I heard about Sunset long ago on RPS, and it sounded intriguing, so I picked it up in the Steam summer sale. I’m sad to hear that the developer, Tale of Tales, is going out of business due to poor sales. They’re probably best known for The Path, an exploration game featuring little girls and wolves, and Luxuria Superbia, which is about touching flowers and/or sex.

This is a very reflective game. Get it?

This is a very reflective game. Get it?

Sunset has a weird little setup: you are Angela Burnes, an American college grad working as a housekeeper in the fictional Latin American nation of Anchuria. Once a week you spend an hour (always the hour before sunset) doing various jobs in Gabriel Ortega’s penthouse apartment in the capital… during a time of civil war. As you come by week after week, the situation outside worsens, and you discover Ortega’s (and your country’s) involvement in Anchurian politics.

Let’s talk gameplay. You are limited to the penthouse itself (though it’s quite roomy, and two stories tall). You have a minimal task list, different each week; you go find the things to do, do them, and spend the rest of the time looking at things, finding little hidden notes and books, and writing a diary (i.e., you sit in a particular chair, and Angela writes about whatever occurs to her.)

All of this is optional. Each weekly session ends after a fixed period (half an hour in real time) whether you’ve done anything or not. I don’t think you’re ever punished for not doing your tasks. (I left a couple undone either because I ran out of time, or couldn’t find where to do them.) You don’t have to look around for things to interact or do the diary thing. Though if you did nothing, of course, not much would happen, outside some scripted events.

The game is longer than I expected: the weekly sessions last for a year. I spent 7 hours on it, but the exact time would depend heavily on how much wandering around and diary-reading you do.

With most tasks you have an option of doing them in two ways: flirty or businesslike. In effect you can pursue a long-distance seduction of Sr. Ortega. E.g. given the task to unpack his books, you can arrange them boringly by author, or playfully by color. He will leave you notes, and you can respond affectionately, or distantly, or not at all. These choices affect how the apartment looks, as well as how the story goes.

You don’t get to shoot anyone, but along the way you do have to make some choices that affect not only your relationship with Ortega, but the progress of the revolution.

The visuals are quite beautiful; they’ve obviously spent a lot of time on lighting, bathing the apartment in changing purple light as the sun sets. The apartment is filled with art objects, all carefully modeled; from the windows you get a vista of the capital. Helicopters and planes buzz overhead; occasionally a building is set on fire or bombs drop nearby, with a big orange flash. The story is set in 1972-3, and the 70s aesthetic is lovingly recreated. The view is 1st person, but Angela can see herself in the windows and other reflective surfaces.

The apartment changes week to week, first because Ortega is moving in, then because of the complications of the political crisis.  The doors to some areas are sometimes closed, so you can’t always access the whole apartment.  Twice when you come, the power is out.  A couple of times you find that the secret police have preceded you.

(Despite the relative simplicity of the setting and models, the game would sometimes get unresponsive for me– just moving around became difficult. I didn’t attempt to turn down the graphics to see if that would help. The gameplay is simple enough that I just played through it, but it was frustrating at times.)

The story goes some places we don’t normally see in games. The backstory (which you only get if you are fairly interactive with things) is that Anchuria had a communist government, but recently was taken over in a coup by the very conservative General Miraflores. Ortega is a member of the elite, with his own company, who seems to be close to the General. Angela’s brother David is a leader of the rebels. The Miraflores regime is aided by the Americans, and there is a threat of US intervention. Angela herself is black (as is the story’s co-creator Auriea Harvey; her partner Michaël Samyn is Belgian), and her diary entries reflect on racism in the US and her feelings about being trapped in a Latin American country in wartime.

How does all this work as a game? I think, well enough. Or maybe much better than it sounds. I think the idea of the game is very strong, and I like to see people experimenting with and deepening the medium, so I’m inclined to cut the developers a lot of slack.

I’d respond to the most likely complaints thus:

  • It’s not interactive enough. Your interaction is largely limited to looking at things and clicking on them.  Well, yes, and that’s also true of Sam & Max, or your favorite Telltale game. (I’m playing a Telltale game right now, and though it’s clever, it’s often pretty much click-to-advance-the-story.)
  • The story is more experienced than created. You can affect the story, but it’s Angela’s story and words– there’s no room for roleplaying.  Yeah, but that’s true of Arkham City or Mirror’s Edge too: you are not a freeform character there, you are Batman or Faith and really you are just following their story and can’t change their character.
  • It’s too heavy. We just want to relax with a game!  Well, be honest: if you play (say) League of Legends, don’t you swear like a sailor whenever you’re killed? Gaming inherently involves a suprising amount of frustration. As for heavy themes, what about nuclear devastation (Fallout), complicity in a corrupt system (Dishonored), or the dangers of libertarianism (Bioshock)? The political setup of Sunset— corruption, occupation, resistance– is not terribly different from that of Beyond Good and Evil.

The story could have been told as a novel or a movie.  But I think it works as a video game. Wandering around Ortega’s apartment, doing little tasks (or not), deciding how nicely to do them, deciding how much time she spends just messing around, make us at least complicit in Angela’s story.  The developers do better at balancing game and story than (say) Dreamfall did, with its endless cutscenes at the end.

