Insubstantial, heartless, dull, confused – this is not what art looks like. Tale of Tales would have you believe that Sunset is a game about love, revolution and its central character, Angela. But it’s just you, walking around the same deserted virtual space, trying to find the right asset to click on so as to trigger more bad dialogue. Beyond outraged superlatives, which I’m determined to resist, I’m struggling to write about Sunset. It’s a game so devoid of anything – anything at all – that it belies criticism. The romance between Angela and Ortega is something even Mills and Boon would scoff at. Continuing independent gaming’s mission to not offend anyone, or say anything, yet masquerade as an urgent artistic front, the revolution angle is handled timidly and safely – it’s mere affectation. Some will say that’s the point, and that the game’s refusal to indulge in its own fictional war is reflecting of Ortega, safe in his high-rise palace. But that’s bunkum. In every section of Sunset, the revolution is referred to, either through artifacts discovered by the player, or Angela’s ham-fisted internal monologue. It’s there, in everything, on everything, but only ever handled with kid gloves. Like relationships in Braid, grief in Dear Esther, childhood in Brothers and parental abuse in Papo and Yo, revolution – and also sex – are simply worn by Sunset. On every topic, person or life experience which it claims to explore, Sunset has absolutely nothing to say. What’s aggravating is how convinced the creators seem to be that they’re breaking ground. Here’s Sunset co-creator Auriea Harvey talking about how the game is about people confronting new cultures, and a hunger for political change that pervaded in the 1970s. And yet you explore Sunset and it’s littered with other people’s work, be it photographs by Yves Saint Laurent or novels by Kurt Vonnegut. The other art in Sunset reveals nothing but the game’s own artistic deficit, as if Tale of Tales, in a rush, decided that having Slaughterhouse Five appear on-screen was a shorthand for making Sunset equally as charged as Vonnegut’s novel. And then there’s Angela’s ludicrous, faux-impassioned dialogue. About smoking she remarks: “Burning plants to inhale them. It’s kind of gross. But kind of mystical as well.” Despite its pretensions, if you showed Sunset to an adult – someone who’d read books and watched good movies, instead of playing videogames – they’d laugh, and rightly so.
Sunset starts at nothing and goes nowhere. You amble around the same space, Angela making the same obvious, tired, unchanging observations about life and war. Gone Home was open-plan, and you could explore it at will, but every room felt like another piece in the puzzle of who these characters were. Sunset has no such momentum. Again, you may say that’s the point, as if Ortega’s active presence in the flat – it’s ever-changing appearance based on his job and on his whim – intentionally prevent you from getting a handle on the guy, because people are in fact complicated. Again, that’s bunkum. At the start of the game, Ortega is an off-screen presence whose intentions you don’t truly understand. At the end of the game, Ortega is an off-screen presence whose intentions you don’t truly understand. Similarly, Angela begins a frustrated activist, confused by her new surroundings, and ends the same way. These characters are not ever-changing, or evolving, or even basically developing in the same way as their surroundings. They do nothing, go nowhere. And neither vagueness nor deliberate subversion of narrative construction make for art.
Insubstantial, heartless, dull, confused – Sunset is the worst of videogames masquerading as the best.