Sunset (Tale of Tales)

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Sunset is the story of Angela Burnes, an African-American woman who has become the housekeeper of Ortega, a wealthy man in the fictional Latin American country of Anchuria. The time is 1972, in the middle of that country’s civil war. Every week Angela spends an hour before sunset tidying her employer’s house in the rose-orange half-light.

During that time the player can go through Ortega’s possessions, getting to know the man better, checking chores off the day’s list. Eventually, Ortega starts leaving notes around the house, which the player can answer. Many chore actions and note-answers offer two variants, a flirtatious one and a cold one, but Ortega also responds to any sign of human presence. Leave his lights on, leave his water running, and his love for you will grow.

The apartment changes from visit to visit. Sometimes there’s a mess, left over from Ortega’s activities. Sometimes there’s new mail or rearranged books. Ortega changes from week to week which doors of his apartment are locked, which means that the whole floor plan of the apartment is rarely available to us at once; the apartment retains some more private areas that we only get to visit once or twice.

The ability to section off parts of the floor plan helps direct the player each day, though it was (I found) an only middling solution: on several days Angela was assigned chores so vaguely described that I couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to go in order to perform them. Somewhere in the apartment, from some angle, there would be a hot spot that would complete the chore in question, and I’d wander around all the rooms over and over, curious, then confused, then bored.

I began to enjoy Sunset more when I decided to let myself skip chores that proved too hard to find.

Fortunately, Ortega’s a forgiving boss, so even if Angela leaves some tasks undone, he never fires her and the story never comes to a mid-game halt. And the system seems designed in part to push the player towards romance, towards the flourishing of a sense of intimacy with someone never seen or encountered.

Sometimes the interactive flirtation worked for me, though more when it took the form of physical gestures rather than words: I was happy enough to leave Ortega’s possessions attractively laid out, but some of Angela’s flirtatious messages to Ortega are more overtly sexy than I found… plausible? comfortable? …given that they’ve never even been in the same room together. This may partly be a reflection of the writing generally: Angela’s inner monologues were often a bit on the nose for me, too, though not so much so as to ruin the experience. Conversely, I was amused the time I took the black queen off the chess board, and returned to find that he’d removed the black king as well.

Eventually, as things break down in the city outside, the apartment becomes more and more cluttered with objects that Ortega has rescued: crates and boxes, maps, museum plans. Hallways that used to be useful become blocked with junk, forcing me to go the long way around. Angela’s inner voice was frustrated, though not as frustrated as my own.

The thing I like best about this gameplay is the way it allows for improvising small expressive moments. The way I’m drawn to the window by the sound of jet fighters outside, and watch the contrails nervously even though I know it’s just a parade demonstration. The way I turn on a record and sit in a chair to listen to it after my chores are done, reaching for some quiet. The way, on other days, that I rush through my chores and leave again as soon as possible, currently annoyed with Ortega and not willing to linger in his space. The pleasure I take in the sight of my shadow cast across the carpet. The nervousness when I look out the window and see the city burning right before the protagonist was supposed to head home — surely it would be safer for her to sleep overnight in Ortega’s apartment than to go out alone in that chaos? The shock of hearing a bomb go off and seeing its flash in the lighting change around me.

Late in the game I found myself updating the calendar to the current date, even though that seemed pointless and futile, just as a touchstone for the earlier times when I had been meticulous about that ritual.

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There’s a lot of lovely worldbuilding here. Ortega’s apartment is meticulously researched, full of gadgets that belong specifically to their age. His books, his record collection, the programs that play on his radio, all convey a powerful sense of time and place. Meanwhile the outside world intrudes more than we can ignore, with sounds of helicopters and gunfire, or choking smoke that dims the already limited light in the apartment, or rising flames, or just the intrusive blink of an advertising billboard. Even at the best of times the ambiguous lighting makes for an ambiguous atmosphere.

What worked less well for me was the framework narrative in which these emotional reactions were set. The protagonist is sneaking intelligence to rebels, but we have no part in these decisions. Okay: that’s an artistic choice that other interactive narratives have made as well, and it certainly can work. Aside from the production costs, this would be an utterly different game if portions of it were set outside Ortega’s apartment, and I applaud its focus.

But I was at times uncertain about what was supposed to be happening, in the sense of knowing what was true among the things I’d been told. For instance — well, now there will be spoilers.

