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.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

This tension so deeply affected my initial playthrough that I found myself attempting to find buoys of interaction to stave off the harsher realities of Sunset’s narrative. On every visit to Ortega’s apartment, I found myself going upstairs to change the date on the calendar, finding the stability of this gesture both rewarding and grounding. Performing routine with Angela became a method of finding temporary comfort and steadiness as the civil war literally comes flying through the window of the apartment where she works. Although this gesture could be more a reflection of my own personal ways of coping with uncertainty, I found myself drawn to this task also as a way of empathizing with Angela. When Angela communicated a growing appreciation of Ortega’s apartment as a private sanctuary - and subsequent guilt for feeling so lucky - I felt compelled to make her weekly visits as self-reflective as possible, opting to write a journal instead of finishing Ortega’s cleaning.

At first, these decisions appear minor, but the simplicity of these gestures becomes more significant over time. In this way, Sunset asks players to resolve their own political ambivalences by pairing mundane activities like cleaning dishes with opportunities for espionage and aiding the rebellion. Striking a balance between obligatory tasks, exploring Ortega’s apartment, and personal reflection on the current state of Anchuria becomes a daunting task as the game unfolds. The contrast between chores and political strife positions the player where choice and action become decisions of significant consequence. In a world where triple A games like Bioshock: Infinite conclude that all choice is artificial, Sunset instead offers a mature system of consequence relative to which players work towards resolving their own politics. As a result, the choice of inaction - and thus apathy - becomes a profound commentary on the ways in which players willfully ignore the politics of their play.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset is therefore less about the circumstance of the characters and their world, and more about the ways in which players decide to engage with political oppression from a point of privilege. Though Angela is not a character of significant means, her ability to maintain employment in San Bován while avoiding the scrutiny of oppressive police and military personnel affords her a temporary space of solace and peace that others are fighting and dying for. Her good fortune is mitigated by mixed feelings regarding the conditions of her employment - an attitude scarcely explored within video games, let alone contemporary creative technology. Angela’s active and intricate disquietcould easily be the most significant gesture within a video game to address the nascent place of privilege that the medium has yet to confront.

But this is only half the story - the urgency of Sunset is not merely located in its political overtones and subtle critique of oppressive western influence. The game is also pressing due to the fact that Tale of Tales recently announced they are ceasing the production of video games due to Sunset’s "financial failure." The duo released a statement on the one month anniversary of shipping the game announcing their decision, citing reasons of debt incurred in production and frustration with the reception of their work within a wider "gamer" community. Though many within indie gaming point to Tale of Tales as being a long-standing paragon of thoughtful, experimental, and ground-breaking development, few of their works have garnered the kind of financial success that titles like Phil Fish’s Fez or The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home have enjoyed.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

The financial underperformance of Sunset could be due to a number of different reasons, however Tale of Tales attributes it mostly to one particular flaw: Being wrong about what gamers want. Regardless of market research, hiring advisors and purchasing advertisements in large traffic (and more centrist) game publications, Sunset didn’t break into a larger demographic.

Though it pains me to say it, the fact that Sunset didn’t financially live up to expectations is something of a testament to the immaturity of the videogame ecosystem. Where other successful titles have certainly broached complex, serious, and emotionally mature material, few have tackled the fraught political territory that is laid bare by Sunset. Its financial failure suggests that the online market alone can't support this kind of work. Tale of Tales’ account of their demise suggests that dependence on the market is not something they're used to, having previously a combination of funding sources which included Belgian grants that have dramatically dwindled in recent years.

The end users - gamers - are not the only ones at fault here, since recent infrastructural distribution problems have also plagued Sunset sales. Valve’s STEAM distribution platform released a new policy stating the games could be returned for any reason if less than two hours of play have been spent in-game. Since Sunset is a relatively short game, players uncomfortable with - or unwilling to delve into - the intricate narrative of Angela’s dilemma might feel entitled to get their money back. Tale of Tales couldn’t have anticipated this change of policy, nor could they have foreseen how the critical praise of Sunset would not translate more directly into sales. The timing of STEAM’s policy change, however, combined with shifts in the expectations of gamers and entitlement marks Sunset’s fiscal flop as a particularly striking moment within the current landscape and future trajectory of independent gaming.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset's urgency is not only found in its politics, but also in shedding light on a need for changes in the funding and sustainability of independent games. Though stories of overwhelming crowd-funding efforts like Star Citizen and recently Shenmue III entice young developers, the fact remains that developing inventive and innovative games is a daunting financial risk. As Austin Walker discusses in his GiantBomb article, the recurring critique of disappointing E3 booths and lack of new imaginative IP’s (game franchises) are a result of major studios avoiding risk in favor of dependable money makes. Walker goes on to suggest that larger studios could collaborate or support smaller and experimental efforts given the amount of financial power they wield over the industry. Such possibilities point toward a system of where games like Sunset and artists like Tale of Tales can thrive: a more diverse pool of public funding and visionary patronage.

Certainly, while Tale of Tales' departure could be seen as a great loss for independent and artful game development, it can also be seen as a potential promising step for the individuals working within the medium to break through the stigmas that have colored gaming since last year's Gamergate debacle (the root of which extends much further back in time). In this way, the duo themselves conclude with a section about how "being wrong can set you free." Tale of Tales' recent statement ends on a bittersweet note:

So now we are free. We don't have to take advice from anybody anymore. We were wrong. Everybody whom we consulted with on Sunset was wrong. We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a "game for gamers." We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that's one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don't think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.

Not all that dissimilar from Angela's story, Tale of Tales' decisions pave the way for a brighter future. What Sunset and Tale of Tales' show, however, is that all freedom comes at a cost.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales