One of last year’s remarkable critical success stories, Actual Sunlight, is being currently remade into 3D by developer Will O’Neill. The game is testing waters on Steam Greenlight, and a demonstrative beta build of the new 3D version can be downloaded on the developer’s website.
The game is a “short interactive story about love, depression and the corporation”:
The game puts you in the role of Evan Winter, a young professional in Toronto, as he moves through three distinct periods of his life. The story is linear, unavoidable and (hopefully) thought-provoking. You experience his perceptions, fall under the consequences of his decisions, and meet everyone who didn’t change him.
Inspired by the game’s resurgence in 3D, I would very much like to go back in time (it’s not like we get second chances very often!), to point out just one interesting feature in the original game – a feature that’s completely transparent, and ordinary, and yet crucially shaped my experience with the game.
The game engenders feelings, responses, and thoughts on so many different levels that there already exists a wealth of criticism (see, for instance, Chris Priestman’s and John Walker’s). So. I shall try to be to the point.
Certainly, the jury’s still out on just how we should analyse personal games (see Raph Koster’s letter to Leigh Alexander, and Robert Yang’s letter to Raph Koster’s letter), but it doesn’t hurt to agree that many of them indeed seem to “[…] accomplish their power and effect by subverting ‘gameness.’ And what I mean by that is denying the player agency.”
Diminishing player agency is indeed central to the Actual Sunlight experience, and many reviews pointed out how the game works best not as a film, or a novel, but as a video game (a “visual novel”?). Only a video game could so beautifully take, to force the player directly into the protagonist’s downward spiral, in this case by replacing choice that existed with player-chosen choicelessness. In an interview with Toronto Standard’s Megan Patterson, O’Neill in fact states that
I could literally control and enforce how the player had less and less choice as the game continued.
If this feature was as clear as day, then how come we never came about to write about Actual Sunlight’s metagame feature set? Perhaps it is because personal games are very, very tough on the critic; they often force us to look inwards, and this changes the writing-reviewing dynamic. It turns us more into interpreters, respondents, and storytellers, blurring the lines between mechanics, effects, and their reception. The goalposts move.
This changed dynamic, I believe, makes mechanics stand out less – some personal game developers are wont to do away with the idea of “mechanics” altogether. But causes and effects are what makes everything tick – even if they’re less apparent, or difficult to quantify, to appraise. And readily apparent they are indeed not – not to developers, and certainly not to players; after all, our gamer competency is a kind of shared heritage, much like other generic human skills are (reading, writing, and so on), which makes it very transparent, and difficult to pay attention to.
Now: As Koster carefully outlines, via examples, in his letter, personal games often subvert a singular generic mechanism, but still ultimately have to rely on a majority host of others. After all, in many ways, subversion in itself is often a kind of singular, definitive, self-contained signature act. A prolonged, played-out subversion wears off the potency of the effect, be it in an artistic medium like video games, or in life overall.
This holds true of Actual Sunlight, too: While it potently subverts player agency, it also adheres to another feature that is seemingly utterly contrary to its whole: Saving.
That’s right, you can save your game in Actual Sunlight 2D. Today, a year after the fact, the game’s website makes a curious point of this: “Saving: available” it says of the 2D version, and “Saving: Not available,” for the new game. In fact, O’Neill states, in a recent IndieStatik interview,
[…] the new version of the game does NOT allow you to save your progress. That’s something that I’m experimenting with as the game is in open beta, but I’m pretty sure I want to stick with it. It’s an experience that I think people should absorb in one shot. I think too much of its momentum and force is lost if it gets broken up, and it becomes something that isn’t what I intended it to be.
These days, many game developers – in this era of checkpoints – are against free/infinite save games, for a multitude of reasons, one of which is the that players tend to save too often, introducing too much safety and security (for their own good, one could say), diminishing challenge, and removing tension from the game’s carefully orchestrated progress.
O’Neill, too, has clearly homed in on these aspects, understanding the potential dangers of the save game. And who could disagree with him? The Actual Sunlight experience should be taken in its entirety, and, as he says, taking breaks from the game turns the experience into something it’s not.
The background story of the four save game slots in Actual Sunlight 2D seems rather obvious to me: After all, the game’s development platform, RPG Maker VX ACE, models its feature set on the JRPG tradition of video games. In them, it is customary to provide players with a set of save game slots, often 3 or more, for backing up progress – in case they might need to level-up to beat a tough boss, or to try different solutions, or do several playthroughs.
Security. There are many different connotations to the save game function: The promise of a do-over, a different – better – take, a new branching path, the promise of another future. More health, a life saved.
In the case of a game with diminishing player agency, the presence of the save game function however introduces a curious ludonarrative collision, a potent effect that I believe O’Neill didn’t quite anticipate in 1) keeping the save game function in AS 2D, and 2) later removing it from AS 3D.
The gist of it is this: Where ordinary games offer to the player a real sense of security with save games, in Actual Sunlight, save game feature provides a false sense of security, relieving tension falsely, lulling the player into thinking that “everything’s going to be okay as long as you can try again.”
This makes the game’s heart-rending ending all the more potent still, given that the presence of the save game slot also radiated the promise of being, well, …saved. But as we know, in Actual Sunlight, we are simply far too gone to be saved.