'Sunset' Is a Tale of Objects

by G. Christopher Williams

2 June 2015

Sunset is an experiment in telling a story through the objects that people interact with.
 
cover art

Sunset

(Tale of Tales)
US: 21 May 2012

I’ve played four games developed by Tale of Tales. I’ve played their best known title, The Path, which I admire very much. It is a game that I use in a course that I teach on video games and narrative, and it is one that I think many of my students respond well too. It very clearly communicates its themes through its game mechanics, so it results in interesting conversation about its design and its subject matter, how girls come of age and their relationship to following and disobeying rules.

I have also played Salome and Bientôt l’été . Salome has a rather brilliant opening few minutes, which lead into what is perhaps less a game than it is a chance to observe a digital art display. Bientôt l’été is a rather avant garde game experience and one that I have a much harder time describing or getting into. It may be that I lack familiarity with some of its cinematic influences or it may be that it communicates less effectively than the other two games that I have mentioned.

So, Sunset is my fourth experience with a game by Tale of Tales, and I am not quite certain how I feel about it. It is far less abstract than previous games by the developer, wed as it is to a situation that is both more concrete and more realistic than what the developers have typically presented to their audience.

The player takes on the role of a young woman who has left the United States for the country of Anchuria. While well educated, due to civil unrest (well, to be more precise the beginnings of a civil war in the country) and other circumstances,  Angela Burnes has taken on the role of a housekeeper. More specifically, she will be cleaning up the apartment of a high ranking military official named Gabriel Ortega on a weekly basis.

Essentially then what gameplay consists of is taking on the role of a maid. Each week, you ascend an elevator to Ortega’s penthouse suite with some specific directions on what tasks Ortega wishes for you to complete. In a sense, there is something very “video game like” about this premise, as the idea of spending one’s time checking off minor tasks on a checklist is often enough what the modern video game is all about.

Lest this sound like some kind of Sims game that just happens to be set in the 1970s in a wartorn country, though, these domestic responsibilities aren’t exactly the central challenge of or interest of the game. Tasks themselves are easy enough to complete, as one just needs to locate where one would complete a task in the apartment (say, folding laundry or tidying up the study) and then click on an icon to execute the task.

The only real potential hindrance to Angela’s job is that she has one hour before the sun sets to complete any assigned tasks. Essentially, the more poking around the apartment that she does, checking out Ortega’s belongings, playing records, sitting and writing in her diary, or whatnot, the less time she has to complete her tasks before sunset.

Failing to accomplish those tasks is not some sort of fail-state in the game, though. The player can do as he or she wants while occupying the apartment, and indeed, the game encourages the player to do or not do what whatever he or she wants in this virtual space. What surrounds all of this domestic drudgery is a tale about politics and the personal life of this young woman, whose brother has joined the revolutionary forces challenging the ruling regime of Anchuria and who also (depending on what you decide to do in the apartment and how you decide to do it) may also be falling in love with her employer.

How Angela responds to events taking place outside the apartment, the political events tearing the nation apart, and how she responds to her employer are clarified and defined by how she observes and interacts with the objects around the apartment.

This is the strange thing about the story being told in the game. While environmental storytelling is nothing new in video games and is indeed one of the chief means by which the story is being told in Sunset (the apartment and its contents and furnishings will alter over time as events both political and personal transpire), nevertheless, the game physically contains no other characters other than Angela herself. Ortega is never present in his apartment. Angela enters the quiet apartment for one hour every week, does as she will, and then she goes home for the night. What she makes of Ortega and the events surrounding her are told through objects and how she interacts with them.

As a result, obviously much of the narrative feels distant and the player may feel detached from them. Angela is both private detective and anthropologist, coming to understand her employer by essentially “poking through his trash” and figuring out who he is and what he is about by considering what the objects he surround himself with mean. Indeed, people and events are often best understood through the objects that they surround themselves with. They speak of their psychology, the rituals they find important, the emblems of significance to them.

That being said, the relationship between Ortega and Angela, both politically and personally, is somewhat difficult to feel much about. Processing information through objects is familiar enough to the video game player, but in this instance, doesn’t provoke a great deal of feeling about those interactions.

Like most of the games by Tale of Tales, Sunset is an interesting experiment in what interactive art forms can be used to convey. Its explorations of class through the Upstairs, Downstairs contrast between Angela and Ortega or its explorations of politics through Angela’s and Ortega’s relationship to events unfolding outside of the apartment or its explorations of the feelings two people have for one another through the objects that they are surrounded by are all interesting concerns. The game definitely does allow the player to consider each of them through the design of this game space. However, the pacing of the game is glacial and the story often has less feeling to it than a normal drama does, caught up as the game is in its clinical observation of people through objects.

While I would highly recommend The Path to anyone, like Salome and Bientôt l’été , Sunset is a game that I would be hesitant to recommend to all but a few kinds of people, people more interested in examining technique in game design than in simply playing a game.

High fashion runways are full of interesting specimens of clothing that no one is likely to ever wear. However, the experiments that are put on display influence the ready-to-wear industry by creating new ideas that are then transformed into more accessible looks. Sunset, once again like Salome and Bientôt l’été , feels like a game akin to the wares on display on such a high fashion runway. Their are interesting new techniques on display that suggest new approaches to telling a story in video games, but the game itself is not what most people would easily want to more casually occupy their time with.

Sunset

Rating:

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