This game is a piece of shit.
But Thou Must Talk About The Game
Sunset is an exploration based, character driven game in the same vein as Gone Home, but unlike Gone Home, it’s not very good. It also differs from Gone Home because that game, with its heart, characterisation and respect that takes place in one single incident, about as long as you’d have to take to play the game, Sunset plays with time by giving you a single compressed hour in its play space. Also, instead of moving into the intimate space of a family in which you’re included but subtly not, the story of Sunset plays out in the high-rise penthouse apartment of a wealthy art dealer who has no direct connection to you, the character, and then it does nothing to connect you to them.
Rather than a daughter returning to her family’s home, the story of Sunset is the story of a woman house cleaner. Except it isn’t about her, not really at all; she is a puppet, a reflective shell of what the authors like to pretend their housekeepers must be like, because her place in the story is to pass information on to the two men that actually have a story, and to occasionally fluff their egos or tell us, the player, how important they are to us. Sunset is a game that trusts you enough to let you into your employer’s bed while he’s not there, but not with an actual sincere emotional reaction to a character’s life.
The mechanisms whereby the game lets you explore this life, in this scheduled time, is that you arrive in the penthouse, you have a list of chore to do – no really, it’s usually one or two things – and then have to find the doohickey that’ll trigger it. Once you’ve found the trigger, choose whether to trigger it in a nice way or a cold way, and then… inexplicably… you’re expected to use the rest of your time just dicking around with your rich employer’s stuff. Note that some days the list is literally impossible, and many days there’s basically nothing to do on your list of chores. For several days, in a row, you only have to walk in, drop off some letters, and then you’re offered the opportunity to tool around more in the stuff of a stranger whose connection to you is primarily fiscal.
The main character of the game is Gabriel Ortega, an art fan, who strews about his apartment arts and books on arts and how important art is, and you, as you do such important things as clean his telescope and invade his privacy, slowly build up a gigantic image of the story of Sunset, a thousand-meter high spire of words upon which can be scrawled Art Is Just So Important You Guys. And then the game ends, or rather, that’s when the game should end. It doesn’t. Instead it keeps going for a bit more, and then it should end. And then it should end. And then it should end. And then–
Eventually, the game ends, and as with all pieces of artwork, it has left you transformed in some way. It has changed you, changed you into a hollower, sadder person, filled you with despair that this game is going to be a critical darling, not because of its challenging subject matter or its unconventional gaming style, but because the game so extravagantly drapes itself about with the meaningful ideals of art and scuttles around the backstages of the mind with the heady illusion that if you don’t like this game, it’s because you don’t like art, and are one of the barbarians.
This game is a pile of bullshit on chips for self-satisfied dullards.
How Do You Really Feel, Talen?
I’ve said in the past that journalism is the task of putting information into context – the conversion of data to information to facts to narrative – and games like this are one of the reasons why I’m so glad for diversity in gaming voices. I hate that Sunset is getting a lot of positive reviews because it looks so much like the people talking about the game are coming from a fairly similar place; there are people genuinely touched by this story, for whom the shuttering of Tale of Tales casts a sad, long shadow over the final moments of Sunset. These are people who are carrying with them the experiences of being ‘in’ gaming, the idea of promoting and connecting to these games on a personal level, perhaps, or maybe with the idea of those games. I do not want to say that anyone who loved Sunset did so for illegitimate reasons at all, or that anyone who loved it or is sad about it as a finale are wrong.
I am however, the owner of my own voice, and I will speak to my experience: This game is classist bullshit and the way the game speaks about itself makes me hate it.
First things first, for a game that’s meant to be about narrative experiences, there’s so much awful storytelling in it. The game endlessly tells you how to feel about things, how Angela feels about things, it tells you about things you do rather than lets you do them. There’s one moment where the game shows you a codebook in one room, and coded messages in another room, as if there is some choice, some option here, that maybe your actions matter here. They don’t – if you walk away from the codebook and leave your employer his privacy, the game proceeds as if you picked it up, walked to the next room and spent all your time deciphering confidential documents. There are things the game tells you are ‘warm’ things to do – like leaving the lights on, and the water running, which is so strange to me. I didn’t do that – because light and water cost money, and I know what it’s like to be afraid for your power bill hitting hard. Still, the game’s instructions tell you this is the ‘nice’ option, and that’s all there is to it. You can have scribbled note conversations with Gabriel about his artworks and his house – but they’re all out of the way of your actual tasks, and they have a binary response set as well. This only serves to make them extra creepy, too – because if you don’t respond to them at all, Gabriel keeps leaving them around the house. The game has no tools to handle a non-response. You have to have been encouraging Gabriel to have this weird passing-notes conversation.
One of the other values the game quietly overstates is just how ridiculously wealthy Gabriel is. You know how often you clean things? How often your task is ‘dust the house’ or ‘make the beds’ or ‘set the laundry on’? How often you have to vacuum, or replace a light-bulb or deal with a thing falling over unexpectedly? Basically never – these are treated as lone items on a list that rarely is filled. This means that Gabriel is paying you a wage – presumably enough to live on – so you can travel across to his home, grease his telescope – a task that takes a few minutes – and then go home. Through implicit action, the game presents Gabriel as ridiculously spoiled.
