As games grow as a medium, one question that has been asked time and time again is whether or not games are art. By definition, art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power” which is certainly a category that the majority of games (even Call of Duty with its bang shooty action and its mostly hollow cutscenes) could fall into. But on the other hand, people argue that the interactivity of games and the way that many of them aren’t made for any other point than to take our money, mean that games standalone in the cultural landscape.
Sunset, the new game from Tale of Tales, is a game that looks this debate squarely in the face. Is it a game full of wild interpretation in which each person who plays it could get something or nothing out of it? Or is it a harrowing look at war, politics, and a place in a world that is not corrupt in small pockets but is rotten to the core? Or is it somewhere in the middle, its definition straddling the grey area as much as the moral compasses of its characters do? Read the rest of my Sunset review to find out.
The backdrop for all of this is 1972, in the fictional South American country of Anchuria; a country suffocated by a military coup facilitated by the United States government and led by a ruthless dictator named Miraflores. As such, your lead character Angela Burnes is trapped within the country and forced to work as a housekeeper for a man named Gabriel Ortega, cleaning his house for one hour a week right before sunset.
These tasks – shine shoes, do dishes, prepare dinner, unpack boxes and so on – are mind-numbingly boring by design. An unusual choice for a game in which one of the goals (even if it is not necessarily a primary goal compared to the story) is to keep players entertained, right? It’s also unbefitting for Angela given that she has a university degree and would be better suited doing anything else – surely something more worthy than this.
And this is a point that Angela herself makes during one of your trips to Ortega’s apartment as she points out that as a black woman, many would expect her to be doing these trivial jobs back home too. While some would argue that not a great deal has changed between the United States now and the 1960s and 70s, there were many key things holding Angela back, back home.
From the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy that same year, the race riots, the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and the efforts of the Black Panther party, racism was (and still is) at the forefront of discussion. There’s the subtle point in the game that Angela is just as physically trapped in Sunset‘s fictional country, as you are trapped playing the apartment, as Angela would be in her home country. It’s very clever.
The rest of Angela’s political leanings are more overt than that though, as she keeps a diary highlighting her softer thoughts on Gabriel’s life, his love of the arts and the notes her sometimes leaves for her and her worries about her brother David (who is also in Anchuria, albeit as a rebel on the frontlines). You relish in these little touches and although they are the only interactions you you have with either David or Gabriel, they go a long way in filling in the missing information that you would otherwise be privy too. It’s also quite nice to hear or see the reaction of someone not directly on the frontlines, something so many games miss when they stick you behind some ironsights.
On the other side, Angela also shares her more acerbic, no-holds barred criticisms of Anchuria’s dictator and his ruthless treatment of the country’s people. This particularly shines through following what I call ‘significant’ tasks, which are the ones that break up the boredom by letting you snoop around, reading documents that you shouldn’t (or that you should, depending on Ortega’s motives) and discovering tidbits that could shape the future. It’s a damn shame that such tasks that can have a such a huge impact on Sunset‘s outcome (indeed, this is the only way you can change that outcome) aren’t completed with much more than a click and a cutscene of the sun in the sky.
What do I appreciate about Sunset, however, is that when you realise the outcomes of these actions, it throws up more questions at you. Maybe you won’t be questioning life but you will perhaps be questioning whether what you’ve chosen to do as Angela (who is almost definitely based on activist Angela Davis) is right or not to be so rebellious and whether anyone – in Angela’s day, in Anchuria, or right now in the present – should do the same. Would you put yourself in her shoes? Putting yourself and your family at risk, to the point where an empty apartment is your safe haven, if it meant that you could help liberate a country? Or would you ignore everything altogether and watch the city burn around you – after all, your home country’s funding it so surely you’ll escape, in the end? I’ve not been faced with so many questions since I played the similarly-themed game Papers, Please.
The fact that Sunset is a game that asks these questions at all, and in such a nuanced way, surely deserves praise. But, I wish it delivered right across the board. Its closed off apartment looks gorgeous – gloriously retro – and the soundtrack (including classical records that Angela can play) is marvellous, but did there have to be so little to interact with? There are only so many light switches and book covers to click before you start losing your marbles. And could there not have been more about Anchuria, or Angela, or David, or Gabriel (and his family) to discover?
It’s a smart title with a lot to say, if you’ll listen, but be prepared to overlook or overcome these things if you do.
Sunset is now available via Steam for PC, Mac and Linux.