The past releases of developer Tales of Tales have often defied recognizable genres, and even avoided conventional principles of what a game is defined to be. Experiences like The Endless Forest, Fatale, and The Path have brushed up against familiar gaming mechanics but never really fully embraced them. In the process, they've been met with critical praise, but more than a little bewilderment from players. Now the team behind the studio, developers Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, are trying something different.
"With Sunset we want to explore the possibility of creating an entertaining interactive experience that is not a game (in the very narrow sense of the word). We have tried to do this before but I feel we always failed and we made art instead," Harvey and Samyn tell Joystiq. "But with Sunset we're a lot more purposeful about it. We really want this to work. We believe it is possible to create entertainment in video games that is as accessible as film, books and music. We feel that the traditional competition-based designs of most games are holding this medium back. But because of the relatively esoteric nature of our previous work, I feel we have failed at making a strong case for this. With Sunset we will! Or die trying."
Last week, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, Sunset will have an opportunity to leave its mark on gamers when it launches in 2015.
Sunset takes place in 1972, in a fictional South American republic called Anchuria. Players control a housekeeper who is left alone in the home of her employer. As they explore their surroundings, players will learn about that employer's role in the Anchurian revolution. Tale of Tales has already revealed some hints about the game's setting, though a website called Anchurian Air, which allows users to register for vacation trips to Anchuria.
Through it, players get a glimpse at a nation ready for revolution. When asked why they chose this setting, the team says, "Sunset is really about contemporary issues that take place everywhere in the world. We are setting it in a fictional place and the past to create the distance needed to get perspective on these issues. In the actual year 1972, when Sunset is set, there were a lot of problems but there was also still genuine hope that the world could be fixed. I think in 2014 not many people still have such hopes. And that is a pity. We have lost our innocence somewhere between 1972 and now. Maybe we should try to get it back. Maybe we should believe in revolutions again. Maybe we should attack the oppressors, instead of voting with our wallets, or engaging in endless discussions on the internet."
Many games allow players to choose their character's race and gender, and early versions of Sunset did, too, but as the project solidified the designers removed that option, and put players in control of a woman named Angela Burnes.
"As we continued writing the story, the characters became much more defined and at some point it just made more sense to not allow any choice. We find it interesting to give people a chance to play a Black woman. In Sunset that's not just her appearance, it is also who she is. She grew up in the segregated US of the 1950s, was involved with student movements in the 1960s, feminism, socialism, and so on. And then she gets stuck abroad, an immigrant in a foreign land, and is forced to work below her capacities to make ends meet," the team explains.
"How that makes the experience different for the player will depend on the player and the playing," according to Tale of Tales. "We're very curious ourselves. A lot of our games start from similar questions: How would it feel to be this or that kind of person in this or that kind of situation. So we build video games to find answers to that question."
Players might begin to divine answers about the game by examining the protagonist's name: Angela Burnes. "Her first name is a tribute to Angela Davis, the communist intellectual whose trial and acquittal in 1972 in a political case became a symbol of the Black Power movement. Her last name, Burnes, is of course derived from fire, with multiple connotations: the literal fire outside caused by explosions and the feelings in her heart for her employer, the owner of the apartment, Gabriel Ortega. Ortega's name, by the way, is a tribute to José Ortega y Gasset, the writer of The Dehumanization of Art and The Revolt of the Masses in the 1920-30s."
In Sunset, Angela is entangled in a story that is about more than her race and gender. "We see her as an admirable person, a sort of hero even, somebody we can learn a lot from. The fact that she is Black and that she is a woman has a lot to do with that," says Harvey and Samyn. "But we are looking at her because we're interested, because we want to get to know her, because we want to learn from her, because we look up to her."
Recent games like Amnesia, Gone Home, and Dear Esther have used the first person perspective to let players explore locations in the aftermath of an important event, making the drama about figuring out what happened, but Sunset let players watch its story unfold as they play.
"There will be things to discover about the past in Sunset, too," say the designers. "But the main plot line happens as you play. Despite of a common focus on atmosphere and immersion, we do hope to make Sunset feel active and exciting as well. We think of it as a thriller. This too is supported by the real-time telling of the story, rather than a more contemplative exploration of clues from the past."
That story will follow the revolution brewing in Anchuria, even though players won't watch that revolution through the iron sights of a gun. The designers point out, "The fact that we don't design action games doesn't mean that we don't address topics of violence and conflict. One might even make a point that we do so more sincerely than many. In many action games, the violent fiction is really only a skinning, a justification of otherwise completely abstract competitive mechanics. We tend to work the other way around: We design interaction to express a fiction."
According to its Kickstarter campaign, developer Tale of Tales expects to release Sunset in March 2015.
[Images: Tale of Tales]
Charles Battersby is a video game journalist, a playwright, actor and theater critic. He has written about games for websites and publications including GamesReviews, DustyCartridges and the satire site U.S. Department of Electronic Entertainment among others. He is also the creator of Theater for Nerds, the only website dedicated to covering nerdy theater. Follow him on Twitter.