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The protagonist’s rebel brother David is captured and sentenced to execution, and at one point she narrated that he was gone. But then, sometime later, she writes a diary entry wondering whether he’s managed to escape safely. This is a high-stakes point within the narrative of the game and I was really not sure what to understand was true, by the end. Was it a bug, and I was supposed to see that diary entry much earlier, before his narrated death? Was Angela herself misinformed about whether his sentence had yet been carried out?

At another time, we’re told that the government is looking for Ortega, determined to arrest him, yet he seems to be still hanging about the apartment, leaving us chore lists. (He does go away for a long trip for a while, but this happened after he came back.) Why then hasn’t he been arrested? We know the government knows where he lives; his apartment has already been ransacked once. If he’s under such suspicion, why is the apartment still safe, for Angela and for him?

One may say, oh, these things don’t really matter; they’re not the main point. The core of the story here is about the relationship between Angela and Ortega, so it is more significant that Ortega sympathized with Angela’s fear for David and that he tried to help her than whether that help eventually succeeded.

However, I don’t think that really washes. Sunset raises, overtly or by implication, a number of philosophical questions that go beyond the purely personal: when is violent revolution justified? What is the value of art in a time of war? How can we sustain ourselves in a context of chaos?

The game doesn’t really try to give us the tools to try to answer those questions based on the situation in Anchuria. There are too few particulars about Anchurian life and politics. But Sunset does anchor the questions within the Angela/Ortega relationship. Angela is frequently frustrated with Ortega’s attempts at diplomacy, which she sees as naive, the gestures of a man so steeped in privilege that he can’t recognize the danger he is in, and can’t imagine the possibility that his voice might be ignored. She also becomes angry that he cares so much about the fate of art objects when there are people, her brother included, in imminent danger. Indeed the whole question of the tension between personal and public responsibilities comes up several times, either in the narration or in the titles of the books that dot Ortega’s wintergarden.

But at the center of all this is an uncertainty about agency, specifically about who has the agency in this relationship and of what kind. Ortega leaves out documents that may be of value to the revolutionaries. Angela finds them and passes them on to her brother, though this happens in narration and is never up to the player to control. Sometimes Ortega leaves notes that say things like, “Do what you think is right.”

Is he simply abdicating moral responsibility here, leaving it up to Angela to make the hard choices that he himself is unable to make? Offloading the labor of conscience in the same way that he offloads the labor of washing dishes and cleaning up broken glass? Or is he already certain about what Angela will do with the information he leaves for her? Or, again, does he regard the passing of information as a favor that he is doing for her, perhaps initially despite his own better judgment?

Not seeing core plot points, or leaving them ambiguous, makes it more challenging to read the power dynamics between Angela and Ortega. If Angela struggles with whether or not to pass information to a family member who might use that information for violence, her struggle is not presented interactively. We’re told sometimes that she is distressed or confused, but the big decisions just happen; she acts, off-stage, without us. Ortega is never shown at all.

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I wonder, too, whether the interaction centered on something other than what Tale of Tales was most ultimately interested in. The red-romance and blue-businesslike options are presented to the player, but, as others have also observed, the red options are presented more attractively and the internal monologue seems to assume some intimacy with Ortega even if you choose blue a lot.

So I think a) the story really wants to be about the connection between these two characters, so an arc in which they don’t meaningfully connect is not a particularly fulfilling arc; and b) those options don’t allow for communication about some of the key issues in this evolving relationship.

The ending that I ultimately got implied that Angela and Ortega had become lovers — she wakes up in the master bedroom — but as a player I had a lot of questions about this outcome. Now that the military pressure was off, would they have enough in common to stay together? What would they make of one another in person? Did she for that matter even want a lifestyle facilitated by becoming the lover of a wealthy man? Might she not go home, or onward to some other place, now that she can travel again?

In any case, I always find Tale of Tales games worthwhile to have played and good to think about, and Sunset is no exception. And despite my occasional issues with pacing (I wish I’d spent less time at the outset wandering around in confusion), I would say in general that this project succeeds at being Tale of Tales’ most accessible work to date, with clearer direction and a stronger sense of forward movement. There’s a lot to like here, and a lot that is refreshingly different from almost anything else in video games.

Sunset is currently available at 50% off on Steam, so if that interests you, now is a good time to get it. Also: elsewhere, Mattie Brice has written a short piece from the perspective of the protagonist.

9 thoughts on “Sunset (Tale of Tales)

  1. Not being a native speaker, I wonder what does “on the nose” mean here?
    Wordnik gives three meanings, but none seems to fit:
    Used other than as an idiom: see on,‎ nose.
    Exact; precise; appropriate.
    Smelly, malodorous; often used figuratively.