Now, I’d like this sort of thing to work. I think games are mostly about shooting because shooting is a mechanic that developers and gamers understand, and we just haven’t fully understood how to make other kinds of games. Haven’t you spent hours just messing around in Skyrim or Saints Row?  There’s a huge swath of stories that would be interesting to tell, but aren’t getting told because people thinking they’re not game-y enough.  I’m glad some developers are trying out other ideas, and I can forgive some awkwardness.

All that said, it’s not the game I wish it was.  A few complaints:

  • You don’t see Angela doing her tasks.  You hear her hum and get a cityscape for a few seconds.  I absolutely understand this: it saves money.  Tale of Tales is a tiny studio and can’t afford the extra modeling and animation it would require.  But the price paid is a great reduction in immersion. We don’t feel that we’re really there, or participating.
  • I really wanted more interactions.  Dumb interactions are fun, and make an environment feel real.  You can turn on lights, leave the water running, sit on chairs, look through a telescope, comment on the art.  All that is good, but why couldn’t I take a  bath, make a sandwich, drink coffee, dance to the music, read the titles on the bookcase, wear Ortega’s slippers? You can’t even re-examine the art for a second opinion, and though you can play a record when the game lets you, you can’t replay it.
  • The diary mechanic is a little cheap. You see a line at a time and can’t do anything else.  If they couldn’t afford more voice work, they could have either sped it up, or allowed you to move around while the subtitles continue.  I skipped a bunch of entries as they didn’t always repay the time spent.
  • The game has its longeurs. The game is about as long as Portal (1)– but that was a puzzle game and we were learning and using skills.  The devs vary the task list, as well as the appearance of the apartment, and I don’t mind the ordinariness of your tasks– it fits the theme. But it’s also true that a movie could have told this story in two hours, not 7.  I think I’d like to have seen half the sessions, but more interaction within each one.

I’ve read some reviews, and it seems many people are itching to redesign the game. And I don’t think it needs much. You can actually make a game that’s about menial tasks– e.g. Viscera Cleanup Detail. But it really could have used a lot more feeling that we’re actually doing them.

I also have to say, I don’t think it would be replayable.  I’m curious about the “cool” option– what happens if you carefully avoid both romance and involvement in the politics?  But I don’t intend to spend more hours on it.

I chose the wallpaper and made the sculpture. Ortega will be so pleased

I chose the wallpaper and made the sculpture. Ortega will be so pleased

How does it work as a story?  Oh, pretty well, on both the romance and the political sides. The idea of getting to know someone through their living space is clever, and the game does a pretty good job of suggesting dictatorship and revolution through an unusual fixed viewpoint.  The usual storytelling choice might be to show us the soldiers in the streets or have us fight through the presidential palace– but those on the sidelines have interesting stories as well, and their limited options are part of the point.

If you look at the story baldly, it’s the story of a housekeeper falling in love with her boss.  Not impossible, but not highly likely, and not exactly a recipe for happiness, either.  Still, Angela is presented as highly educated, trapped in the city more or less by accident, so you could see her as underachieving, and more of a match for Ortega than her job indicates.

The story does get into all the ironies of being rich in a poor country, and makes you wonder how complicit Ortega is in the Miraflores regime.  However, I’m not sure it fully groks the surreal dissociation of Latin American elites from the common people.  Imagine a class of Mitt Romneys who have been in power for five hundred years and view even bourgeois liberalism as a terrible threat worth killing people to head off.

(If you do follow through with the romance, the story ends with you sleeping in Ortega’s bed.  You finally see Ortega… though he’s asleep and won’t get up!  It’s kind of a sweet ending though.)

I’m not quite satisfied with the Latin American setting though. The story seems to have, let us say, a concerned First Worlder’s knowledge about the politics of elites and revolutionaries in ’70s Latin America, and the spectre of US intervention, but little of the specifics of any Latin American country.  (Making up a country was a bit of a copout.)  Angela describes the previous ‘communist’ regime as earnest and utopian, and talks about the lack of racial discrimination– these, I’m afraid, are complete absurdities.  (Maybe Angela is naïve, but I’m not sure she’s supposed be be that naïve.)  There’s never any hint that the revolutionaries are less than perfect– unlike real-world ones who admired Maoist terrorism, or turned into drug dealers, or simply petered out in pointless infighting. Plus there’s very little actual Latin American flavor to the game.  A few references to Catholicism and tango don’t really cut it.

I appreciate the conceit of using a single setting.   But I think they missed some opportunities to open up the game here and there.  I guess a street scene would have required too much work.  But it would have been nice to (say) see where Angela lives, or be sent on an errand to a shop, or perhaps have to climb a bunch of stairs when the power is out.

At a deeper level, I like the way the game ruminates on power.  Angela talks about it explicitly; it’s played out around us by Miraflores, the rebels, the US, and Ortega. But where most games are a power fantasy, this is almost a lack-of-power fantasy.  Angela is a woman, out of her own country, in a menial job, in the middle of a revolution.  Ortega is rich, but that’s no sure protection either. Both can influence the larger situation, but maybe part of the point is that the dishes still have to be cleaned, and there’s always the possibility of love.

The normal price of the game is $20, and I wouldn’t blame you for blinking at that.  But then I’m poor and bargain-conscious.  Don’t be one of those people who think that $1 is a generous price for an indie game.  Or who never buy indie games.