Sunset tackles representation with extraordinary finesse.
Tale of Tales has been making their own distinct brand of academic and figurative games for years now. Sometimes their work lands and other times it doesn’t — in either case their goal has been to work in the abstract; using symbolism in excess to let players decide what it is they're looking at. They make art games.
Sunset’s story follows a young black woman named Angela Burns, who spends every sunset working as a housekeeper. During a period of civil war in the fictional Latin capital of San Bavon, Angela is only armed with a degree in engineering while she finds herself cleaning the art-filled penthouse of Gabriel Ortega each and every day. The year is 1972.
That synopsis alone spurs a wide array of expectations for the game’s themes and plot. Sunset, cleverly, gives you these cultural constructs to let your mind form preconceptions about the world and its characters. It lets all these ideas linger in the air as it slowly unravels it’s narrative. In effect, the game’s symbolism is as much there to fill in the blanks as it is to act as misdirection. As your mind tries to connect the dots between class, sex, and status, Sunset is working on telling a story that wants to talk about priorities; what counts when war takes away the auspices of freedom.
Minute-to-minute the game is made up of you walking around Gabriel’s apartment with a checklist of the day’s chores. Most of your interactions with the game world come in one of two flavours: either the red option for a loving touch, or a blue prompt for a cold one. This is an unfortunately binary system of expression in a game that wants you to role-play a bit, but allowing for choice at all gives you enough agency to be invested in how things play out. Either way that role-playing element is important to the way Sunset communicates its fiction, for example, there’s a calendar set up inside Gabriel’s home that can be adjusted daily, but it isn’t ever listed specifically as a chore. Whether or not you adjust the calendar is meant to act as a layer of Angela’s character or how she responds to normalcy when society is on the brink.
In an almost meta endeavour, Sunset spends a lot of time talking about arts and culture, specifically what their value is in the world. Being such an intentionally vague narrative experience, it’s fascinating to hear Angela condemn critics or denounce abstract art. There’s a brilliant little section where Angela talks about how radio sounds exactly the same across the globe, equating the universality of music with the rhythm of radio and its presentation of popular songs the world over. Later on she laments how gold is hoarded instead of annually melted to be re-sculpted by a new ensemble of artists. Obviously these are controversial opinions that, despite being quasi-dismissive of the work involved in creating art, both appreciate how important it is to the community. A beautifully made soundtrack by Austin Wintory (of Journey (2012) and The Banner Saga (2013) fame) underpins the game helping create an art-rich and evocative space for Angela to have these philosophical monologues.
For all its focus on people, art, and war —these volatile subjects— Sunset is a very no-frills game. It has plenty to say, but it waits for your mind to wander before it comes out and says anything. It’s a slow, thoughtful, game that’s only as exciting as your imagination is willing to take you. The more background you can bring to the table in terms of its many references the more enjoyment you’ll get out of it. It has more straightforward plot than the average Tale of Tales game, but you’re still there for the way it presents information, more than the express story it aims to tell. Like the collective art the game is so interested in talking about, Sunset is going to be different things to different people.
- There are so many splendid, thoughtful, independent games being made now. The honeymoon period where anything that's trying to be interesting gets a pass is over. This is an experimental game and it works. I'm so thrilled it does.
- The paragon/renegade stuff isn't ideal, but it's still interesting to see that system applied in a microcosm that includes: "turn on sink = paragon" and "turn off sink = renegade"
- There was a spell in the middle of the game where I started to worry the game was too long, and maybe had run out of things to say. Soon after it picked up full speed.
- So much more plot than I was expecting, frankly.
- Statues of violence everywhere.
- If you can't role-play this probably isn't fun.
- Riches or preservation?
- So many small things I'm sure I missed. Even just looking out the window and catching a train going by is so cool here.
- Thanks for reading!