A Conversation with “Actual Sunlight” dev: Will O’Neill

An engaging storyteller, Will O’Neill from Toronto, has launched his critically acclaimed game, Actual Sunlight, on Steam. Actual Sunlight stares unflinchingly into the heart and mind of a man, Evan Winters, on the throes of his greatest struggle: Of depression, work, and love. Torontonians will find some recognizable and timely allusions to our city that pepper the game. Regularly priced at $4.99, this game is a steal, and a great exploration into indie games that push boundaries and barriers.

Will O’Neill is an invaluable friend of mine, who is full of wisdom in offering prescient advice and support for indie game-making. Although I have not reviewed Actual Sunlight directly, as my biases will show having play-tested the game and being a fan of his work, I will say that it is a game that holds a special place in my heart and needs to reach a wider audience. While his conversation with me focuses on the process of game-making, writing and life (so to not spoil anyone of the game’s narrative), a near-concurrent Twitch live-stream Q&A focuses on the content of depression and hope within the game itself.

Without further ado, here are the transcripts!

 

Upcoming business: Will O’Neill’s events and work life

Tanya: Hi Will! First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to do this chat! I know that, as we’re talking, there’s people streaming your game on Twitch! That’s very exciting. Do you think that might be changing the landscape of how players receive and see games nowadays?

Will: Tough to say. Twitch Plays Pokemon seemed like sort of a watershed moment, but I’m not sure if anything else will be able to replicate its success. If that phenomenon repeats itself a few more times, I’ll become a believer.

But some types of games are certainly better for it than others! I think it’ll be interesting to see if it starts to seriously drive development. I’m sure there are a few ‘Twitch Games’ now already in the works…

Tanya: That’s very game design take on it! And it seems like it does fuel a kind of community feel, for sure.

Speaking of which, congratulations on bringing Actual Sunlight to the Indie Megabooth at PAX! That’s so exciting! Happening so soon, too, on April 11th through 13th.What were your thoughts when you first prepared for the Megabooth? Did it give you a different perception of Actual Sunlight? Do you think the audience may perceive it differently at PAX than at other places of reception (such as online)?

Will: Getting prepared for the Megabooth has been exciting! I’m certainly not the first person to take a text-heavy game there. Christine Love is an alumni, returns this year, and I’m sure there are others.

It’s been a little strange as time has gone on to think of Actual Sunlight as more and more of a commercial product, but I’m good with it. I think it’s a great piece of writing and deserves to find as much of an audience as it can.

As for the audience, I think it is always the same in a way no matter what – a very, very narrow cohort. Whereas most games might attract 60 or 30 or 20 people out of a hundred, I think mine only resonates with very few; maybe one or two out of a hundred. But that is exactly why going to something like PAX is so important for me: I need to expose the game to as many people as possible to find the ones who it will be really, really special for.

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Tanya: That’s fantastic! I agree that the story is really well written, and perhaps because it resonated so much with me, I actually think it’ll be so much more than 1-2% of the population!

There’s something just so that connects with me about a man who makes his living out of something corporate but still in the creative world, but struggles to make meaning out of that. I’m not giving too much away, right?

Will: No, I think being in both of those worlds is an interesting thing, too, and since Actual Sunlight has found some success, it has become an even bigger part of my life. Today is the second day of my launch on Steam, and I spent all of it in meetings with banking clients that I still work doing writing and creative direction for, and then I came right home to do all of the stuff that the game demands of me right now.

And this will probably continue to be what my life is like indefinitely – doing creative and interesting things while also continuing to have to work for higher powers in order to keep a roof over my head.

I admire the hell out of indies who try to make a go of it on nothing but their games, but I’m also coming into this a lot later in life – at 33 – with a career already pretty well established. It’s not something I can walk away from, but neither is doing the creative stuff that I love.

It’s just life. You have to figure out a way to make it all fit together.

How Actual Sunlight emerged from balance, discipline, and vision

Tanya: That’s really admirable, and you’ve advised me very well on finding that balance. It’s an ongoing learning experience, isn’t it? Knowing what sort of work pushes the limits that might unravel the creative soul-lifting work for yourself, and vice versa.

Will: For me, I think it’s less about unraveling, and more about how grateful I am to my corporate and agency career for having given me real discipline when it comes to writing.

