Life During Wartime: Tale of Tales on Sunset
Ahead of the release of Sunset, set in the 1970s during an uprising in a fictional Latin American country, we talk to Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey about confronting cynicism and recognising that in a revolution, even a housekeeper has a role to play
Sunset is a game about war and revolution in which you play as a housekeeper. Explosions and gunfire feature heavily, but neither penetrate the slick glass-panelled walls of Gabriel Ortega’s penthouse. While turmoil breaks out on the other side of the window, players attend dutifully to Ortega’s chores: they tidy his desk and pick up his rubbish, becoming acquainted with both him and the game’s main character Angela Burnes in the process.
Angela is an American tourist who began working for Ortega after becoming trapped in Anchuria, a fictional Latin American nation put into lockdown by a military coup. There’s a rebellion going on, but Angela’s involvement in it is subtle. Basking in the ritzy environs of Ortega’s digs, her experience of violent conflict is significantly less immediate than most video game protagonists and yet is likely much more familiar to the average player – violence isn’t tackled head-on, gun in hand, but is viewed from a comfortable distance, a constant background presence in an ordinary life.
In this way, Tale of Tales co-founder Auriea Harvey hopes that Angela’s circumstances offer a truer reflection of our relationship with contemporary real world conflicts than the sort of war-hero fantasies spun by Call of Duty. “You’re going to go to the middle east and solve all the problems?" she asks facetiously. "No – you’re going to go to work, you’re going to eat your dinner, you’re going to visit your mum, you’re going to make a phonecall to your girlfriend or boyfriend – I guess that’s Angela.” Evidently Sunset tells a very different sort of war story, one less about imagining what’s it’s like to be on the frontline and more about questioning what it means to live in a world where atrocities occur every day, but conveniently not on your own doorstep.
Such divergent and nuanced subject matter is nothing new for Tale of Tales. The Belgian studio headed up by married couple Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn have spent more than a decade making games that deal with ambitious and lesser explored topics, like The Graveyard, their 2008 vignette about old age, or The Path, a psychological horror based on Little Red Riding Hood about female adolescence. These earlier games had an air of confrontation about them, recklessly experimenting with video game form and its tried-and-tested control schemes in way that at times felt even disdainful: there’s something deliciously blasphemous, for instance, about having to let go of the controls in The Path to allow the character to interact with objects in the world, a critique of the incessant subservience of video game characters to their players.
"We don’t want the discussion to be around our awkward or unique control schemes, so we decided to make that disappear by just being conventional about it” - Auriea Harvey
This sort of contrarianism developed out of a desire to reach beyond what they saw as an increasingly homogeneous and stagnant gaming culture at the time. “We had this idea about making games for people who don’t usually play games," she explains. "This was more of our mission statement – something we had in our heads about about the kinds of people we wanted to reach, people who were disenchanted with other games that they found. That made a lot of sense given the atmosphere around gaming at the time.”
Sunset, however, marks a new tact for the team, one which for the first time finds them openly embracing an existing format. “We wanted people who play a lot of first-person games to be extremely comfortable with Sunset," claims Harvey. "We don’t want the discussion to be around our awkward or unique control schemes, so we decided to make that disappear by just being conventional about it.”
Following in the footsteps of Gone Home, Sunset is a typical example of a first-person exploration game, a kind of narrative-driven experience in which details in the environment function as clues with which players can piece together the story for themselves rather than having it dictated to them. Like Gone Home, Sunset takes place entirely within a single domestic space, and it’s by getting to know that space, by noticing what’s changed the next time they visit that players learn about and interact with Ortega. It’s said that a bookcase tells you everything you need to know about its owner and Ortega certainly has plenty of paperbacks lying around, not to mention a bunch of confidential documents and what appears to be a covert stash of illicit art.
As well as rummaging through his things, players can establish a rapport with their unseen employer in what feels like a natural progression from the more static narrative delivery of Gone Home. Players might, for instance, respond to one of the notes he’s left around the apartment, or perhaps more subtly, choose to play a particular record from his collection or to move a certain piece on his chessboard, awaiting his next move upon their return the following evening.
Rather than an about-turn, the decision to go with the flow with Sunset is an indication of Tale of Tales' growing confidence in the maturity of the medium and its audience. “I think gamers are a lot more open-minded about these things these days," reasons Harvey. "There have been a lot of games that have been quote-unquote ‘weird’ in the last few years and I think that’s something we were a part of also. Sort of making a space where gaming can get larger in terms of subject matter and content, where the types of things you actually do in a game can be different without alienating people who play games.” Though Sunset tells a clear and specific story about the relationship between a house cleaner and her employer, its potential impact is very much dependant upon this trust in the player.
“We’re not trying to have some didactic point,” Harvey explains. “Ultimately, there’s nothing specifically that we want people to do or think. We want to trigger things in them… we set up the scenes, we set up the situations, we give you a few choices you can make. Things are going on that are beyond your control and how you feel about that is going to become the story.” That being said, Sunset is very deliberately intended to get players thinking about their relationship with modern day war and terrorism as well as their moral responsibility as informed citizens and potential activists.
Though Angela may be just a house cleaner, she will nevertheless encounter plenty of opportunities to get her hands dirty in more than a domestic sense while going through Ortega’s stuff. More importantly, she’ll be faced with defining her own position in the revolution – a foreign revolution with which fate has brought her into direct contact. “We want to see a game as a tool for people to think about other systems, about other ways of being," says Harvey. "That’s also one of the reasons we made Angela an immigrant to the country – because we want her to be out of her element. Being out of your element is a way of questioning all your beliefs.”
Setting the game in the 1970s is another facet of getting players to consider their own investment in contemporary international struggles. “We placed the game in the 70s because there was a certain innocence, a belief that change could happen through revolution, change could happen through the people. In the case of the United States, people were rebelling for their civil rights and there was a belief that this could work, that this could happen. We don’t like that cynicism that’s sort of come around in society where people are just like ‘oh yeah, ain't a damn thing changed.' So we’re trying to capture some of that feeling of innocence, some of that feeling that one can join together with others and make a change in society because I guess that’s something a lot of people miss.”
Ultimately, the decisions the player makes as Angela won’t have a substantial impact on the uprising in Anchuria. Instead, they are about defining the sort of life she leads in response to the revolution and about negotiating the impact of its events upon her relationship with Ortega. Either way, the revolution is still going on outside, no matter the mundanity of the jobs she carries out as Ortega’s cleaner. The sound of helicopters continues to churn overhead and the vast windows of his apartment ensure that neither she nor the player can ever look away. “War is happening right now,” Harvey reminds us, “Israel and Palestine, that’s happening right now. Those people haven’t stopped living. They’re still eating breakfast and dancing and everything. Life goes on and that’s sort of freaky but how do we deal with that? That’s why we made this game.”