  2. Hey Emily, there’s been a lot of conversation on Sunset (and its commercial failure) within the gaming community. This article especially (http://www.theastronauts.com/2015/06/what-really-happened-to-tale-of-tales-sunset/) seems to sum up the opinions of many gamers (mostly as the game being not engaging to a gamer audience). What do you think of the criticism / commentary launched at Sunset? I’m curious to hear an opinion from the interactive fiction side of things, especially on how IF works translate to video gaming.

    • I’m aware of the conversation, yes.

      Here’s what I feel: I’ve tended to have mixed feelings about Tale of Tales work when I played it, and that’s reflected in my reviews, from The Path and Fatale on through this review of Sunset. As experiences and as messages, they sometimes frustrate me or leave me confused. I never did review Bientôt l’été because I never felt I understood it deeply enough to even try setting out an opinion.

      At the same time, I have also always felt that this was some of the most interesting work being done, that it explored themes that are usually left out of the video game domain, and that it expected of its players a willingness to be patient and work hard with the meaning of the pieces. While I might be aggravated while playing at times, I always ultimately felt that my time had been well spent, I always found myself coming back and thinking and talking about the experience, and I always found myself recommending it to someone else, somewhere along the line, as demonstrating a practice or concept or technique that didn’t exist elsewhere. In addition, ToT’s work has always had its own clear and distinctive personality, and that is very welcome in an environment with a lot of cloning, copying, and repetition of tropes.

      I may never have found a single ToT game that I connected with as strongly as I did with my favorite works of IF, but I admire them as artists, I value having them around, and I hope they’ll continue to create interactive art in some form for us all to enjoy and/or debate and/or struggle with.

      That said, I really can’t make any wholesale statement based on this about a) how interactive fiction relates to the video game community or b) whether there’s enough support to keep art games alive or c) what post-mortem analysis we can do on ToT’s marketing and budgeting choices as a studio.

      Plenty of people who know a lot more than I do about indie games marketing and art grants have been sharing opinions on the latter two points, and I don’t feel like I have anything of value to add to that.

      As far as (a) is concerned — well, some IF does really well financially, or does sustainably well, or does way worse than 4000 copies, and some isn’t trying to sell commercially at all, so there are other points on the graph besides “attempts commercial success, fails”. Some of those points aren’t even on the same sheet of paper, like “was never for sale commercially but was responsible for me meeting the love of my life” (true for some of my own work) or “spoke a truth that no one else was speaking” or “wasn’t framed as a video game anyway; lost money but was a profound, perhaps life-altering experience“. There’s so much happening in this space right now that even though I do this professionally full time I can’t keep up with all of it. So I’m not going to try to draw any trend lines through the single dot that is Sunset.

      Overall, I guess: I am not interested in vilifying any groups for what they do or don’t find worthwhile to spend money on. Vilifying groups is generally a thing I try to avoid anyway, and in the meantime I actually struggle quite hard with the ethics of consumption: I try to spend to support things that I approve of but I am in no way a model of perfection here, and sometimes doubt my own choices about spending on art vs. spending on social need of other kinds.

      I also whenever possible avoid having the conversation about what counts as IF vs what counts as a video game, because it’s almost always about something — politics, cultures, access to funds or public spaces — besides the formal debate it claims to be about on the surface.

      I do want ToT to go on creating in some form; I don’t think it’s really instructive for the fate of Sunset to be regarded as some kind of Statement about the commercial viability of interactive narratives; and (as ToT themselves would agree) I don’t at all at all at all think that every kind of value can be measured in terms of immediate financial result.

    • If I could add, the reason I stayed away from Sunset was the sheer number of people I read about with technical issues on even high-end computers. I knew my more humble machine would not be able to handle it, even though it doesn’t seem more technical than, say, Gone Home (which I can run fine).

      So I know people are trying to make grand artistic/cultural/political statements here, but when it came down to it I just couldn’t run the thing.

    • I think that the “failure” of this game arise a very interesting question about the longevity of digital works. It is very sad that our games must perform well in the first month of live, and if not, they are considered a failure.

      I think something so niche as IF or art games like the ones of Tale of Tales should have a long life and a more better relationship with sales.

      I wonder if that is possible. I think I heard about the strategy of Infocom having their game “next to the books” as an ideal nature of marketing, looking for that… prolonged sales through time.

      What do you think people?

  3. Pingback: IGF Narrative noms are out! | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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