Working 60 – 70 hour weeks for extremely demanding clients in high-pressure scenarios is what taught me how to polish my writing to a high standard – lots of situations where you’ve only got one chance to impress somebody, one chance to get it right – and I think that did me a lot of good with AS. Far more so than school or any other experience ever did.

If you’ve played the game, obviously you know I don’t consider my agency career to be a morally shining part of my life, but I do think that the biggest weakness most writers have is that they are not hard enough on themselves in the way you learn to be in that environment.

I believe you should always be reading your own writing and asking yourself if you would actually like it if it had been written by somebody else, or if you think it is as good as something that you have read and loved.

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Tanya: That’s fantastic advice for people wanting to get into game writing, game design, and writing in general.

And, ironically perhaps, some good mentors and older friends of mine have been telling me that it would be advisable to work in advertisement for a while if my goal is to be a game designer, for much the same reason that you only have one chance to impress a client. And so you have to polish your art like a whetstone to a sword.

In that case, how often did you have an editor or friends involved in going through your story at the earlier stages, before it was a beginning-to-end playable game?

Will: Actual Sunlight was seen zero times by zero friends prior to or shortly after its release. I was way more fragile about it at the time. I don’t think I could have shared it with anyone, honestly.

Tanya: Wow.

Will: I’ve never really been a part of creative or collaborative communities when it comes to writing, either – or at least not for projects that I think of as personal.

Tanya: For that level of polished writing, I’m a bit stunned. Your earlier statement about writers being tough on themselves really rings true. In Actual Sunlight, you didn’t cut any corners, and you didn’t let scenes overstay their welcome. It struck a great balance.

Will: I like working in teams on projects that start out and are explicitly defined in that way from the drop, but I tend to think that really great things tend to emerge from a singular vision. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a great team to execute that vision, but it still stems from one person.

I recognize that such a belief runs contrary to what a lot of people think of as indie development culture, but it has been the most effective way of doing this one thing that I have done so far…!

Tanya: Heh, I think I really like that core structure. I’m still baffled by the idea of co-authorship for writing. The classic books, philosophical novels, so much of it are written in isolation, sometimes to the point of imprisonment.

Will: It’s one of the reasons I think Actual Sunlight is the best and maybe the only significant thing I’ll ever do – I could just literally feel it emerge from that really, really personal part of myself. I might be able to make a more successful game, but I don’t think I’ll ever make a better one.

It’s just…You have to understand: I didn’t just sit down and work really hard at it. It literally comes from the last 15 years of my life. You can’t fake that, and you don’t have any more of that ammunition than time can give you.

Tanya: I think though, there’s something to be said about having themes that you always come back to. Kind of like filmmakers who have this huge oeuvre of work and they still give reverence to those moments that seem more articulate for them than for anyone else, and it echoes throughout their different films, in different contexts. I can totally see that can happen for you.

Will: Yeah, I think you’re right – I think a lot of the things I write in the future will probably echo back to certain really powerful moments or beliefs in my life, just as they did in Actual Sunlight.

At the same time, I hope I get the chance to grow as well. And not just for the sake of making another cool video game.

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Will O’Neill’s upcoming new project: The Highwayman first look

Tanya: Hehee, I’m sure the growing and new experiences will happen, and then the games and storytelling will follow! So, speaking of which, what are we looking forward to next from you? Can you talk about a game that you’re going to showcase this spring at Bit Bazaar in Toronto?

Will: My next project is called The Highwayman, and I think it will be very much connected to the type of growth I hope to go through, albeit a little strangely…

Basically, the main character in the game is a woman named Katie Cross who suffers from massive, crippling amounts of chronic pain. We also learn that she takes an extremely expensive drug that essentially cures her of this pain, and allows her to live a completely normal life.

And so, in a way, this game is ‘about’ chronic physical pain the way that Actual Sunlight was ‘about’ depression, but rather than it be about being mired in that condition, it is about being completely freed from it.

Even though that freedom ultimately comes with a cost, the focus of the game is going to be very much about how amazing that freedom is.

If Actual Sunlight was a portrait, The Highwayman will be a wish.

Tanya: It sounds intensive and layered an experience.

Will: It is! Right now, in fact, I think it has too many layers. Right now her personal experience interweaves with all sorts of stuff about her work and money and politics and all of this stuff, and I don’t know if I’m really up for all that as much as I think.

I think I might just make a really beautiful story about someone who finally gets what they want, if only for a little while.

Tanya: Incredible! And sounds to be a visual, phenomenological experience.

Will: At the same time, it will be done in a style that fans of Actual Sunlight will love.

I mean, I’m very conscious of not making Katie into some kind of female Evan, but she is whip-smart, and has a lot of thoughts on everything.

Much wealthier, though, much better looking, and much more confident. Those three things alone means that she and Evan Winter could be in the same room and residing in a different universe.

Tanya: There’s a fascinating description about disconnection between people of completely different mindsets! Oh, I think that Highwayman will resonate with a great variety of audiences. I immediately thought of those who use their bodies in any sort of professional pursuit, such as athletes and dancers, may find parallels with Katie’s story.

Will: Well, it’s not so much about needing her body to do her job – it’s about needing her body to do anything. My point of reference for this is somebody essentially going through chronic, unremitting back pain. The idea presented will be that Katie had slowly been reduced to doing almost nothing before this drug comes along.

Bedridden, essentially.

I’m prototyping the game in AGS (Adventure Game Studio) currently, and this is PC only, but we’ll see how things go as they move along. I don’t think I want to invest a lot in this game, because I don’t see it as being much more commercially viable than Actual Sunlight – even less so, honestly – but I want to do it and get it out there.

I’ve started writing it and it is just stuck in me now. I’m going to make my big, commercial, Thomas-Was-Alone-esque move for my third game, I swear. 🙂

Tanya: I look forward to all of the above! But I like your deep, personal stories. It lets me not flinch away from reading hard personal tales, and also from writing things that I deeply care about.

Will: Thank you!

On the game dev community, and especially Toronto

Picture of Will O'Neill, captured on Toronto-based Christine Love's Interstellar Selfie Station.
Picture of Will O’Neill, captured on Toronto-based Christine Love’s Interstellar Selfie Station.

Tanya: So, you often come out to game jams and events. How are they in terms of getting game and story ideas beaten around in an intensive environment?

Will: I enjoy the social component of them more than anything, and I also like what communities like Bento Miso and Dames Making Games (DMG) stand for, so I try to support them on that basis alone. Truthfully, I’m too old and too (relatively) antisocial to be rolling with all the young devs all the time. I just like to see people occasionally.

The type of thing I make is just the sort of thing I like to do on my own. That being said, if somebody said to me, “Hey, we need a really good writer, this is the kind of thing we want to do, will you help us?” I would be up for that.

I like either working completely alone on my own stuff, or completely in subordination to the vision of somebody else, and trying to help them make it really good. Truly collaborative stuff, I don’t know: I love it in theory, but it just isn’t me.

That being said, I think it might also just be about finding the right people. I love the friendship that I see between guys like Damian Sommer and Droqen and Ryan Roth – I look at that and admire it, because I feel like those guys really do inspire each other.

Tanya: Haha! Do you call Alex “Droqen” in real life?

Will: I don’t know if I’ve ever called him anything, honestly! I’m just like, “Hey man, what’s up?” Haven’t run into a third-person situation yet.

Tanya: Alright. And yes, Damian and Alex and Ryan really have an energy shared between them that I don’t think I’ve seen with many other people! Bento Miso and DMG are also great communities to foster game development in a friendly environment. And gosh, I’m not going to pick that bone with you about “too old”, this will turn into an endless argument!

I’m watching the conclusion of NextGenTactics’ Twitch stream of Actual Sunlight, and I have such an emotional experience even after seeing the scene for the fourth time. Goosebumps, everywhere. There’s 227 viewers watching right now, that’s such a powerful experience to share and to know others are seeing the same thing. There’s a real closeness going on in the chat right now. The Twitch presenter, Hyper, just said, “I felt like I’ve lived part of that life, in my own way. It was hard to read something like that.” Let’s switch streams!

On NextGenTactic’s Twitch channel

Suley moderates questions in the chat while Will responds in text and Hyper responds in audio. All text transcripts are verbatim, below:

Suley:  From DMoshpit: “To the developer, if you don’t mind, is the ending supposed to be absolute, or more a take what you will from it kind of ending. In a way allowing you decide what you would do as this character.”

Willoneill:  DMoshpit: It’s absolutely intended to be ambiguous, and to show Evan as he comes to that decision in his life at maximum force – but that decision, that crossroads, is what I really wanted to emphasize.

Suley:  From Dr_rs_monkeybomb: “Will, What Motivated you to make this game?”

Willoneill:  Dr_rs_monkeybomb: The game is basically drawn entirely from my own life experience, and what motivated me to make it was wanting to tell my story in a way that I didn’t think conventional art or entertainment would. I like to give the example that the Hollywood version of Actual Sunlight would feature Evan ‘turning it all around’ and going jogging. I wanted to show that it isn’t that easy, or that simple, in real life.

Hyper: I really agree with that, Will. In the movies especially. People get happy endings too much, they expect to be whisked away, but that’s not how life is.

Dmoshpit:  Will, not a question, more of a rebuttle. I just wanted to say how awestuck I am that something like this exists in game form. Yes, it’s becoming more common, but I’ve never seen something this powerful ina game.

Damomaiden:  just saying but dis game brought back alot of old feelings T_T..thank u will tho for creating such a touching game and i sincerlly hope hyper is ok

Suley:  From secretly_ginger: “to the developer/will ** did you ever expect that the *game* to cause such discussion in a live and have people open up after seeing a role model open up?”

Willoneill:  Secretly_ginger: When I first put out the game, I felt like maybe only people who resonated closely with the character of Evan would feel for him – but I’ve been very surprised at how much people of all kinds have connected with him, and the discussions that the game has sparked. It’s been a huge honour.

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Suley:  From Suley: Not directly about the game, but do you feel that visual novel style games to be a more powerful medium of spreading the word?

Willoneill:  Suley: I’m a writer and I love to read, so I’m a bit biased towards the written word, but I do think VNs and games like this are extremely capable at getting these kinds of messages out. Just look at other games of this type – things like Depression Quest, or Christine Love‘s games. All fantastic, and all very text-heavy.

Suley:  There are also several people asking about where you got the name Actual Sunlight from.

Willoneill:  Several people: The name Actual Sunlight has a few connotations, but the main one is fatalistic – that only ‘real’ happiness is real, and that Evan could not have ever truly been happy.

It’s drawn from that monologue about Troy, who sacrifices and does so much for his house and his family, but who never actually gets anything out of it.

Suley:  From Shadowstorm1234: do you think that the way the game was written had a major effect on the emotional side of things? like if it would have been written in more of a pg version?

Willoneill:  Shadowstorm1234: I don’t think a ‘PG’ version would have the same effect, no – I wanted to show a very adult version of anger and bitterness, and especially in the second half I wanted to show Evan’s frustration really spiral into anger. Profanity was also hugely important in crafting the parts of the game that are – I think – funny.

Dr_rs_monkeybomb:  We all grew closer together while watching this, It was really powerful to see..

Willoneill:  Hyper: Some of the music was done by me, and some of it was done by the very talented Robin Ogden, aka OGRE.
But there isn’t a separate soundtrack for sale right now, so I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the game to get the music!

Suley:  From kawaii_dark: “for some one who cut and wanted to throw their lifes away like the character can you say a few words that you lived by that made you keep going?”

Willoneill:  kawaii_dark: One thing that is really important to me is to limit myself to the fact that I am an artist and a writer. I am not qualified to give people advice on mental health – I’m no different than someone who makes a sad song or a sad movie. If you are struggling with those feelings, you need to speak to somebody qualified.

Willoneill:  Kawaii_dark: Obviously, I’ve drawn a lot of strength in my life from the desire to make art and do creative things, but everyone is different. Please discover what is special about your life to you.

Turklingbuzzard:  ive been watching ngt for over a year and it amazing how one game can bring together a community

Willoneill:  Turklingbuzzard: It feels awesome. One of the toughest parts about this game is that it can be tough to talk about with others – I mean, how can you talk to people about how much this meant to you without showing your own vulnerability? And so to see people open up like this and talk about it is incredible. Thank you.

Suley:  From Shadowstorm1234: ” The music seems to be a major part of this game. What made you come to the conclusion of using this music? and do you think that the music is a key role in the mood of this game,?

Willoneill:  Shadowstorm1234: The music is hugely important, definitely. When I was working with OGRE, I also wanted to capture a very ‘Toronto’ type of sound – very much influenced by the instrumentals of artists like Drake, Boi 1da, etc.

