It’s always a risky move, as a developer, to directly cite an inspiration for your game. By doing so, you inevitably invite comparison, and the bigger and more influential the inspiration you cite, the harder it becomes for that comparison to turn out favourably. So when the blurb for Sunlight describes it as “taking artistic inspiration from expressionist painters like Edvard Munch,” it sets itself a high bar.
But it’s a challenge that developers Krillbite have risen to. Sunlight goes far beyond simply mimicking the visual style of an impressionist painting to embodying the themes and philosophies of the movement; it’s a bona fide impressionist game.
That’s most immediately apparent in its visual style. The forest that the entirety of Sunlight takes place within is a 3D environment that you explore from a first-person perspective, but a hand-painted finish makes the whole game look like a living painting. It’s marked by the short brushstrokes and deliberate unevenness characteristic of impressionist works—an effort to capture the mood of a scene rather than a realistic depiction of it.
A big part of that atmospheric effect is the sense of motion that this style conveys. When you look at a piece like From Sandviken, you can almost see the wind blowing through the trees despite the stillness inherent in the form. Sunlight has a similar effect, and though it’s augmented by actual animation, like grass gently swaying in the breeze, those animations are, for the most part, quite subtle; they underscore the sense of motion rather than driving it. The world feels both frozen in time and full of movement, all at once, even as you explore it in real time. That’s an impressive effect on its own, and one that makes the occasional gust of more heavily-animated wind at key moments in the narration all the more impactful.
Sunlight, too, plays a crucial role in the atmosphere of Sunlight (unsurprisingly!) The forest is scattered with patches of light that break through the canopy of trees above, bringing with it a sense of life and warmth as you explore. At times, the light will fade away or reignite to match the beats of the story unfolding around you, influencing the atmosphere along with it. That said, the visual effect of light in Sunlight doesn’t quite have the same impact as that of the artworks this game is based on; instead of deliberate, individual strokes of light reflected off a body of water or colouring the sky, Sunlight uses more typical videogame lighting effects, resulting in a pool of light that washes over whatever it touches. It’s still atmospheric, but doesn’t make quite the same mark.
As you explore Sunlight‘s forest, the trees surrounding you narrate a story. It starts simply: the story of a kid playing in the woods, who winds up getting sick and having to go to the doctor. But in true impressionist style, it’s not about the specifics of what is happening so much as the narrator’s subjective reaction to it, expressed through vivid poetic imagery.
“I closed my eyes and let my sensations lead me. First, I spent some time with my bones … Even my skeleton was alive and living, in and of itself.”
Running all through Sunlight‘s story is a recurring theme of the connectedness of all life. In the same way that a person’s fingers, our lungs, our bones are all individual things but also part of their whole being, so too are we part of the forest that Sunlight has us exploring, and of the very concept of life itself. A lifetime is just a small chapter of a neverending story, and though an individual person might only see a tiny part of that story—a miniscule fraction of a full stop on a page of Romance of the Three Kingdoms—they’re still a part of that story, and remain so even when their individual self is long gone.
Sunlight isnt saying that “we are all one” at the expense of any sort of individuality. It’s saying that we individuality and collectivity can coexist, and that coexistence is inherent in the very concept of life.
“Slowly but surely, I saw trees flowing past me. And among them myself, sitting right there in the doctor’s office with a vacant expression. While walking around myself, I was surprised to still see the clock straight ahead. Myself from the side, the clock on the wall. The two images were not overlapping, they just coexisted.”
This is most apparent in the narration. Sunlight‘s story is delivered by the trees all around you, each one with its own voice, but all reading the same script. The closer you get to one tree, the louder and more distinct that one’s voice will become. But that one voice is always part of a chorus of voices, all individually identifiable but speaking in unison—a collection of individuals, eternally connected.
For the most part, this narration unfolds automatically, regardless of what you do as a player. It’s here that Sunlight‘s impressionist influence is strongest—as the early impressionists broke away from established rules of academic painting, Sunlight breaks away from rules of game design by making its story something that plays out with almost no interaction from the player. It’s not the first game to make the player a passive observer and forgo traditional forms of “gameplay”, but even “walking simulators” and visual novels tend to be guided by the actions of a player, even if that action is simply inspecting an object.
But, with a few exceptions, Sunlight happens regardless of what the player does or doesn’t do. Whatever direction you choose to walk, whether you move at all, even if you’re not there at all, the trees of Sunlight will tell their story. There are moments when the narration will pause until you prompt it to continue by picking up a flower from the ground, but that’s the full extent of player control over the delivery of the story.
And yet, player interaction is crucial—not to drive the story forward, but for the player’s subjective experience of it. How you choose to move about in the space of the game affects the voices you hear, or even whether you hear legible words rather than inaudibly hushed whispers. It lets you look at and focus on the specific details of the world that catch your eye.
None of these are things that alter the story in any tangible way, but they make the player a part of what’s happening in a way that ties into that theme of connectedness. This isn’t your story, but you’re still part of it, even as a passive observer. It’s a story that will continue with or without you, but that doesn’t mean you’re not connected to it as part of the same Bigger Thing as the forest that’s telling the tale.
Sunlight is developed and published by Krillbite Studio. It’s available now for PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.