Release Date: May 21, 2015
Publisher (Developer): Tale of Tales (Tale of Tales)
I love talking about games with people who’ve had minimal or no experience with them. It’s so easy to form a closed idea about what makes a game a game after so many years, systems and series. Find the things, kill the things, build the things. Of course, interactive entertainment is constantly expanding the list of things, but veterans know it’s still remarkably easy to categorize most new games. Often the solution is to compare them to others, not unlike how we use our past experiences to explain what we see every day. Dishonored? It’s like Assassin’s Creed meets BioShock. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is World of Warcraft with a dash of Darksiders. And clearly Battleborn is Borderlands spliced with Dota or some such MOBA.
There’s none of that with, for lack of a better word, non-gamers. It’s the same as getting someone else to edit the work you’ve been staring at for three days: fresh eyes are insightful. People who don’t know games, who don’t know the carriage guards of nostalgia or the rut of genres, will give you some of the most interesting opinions on them. Because if you have no experience to tell you what makes a game a game, you’ll start spit-balling. Is it just interaction? Does it need fancy graphics? Does it need nominal progression? Does it need challenge? How much challenge? Does it need strong writing? Character focus? It’s through this outside-the-box line of thinking that we arrive at games like Sunset, games so unorthodox and auteur that it’s damn near impossible to compare them.
Why or how
Set in a war-torn 1972 South America, Sunset chronicles the work and turmoil of Angela Burnes, a college-educated engineer who reluctantly spends her evenings as a housekeeper. Due to the conflict in San Bavón, the metropolitan capital of Anchuria, Angela is now trapped in the city with little company other than the extravagant condo of her employer, the wealthy eccentric Gabriel Ortega. The irony of Angela’s position is palpable: she fled the United States primarily to escape the prejudice of the era, which didn’t care about her degree, only to wind up forced into the same dead-end work she’d refused to settle for. She traded a social war for a militaristic one. Hard to say which is the lesser evil, really, though the occasional shattered window and thundering explosion does tip the scales, if only slightly.
At the very least, the omnipresent conflict breaks up Angela’s evenings of cleaning. From 5 p.m. to—you guessed it—sunset, she cleans Gabriel’s place, unboxing his objet d’art, shining his shoes, dumping the trash, the works. This is the closest Sunset gets to gameplay: doing chores. At least on the surface. It’s more a matter of time management than ferrying and vacuuming. You only have an hour each night and the clock is constantly ticking. Simply walking around can use up precious minutes, and every assigned task will take a bite out of the timer. You’re spared the actual cleaning but must still decide how to spend each night.
What am I doing
The focus is on exploration. Gabriel’s is a profoundly modern, almost cubist home, dotted with obscure paintings and busts and split into bizarre rooms. It’s truly an ethereal place, only more so for how plausible it is. You could put powered glass doors between every room. You could sink furniture and features into the floor, have ivy creep along handrails, and hide amenities in closet-sized rooms stashed around the place. But you wouldn’t. Then again, you probably aren’t a wealthy art advocate in South America. It’s a possible but strange arrangement, and you’ll come to know it well. I felt like a caged animal, pacing back and forth looking for the stamps or paper or boxes I needed. And when something changed, namely which rooms were accessible, my ears perked up in an instant. It’s something of a taxing investment, but after an hour of chores and walking, so much as a painting out of place is cause for serious alarm.
Aesthetics aside, the condo also presents a unique environment. You can turn on all the lamps and sinks or unbox and arrange furniture at your leisure. It’s surprisingly customizable, this incredibly unassuming box of contrast. It’s also an accurate recreation of the awkward feeling of being caught alone within a strange or private place. Alone in the joint, I could have done whatever I wanted, but I still went about my chores, diligently following Gabriel’s requests. The practicality games have driven into my head is a powerful motivator, but the instinct to conform, to follow the norms and not turn on all the sinks and lamps, proved more powerful as an inhibition. Still, discovery is the only way to find the plot, so I had to do something. May as well figure out Gabriel’s interests, personality and other, more spoilery details. It comes down to assembling context from your surroundings.
You come to know Angela, on the other hand, through her commentary and diary. Her jabs at Gabriel’s taste and habits are well-voiced and well-written, and above all necessary reward for, again, volunteering for chores. Spend a few minutes in a chair and she’ll wax on about her childhood, her future, her opinion of Gabriel—anything, really. She delivers a remarkably human account of things, subtly laced with bitter sass which echoes Sunset as a whole. Save for its frankly dated visuals, which will regularly send you tumbling down the uncanny valley, the game is strikingly realistic.
There are a few more game-y things to be had, mind you. Some activities—far too few, if you ask me—let you choose between warm or cold behavior, which impacts your relationship with Gabriel, who you contact almost exclusively through notepads stuck around the condo. The difference between sorting albums alphabetically or “playfully” by tempo could be the deciding factor in what Gabriel writes next, and so too could your reply. Unfortunately, choices are too true-false and their impact too limited for this system to ever feel important. Still, as the months add up, you do get a small sense of cumulative conversation.
It’s already sunset; I’m going home
Sunset is nothing short of what you make it. It’s an environment-driven narrative experience that uses domestic life as a lens to evaluate conflict, both in life and in cities. It’s incredibly varied if nothing else. I twiddled my beard contemplatively as I pondered the implications of a shifted rug. I eagerly leaned closer to my screen waiting to learn how Gabriel would react to the way I’d handled his ostensibly confidential documents. I almost fell asleep once. More than anything though, I’m glad to have been part of the experiment developer Tale of Tales concocted. I do admittedly have a hard time recommending the 90- to 300-minute game of chores for $19.99. The controls feel sluggish, there are visual glitches, and the soundscape is barely there. But if you’re after the abstract, look no further.
A review copy was provided for this review.