Lauren_lady_gamer:  thankyou hyper for playing the game, most of us understand how your feeling and appreciate you sharing this with us all. stay stong hyper and everyone in the chat  <3

Hyper: I just want to say, personally, that I play lots and lots of games, and some do hit hard at times. But this one is being so honest with the subject, and written so well that I have a connection with it, and planted itself directly in my head. It is not going to be one that I forget very soon. I don’t think it’s one of those games that I’m going to play in the mornings after, over and over, but it’s one that stays in my head. Thank you. I’m so glad I took a risk on it, and I went on the Steam page and just went with the gut feeling of going to play this, instantly.

Willoneill:  Thank you Hyper for the streaming and for the comments!

Hyper: That’s why I love indie games, you get to meet awesome people like that. You get to experience a fun Q&A, after you get your heart broken like that.

Back to our own conversation, and Translations for Actual Sunlight

Will: Wow, those comments. I did a cool thing in my life, huh?

Tanya: You did a great thing.

Will: A massive Spanish YouTuber did a play-through today. I’ll be interested to see what that does.

I love the translations – I just love seeing things happen with them. And the translators love it, because if you can translate Actual Sunlight, you’ve proven you can translate any other game in existence. 🙂

Tanya: Too cool! What other languages are you having it translate to?

Will: Right now it’s in French, Spanish, Italian and Brazilian Portuguese. If those do well, I might do German next. After that, it gets complicated, because it starts getting into other alphabets.

For example, I would love to do Russian. I know that Russians would love Actual Sunlight, but it’s a bigger job.

And if I was going to do Chinese, should it be Simplified or Traditional?

Tanya: Haha, that’s a complicated question and one that will take up possibly hours of your life.
Let’s wrap up! I know that I’ve been really inspired with our conversation today and so I am totally eager to throw myself into writing as well!

Persuasive advice for first-time writers and game writers

Tanya: For people who want to step into the industry of game making or game writing, you’ve already offered a lot of amazing advice. Speaking of broken hearts, however, I’ve got one more question: What advice would you give to new writers who fear that they can’t get over their writer’s block, or don’t really know where to start organizing their game ideas?

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Will: So much of being ‘blocked’ in writing stems from attacking a point that will never be vulnerable at that point in time. For so long, there were parts of Actual Sunlight that I couldn’t ‘crack’, but which I found were easy to write when I came back to them later, with more of the stuff that encircled it already in the can.

Basically, if you find yourself trying to write something that you can’t write, I advise you to write something else – even if it is a totally different part of the project or something else entirely. Writing is a little bit like climbing to me – you’re looking for a foothold. You’re looking for something that succeeds so that it will spur further success.

The moment I came up with the line “Why Kill Yourself Today When You Could Masturbate Tomorrow?” I felt that entire monologue blow open in front of me like a chasm. It came so easily, and up to that point it had been so, so hard. But I had been trying to work on the body of it rather than asking myself what it was at a higher level.

And that’s just one example. My only real point is that if something isn’t going well, move on and come back to it later. Look for a foothold. Always, always look for a foothold: A tiny little thing that you know is exactly, exactly right in an ocean of other stuff that you hate.

Tanya: Haha, those two consecutive imagery and examples are just absolutely amazing. And I think the concept connects with a lot of creatives while having that “sizzle”.

Will: Well, I don’t know what other advice to give. I damn sure wouldn’t want to be too specific to Actual Sunlight. The advice there would be to be really overweight, not go out with anybody for eight years, work at a bunch of shady and/or scandal-ridden places, watch people around you make horrible decisions, and just generally blink as your twenties clip past. I wouldn’t wish all that on someone just so they could write. Please try to live a happy life instead. It feels like it happened to me more accidentally than you might think.

Tanya: It’s great advice, and really comes from years of experience of good creativity, methinks. And that last part, that felt like it was aimed directly at me! “Method” writing. I can accuse myself of doing something like that from time to time.

Wow! Between the live Twitch stream and us chatting, I think that we’ve had quite the interactive conversation that covered love, depression and the corporation, and more.

I look forward to what new audiences Actual Sunlight will inevitably touch with the launch of the game on Steam. Also, extremely excited for The Highwayman! Have fun at PAX! Thank you for the great time, Will!

Will: Thank you!

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Contact info

There you have it, folks. Be sure to pick up Actual Sunlight on Steam and drop Will a line at @willoneill on Twitter!

The NGT community that streamed Actual Sunlight was also super supportive and very eager to experience indie games. Check them out at twitch.tv/nextgentactics.

You can also contact Hyper at hypermole80 on Twitter!

Visit the official Actual Sunlight site

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