Adventure Gamers Awards
Indie Belgian developer Tale of Tales has made a name for itself with artistic projects that seem intent on being non-games. The latest endeavor by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn is another such creation, although the crowdfunded Sunset is distinctly more game-like than any of their previous efforts. Its premise is certainly unique, and in general it’s fairly well made, but make no mistake: it is very much a niche game that won’t appeal to everyone, even those who generally like choice-based storytelling.
The basic setup of Sunset is intriguing: you play as Angela, a black woman from Baltimore with a college degree who’s working as a maid in the South American country of Anchuria for the wealthy bachelor Gabriel Ortega in the 1970s. Once a week, for an hour at sunset, Angela goes to Gabriel’s penthouse to clean up. If you think that an hour a week isn’t enough to clean an entire swanky apartment, well, you’re right. However, the main story centers on Angela and Gabriel’s interactions as civil war breaks out in Anchuria when the government is usurped by a dictator.
It’s an interesting concept, but if you are looking for dynamic character interaction and snappy dialogue, you won’t find them here. Other than a phone call from Gabriel, the entirety of the game is narrated by Angela’s monologues, as she has no direct interaction with anyone. Gabriel is never seen, despite the fact that his apartment represents the lone setting for the game. His home is interesting enough at first, with a multitude of spacious rooms to explore and all kinds of nooks and crannies to poke your nose into, but after an hour or two of traipsing tediously around the same rooms it becomes almost claustrophobic and you just want to go somewhere else. It is impressive how much you learn about Gabriel just by looking around and interacting with him through a series of one- or two-line post-it notes he leaves around, but in the end it’s not a substitute for real face-to-face interaction or even telephone conversations.
It also isn’t a substitute for objective knowledge about the war, as everything is colored through Angela’s perspective. Given that her brother is a rebel fighter, it’s not hard to see which side of the war she comes down on, and it becomes frustrating for anyone trying to figure out the real story behind it all. She claims the current regime replaced an “egalitarian government,” but was it truly egalitarian or is that just a polite way of saying “Communist”? By the end of the game you still don’t really know, as all of your knowledge comes from Angela, with not so much as a newspaper to give you anyone else’s perspective on the matter.
The burgeoning love story between Angela and Gabriel (should you choose to go that direction) didn’t impress me, and I have to admit that the only reason I chose that story route was because there were a greater number of Steam achievements to be gained by it. The slightly creepy overtones of the whole thing majorly put me off—never speaking to the person you’re supposedly falling in love with? Finding out more about this guy by snooping through his things? He’s clearly investigated Angela as well, which makes sense considering he’s a very powerful political player and would need a maid he could trust. However, the fact that this becomes obvious as he tries to flirt with her is a little off-putting.
Some of the things the game considers “warm” for their relationship are illogical, and would be more likely to get a maid fired from her job than endear her to her boss, such as arranging requested books by cover color rather than by title or author’s name, or hiding a newspaper so he won’t see the distressing headlines. Additionally, South America must have had a sudden solar energy windfall and abundance of drinking water, considering that the game’s optimal way to leave the apartment filled with warm gestures is with every single freaking light on and the water in all the sinks and baths running.
The art of Sunset is intentionally stylish but nothing innovative; it’s all basic, blocky 3D settings. The apartment is never seen in anything but an orange and purple hue, which evokes the appropriate hour of the day and gives off a very ‘70s-style vibe in an interesting and appropriate way, but like the apartment itself, the palette gets old after a few hours of playing and goes from feeling lovely and warm to an annoyingly unnecessary filter. There’s not a whole lot of detail in the apartment, though small things do change from week to week to prevent it from feeling too static. There are also a few small glitches, such as the ability to walk through table corners or see straight through plants I shouldn’t have been able to, though these are relatively minor.
The voice acting is fairly uninspired. There is only one time that Angela breaks from her near-monotone way of talking, and even then the next week she goes right back to it. While I’m definitely not advocating for hamming it up, considering there’s a war going on that Angela is heavily (if indirectly) invested in, a bit more emotion injected into what it supposedly a highly distressing situation would have gone a long way towards breaking the game out of the consistent monotony it exudes.
When there is music in Sunset, it is very much in keeping with the era and is a welcome addition to break up the background silence. Other than when Angela puts a record on or learns how to play certain songs on the piano, the only background sound consists of footsteps and occasional machine gun fire in the distance. The lack of ambient noise does help create a tense and lonely atmosphere, but it also contributes to the game feeling like it’s moving along very, very slowly. Surely we’ve all done real-life chores by ourselves without music to help pass the time, making it seem to take twice as long.
Ah yes, chores, the main function of the game, since you are playing as a maid. Fortunately you’re not required to actually enact these menial requirements, but nor are the chores puzzles or minigames, which would have made the overall experience infinitely more immersive. To complete a chore you simply find the necessary cleaning implements or area, decide if you want to accomplish it in a warm or cool manner, and click once—some time passes, and voila, you’re done. There is a time limit each night, and doing chores or other activities to help or hurt the revolution takes up a set amount of time and eats away at the hour you have in the apartment. This limitation adds nothing to the game and becomes frustrating when you have a large number of things to do that are impossible to get done in the game’s hour. Many times I ended up skipping chores for days on end, and there was no discernible impact on Angela and Gabriel’s relationship, nor on anything else that happened in game.
While there’s nothing physically demanding required, Sunset’s controls feel somewhat clunky. The game is presented entirely in first-person and you use the arrow keys to move around and the mouse to swing your field of vision, which unfortunately doesn’t go straight down. A couple of times I ended up having to back away from a table or book I was trying to look at because Angela’s neck apparently has a restrictive brace on it. The actions themselves are easy enough to adapt to, and there are even keyboard shortcuts for those who feel so inclined. There’s a basic but rather useless zoom function as well, accessed by either pressing a key or right-clicking with the mouse, though it’s not integral to the game.
Another aspect that could have been executed better is Angela’s diary. This can be missed entirely during a playthrough of the game—I didn’t even know it existed the first time around until someone pointed it out to me later. To access the diary you have to sit in a specific chair in the apartment and Angela will start writing. However, the game gives you no incentive to sit in chairs as it simply takes up time and adds nothing to the overall story. Unfortunately, neither does the diary, as Angela’s entries simply rehash the same points she makes in her commentary and proceeds to further beat them to death. If you’re a war enthusiast or an avid humanist, however, you may find them interesting.
Overall, Sunset took me about four hours to complete my first playthrough, but if you’re on a quest to get all 100 mundane Steam achievements, it offers much replayability. There’s not nearly as much replay value offered by the storyline itself, as there are only two main relationship paths to take: getting close to Gabriel or not. Two playthroughs will allow you to effectively see them both, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a nuanced middle ground. The game autosaves, so you can’t simply reload manually if you want to change a decision, but so long as you stick with your general direction, there’s little or no need to worry about the odd conflicting decision.
Clearly, despite Tale of Tales delivering their most mainstream game yet, Sunset is still very much a niche experience. There are no puzzles, it moves at a glacial pace with many unimportant chores taking up a majority of the time, and there are no others characters that you can interact with directly. Instead, it’s heavy on (one-sided) politics and non-traditional interpersonal psychology with an interesting 1970s atmosphere, for those who appreciate those things. Sunset is really less of a game and more of a character and period exploration that you conduct through a semi-predetermined plot through overly binary choices. It’s certainly the developer’s most accessible offering, but is that enough? Depends on whether the premise makes you feel warm or blue.