Day 9. It was 1972.
I washed the dishes. I sat on the couch and scribbled a reply to a note on the table left by my employer. I briefly wondered how my brother was doing and then, slowly, I stepped out onto the deck of Gabriel Ortega’s penthouse and watched a city burn as the sun sank beneath the skyscrapers.
Just another day in San Bavón.
Sunset, a first-person game from Tale of Tales, exists somewhere between the grand love story of Casablanca and the softly spoken pain of Raymond Carver’s characters. It is a game of startling beauty housing quiet but immense ambition. As Angela Burnes, a black American immigrant housekeeper working for a mysterious man in San Bavón, Anchuria, you will mop floors and arrange books alphabetically and unpack boxes.
This sounds dull, doesn’t it? Luckily, Tales makes these actions rewarding. The first thing you do in Sunset is unpack the penthouse for your boss, a rich, mopey slob named Gabriel Ortega. When people talk about the environmental storytelling in Gone Home, they often discuss how much of a big deal it was just to turn the lights on in every room, how that helped make the Greenbriar house feel like a familiar place. The unpacking in Sunset accomplishes this same goal, making us build the home we’ll be spending the next real-time few hours occupying while letting us know how Angela feels about the whole situation.
The opening narration, and the thoughts that are presented to the player as text from time to time, reveal Angela to be a woman filled with resentment about her position and a fire in her heart for rebellion. She tells us about her and her brother fleeing America to Anchuria in search of a new, better life filled with opportunities not available to them at home, only to find a different kind of misery. Angela, an activist, is often annoyed with Ortega’s place of privilege as a wealthy man with political power who doesn’t really do anything except fill his apartment with works of art, statutes and paintings that suggest a sort of dull playboy who wants to impress people with an illusory intellect and taste. Of course, like everything else in the game, the narrative context of that artwork collection eventually shifts.
Sunset is a game where change happens gradually. Angela and Ortega’s relationship evolves slowly, but it does happen if you make the effort to respond to the notes Ortega leaves around the house instead of simply coming to the apartment, doing the chores, and heading home. Angela is a defined character but there’s also a blank slate aspect to her, one that the game lets us shape, inviting us to project ourselves onto her. Do we work hard or barely work at all? Will we spend all day scrubbing stained glass or wander around the house, poking things and relaxing on furniture? How do we respond to a playful, slightly flirtatious note left by our boss? Do we recoil in disgust and anxiety? Are we silent? Are we resentful? Do we flirt back?
There are no worlds to save. No moral dilemmas where someone’s life is in your hands and you have to make a choice while a timer quickly counts down. Sunset, for the most part, leaves the high drama at the door. There is a plot involving how Angela and Gabriel’s relationship affects the political situation in Anchuria but that’s ultimately the least interesting part of Sunset (probably because you never get to see anyone or anything outside of the penthouse beyond the killer view of the cityscape). The draw for me wasn’t wondering how my choices might affect the political climate of the country but was, instead, about building the relationship between these two people. I also took joy in the little moments, the subtle things. For example, you can catch your reflection in mirrors and glass doors and notice that Angela’s outfit has changed. There’s also a record player you can fool around with that will play new music every day. Interacting with certain objects, like a toy or magazine, will cause Angela to talk about her life. These short monologues range from comical—pretty much any time she’s aggravated with Ortega—to sadly tinged nostalgia, like a recounting of her and her brother riding bikes back in America when they were children.
Sunset is a gift, an all too rare kind of game that focuses on people loving and hurting in mundane but almost unbearable ways. I will return to Ortega’s penthouse in San Bavón soon, I imagine; if not in person, than in fond remembrance. It is, after all, the home I never knew I had.
Sunset was developed and published by Tales of Tales. Our review is based on the Mac version. It is also available for PC and Linux.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.