating him from the world. Evan comments extensively on the stranglehold of his situation, taking potshots at corporate buzzwords and the futility of training seminars. With his cubicle as his soapbox, he will rant because he can do nothing else.
Evan Winter’s message-in-a-bottle item descriptions reveal that he is seeing (or saw) a therapist. At least he’s getting help, I sympathized. But the game then reveals the therapist doesn’t exist. He was not getting help. There’s no shining epiphany, no prescription for medication. He realizes the corner he has backed himself into. He realizes everything about himself. Of course he does. As his own therapist, every imperfection is pinpointed and amplified. His mind is a ticker repeating why and how he sucks. Evan is on his own and, tragically, he isn’t that much help to himself.
Evan Winter is lonely.
Nothing. That’s the whole idea, isn’t it? In the last few minutes, the motif of hollowness has infected every aspect of the game. The protagonist leaves behind an empty apartment, gutted during an alcohol-fueled fit. He quit his job because his attempts at workplace civility were perceived as sexual harassment. He sabotaged a possible romantic relationship because he saw that it was built on dependence—an idea he understands all too well. Transcripts of his writing class lecture, his therapist appointments, his TV interview were all revealed to be all in his head and had thus ceased to come up again. He has eliminated every single ugly thing in his life but why has nothing changed? Why is this terrible world still lurching on its axis? In a moment of quiet, grim clarity, he realizes he can do nothing else but opt out.
Evan Winter is hopeless.
This is a lie, but let me make it clear that he is not a hopeful man. Actual Sunlight is about the hope Evan Winter fruitlessly cultivates. Despite his self-assurances and promises, he doesn’t change. His momentum is slow but implacable. The author, Will O’Neill, even states as much that, “It’s… pretty clear where all of this is headed.” And he follows through. The game does not condescend with a swerve towards a happy ending. When Evan rounded the final curve of his downward spiral, he holds one last conference with his imaginary therapist and decides to jump off the roof. It is the player’s choice to have him take the elevator, but it was not a choice at all. You are given no alternatives because Evan believes he has none. His hope has gone, and with it, all of his rationalization and anger. He has run out of windmills to charge at. He has stopped blaming others, society, and the media. He had dissected himself so thinly that he has nothing left.
The final sequence is a thing of immense melancholic beauty. If the statement “beauty in a breakdown” were irrevocably applicable, it would be then in that instance. With his self-preservation imploding, Evan Winter balls up his last shred of eloquence and bares his soul. We see a man so critical of himself: a man who has tried to fight irrelevance ten years too late. In the jagged cadence of Evan Winter’s existence, I saw my own. Maybe I just made different decisions or learned different things but there was something of me in him and him in me. It was hidden beneath the layers of social anxieties disguised as noise and wit—behind the unfulfilled expectations masked as brutal honesty. In another world, Evan Winter could easily have been me. But he is not me. I am fine. I got help. This is his game. I needed to remember that.
Evan Winter has a choice.
Yes and no. Did he jump? He didn’t. He did. It’s up to you. Evan Winter’s death wasn’t shown and for that, I am grateful. Even if it were absolutely illogical in the context of the narrative, I am relieved the fate of Evan Winter was left ambiguous. Because only then was I given a choice. The entirety of the game sets up a “diminishing sense of agency.” I can decide to sit next to someone on the bus, but Evan won’t. I can decide not to buy another video game to fuel Evan’s addiction, but he will refuse to leave the store until he makes that purchase. I can decide not to go to the roof, but my, Evan’s, options are limited to >Yes and >Yes. There at the precipice is the only time I could decide what happens next. That was the whole point of it, I think. When your agency is hijacked by invisible phantoms, deep-seated fears, chemical imbalances, or the exhausting march towards perceived pointlessness, you get to make one last decision. Standing on the edge of staying and leaving, you get to choose which way to go.
Evan Winter is depressed.
This is true. This is important.