After Sunset


Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

It is very rare for a video game to feel urgent. It is even more rare when that sense of urgency becomes a reflection on video game distribution. Sunset, by Tale of Tales, manages to accomplish both rare feats.

In Sunset you play as Angela Burnes, a woman hired as a housekeeper for Gabriel Ortega, a wealthy and influential cultural aficionado in San Bován, the capital of the fictional South American country Anchuria. Over the course of a year between 1972-73, Angela witnesses a violent coup and counter-rebellion from the balcony of Ortega’s luxury apartment. Between completing menial housework for Ortega, Angela contemplates her involvement in the Anchurian revolution as well as what it means to be a responsible participant during times of civil unrest.

Though set more than 40 years ago, it is difficult to play Sunset without reflecting on the present. My first playthrough coincided with the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore (where Angela is from). More recently, my second attempt to play the game was in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Charleston on June 23rd, 2015. The sensation of watching these terrible displays of violence from afar resonates deeply while playing Sunset. Though Angela’s brother is deeply involved in the rebellion effort, she worries about getting too involved herself and questions what good she could do as an outsider. These conflicting sentiments of close affinity and distant helplessness in Angela are perhaps the most nuanced display of political grief that I’ve seen in any videogame, or indeed contemporary artwork in any medium.


Lingering Patience


Jon Rafman, A Man Digging (2013), Single channel HD video

Jon Rafman uses the intricate tableaux of Rockstar Games' Max Payne 3 as cinematic source material for his new machinima work, A Man Digging (2013). In this meandering and Robbe-Grillet inflected narrative, Rafman ruminates on the simulated sunbeams glinting through favela windows within the game, a melancholy sunrise in a deserted subway car, a heavy fog over a slate grey harbor. He can only do so, however, after killing every character—whether enemy or bystander—in the scene. In this way, Rafman makes visible the tension between the game as object of contemplation and the game as a continuous stream of connected events.

Although many makers outside of the industry have used video games as source material—Peggy Ahwesh, JODI, Eva and Franco Mattes, and Phil Solomon, to name a few—A Man Digging highlights a particularly frustrating issue in contemporary game design: namely, a pushy Artificial Intelligence system that goads the player into constantly responding to the checkpoints, achievements, and goals that are all in the service of what tends to be called a game's "narrative." Although these events don't necessarily develop plot or characters, they are seen as central components of driving (or forcing) the player toward a sense of completion and finality that can only be accomplished through linear gameplay. As a result of this insistent narrative-centric design, players are prevented from exploring the potential for triple-A games to take on the unique, interactive potential to create contemplative and self-reflective video game environments.