And what is there to do, but do your orders and go home? What if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to invade a relative strangers’ space? What if you don’t like the idea of taking a nap in your boss’ bed, or playing with his records? Well, you get a game that’s still way too long, but also weirdly short. You turn up, you do a mundane task, and the game doesn’t really do anything there. There’s some opening narration and some departing narration – but the sluggish nature of the game’s pacing and the sparse tasks mean that you often leave as the opening narration is still going on. What is there to do? The game expects you to play with these things, but doesn’t induce you to. I’ve been told if you sit down in some places or times, Angela pens short stories – writing in her boss’ chair in her own little handbook. I didn’t see this, ever.
The wretched irony of these little scenes is that they don’t work if you do what the game tells you to do and roleplay the character. They only happen if you treat this game as a game and assume that there has to be something that will happen if you start sitting on things and doing things you’re not supposed to do. It only works if you assume there’s nothing in Angela’s life except this room, if she disappears the second that elevator closes, only to reappear ready to start again the next day. It’s one of the most jarringly gamey things – and her endless repetition of how this place that is explicitly not hers becomes her centre, the centre of her life, even if the game did nothing to make that feel real, is even more jarring. It’s the most banal example of Tell Don’t Show.
I’ve said there’s nothing quite so odious as writers writing about writing, which is, itself, a writer writing about writers writing about writing and then the sentence vanishes up its own arse, to be shat out again when I need to start talking about why we shouldn’t be quite so focused on ourselves when we create media. Sunset is an auteur’s game, and I don’t mean that it’s a game that reflects the work of an auteur; it’s a game that is about and for auteurs, for people who envision themselves as individually creative, who need nothing about themselves, but the value they put on art in a very general, vague sort of way. It is a excellently textured bookshelf mesh full of unread Bukowksi and Morrison rendered in an engine that will need never interact with them. This game probably is full of nourishing, soul-warming artistic implication to you, if you primarily see yourself in the position of Gabriel – an artistic visionary of such wealth that his needs are never in question, and he has so much he can sacrifice for his art, a lover of art if not a creator of it, who wants to bring the enlightenment of such love to the lesser people whose lives are lesser because they do not love art as you do. On the other hand, if you see yourself as Angela Burnes, a hardworking housekeeper who is aware of class privilege, doing a job to pay her bills and go home, who may have a novel bursting at the edges of her brain but doesn’t have the means to just sit down and churn it out because she needs food, then maybe, just maybe you look upon this whole exercise as what it is: pretentious.
Honestly if I was Angela I’d be fucking insulted the way the game insists upon what matters to her.
What’s With All This Venom?
I try to keep the actual greater story of Tale of Tales, and their influence, and the subsequent conversation around Sunset, out of my thoughts on this. Thankfully, there’s a ton of stuff in the game itself that filled me with rage, so I don’t have to step outside of it to fuel a barrage like this.
But I’m not innocent; I do know there is a thing that happened. I do know that Tale of Tales said stuff, and an ensuing conversation about violence and talk about refunds happened. I don’t want to give the impression I’m unaware of such things, so I guess what I’d like to say boils down to: Fuck them.
I am so mad at Sunset because I want it to be good. Because I want games like this to be good. I want to feel there is a wide and varied space for games that are about exploration of character and space without conflicts, without necessarily mandating that the games be all about particular familiar mechanics. I want more Gone Homes. I want to know games have space for things like Proteus and I want experiences like peaceful-only Minecraft to be recognised as games.
Sunset is a game in this genre that’s very important because it’s bad. It’s bad and the thing we should be doing in response to bad art, in this space, is not to damn all art as if the entire form is broken and the world cannot handle such things, but to accept some art is bad and isn’t it wonderful that we have this space where people can try things, even things that don’t work? Instead, Tale of Tales, with a huff and a sneer, rounded on their heel and baldly asserted the problem was the gamers, the audience. It couldn’t possibly be a host of factors – like their game, their marketing, their presentation, their writing, anything they have control over. No. No, it’s the gamers who are wrong.
We should be able to celebrate this failure. It should sting, no doubt, for the artist to have work that is not as loved as they would like, but that’s not why we make art. Art, god, it’d be nice to make a living off it, but artistic expression should be, to me, about the people you affect, the lives you influence, the stories you spin and the dreams you change by your presence. To act as if somehow, the failure of Tale of Tales was a byproduct of gamers not appreciating confronting material, or the lack of appreciation of art in the community is entitled as fuck, and speaks from a position of incredibly smug privilege.
You can get it someplace. I don’t much care to recommend links to it because I genuinely don’t care to promote this game for actual sale. Still, out of due diligence, here’s a link to its site.
Buy it if:
- Don’t. It’s hot garbage.
Avoid it if:
- You have experience in house cleaning
- You’re not interested in pretentious art wank
- You liked games like Gone Home and you want to foster more narrative, characterisation based videogames that use ludic space to further emergent experiences of creative life
- You’ve any distaste for people who when they fail for numerous, complex reasons, stand around whining while trying and find people to look down on rather than recognise that maybe the problem is them