Angela Burnes left Baltimore in 1972 looking for freedom. Things would be different in Latin America, she thought. They had to be. But the main character of Sunset quickly finds herself trapped in a country torn apart by civil war. Can doing chores for a rich man help her tear down a military coup? Should she?
Sunset is a game about what happens when people with different values are faced with crisis and need to figure out what they stand for. The newest game from Tales of Tales masks incredible depth behind simple interactions. First-person exploration is the sole mode of gameplay in Sunset. As Angela, players move through the posh apartment of Gabriel Ortega, art collector and head of a shipping company. Each day, Angela has set tasks that she needs to do between 5 and 6 p.m., like cleaning windows or unclogging a bathroom sink. But as she goes about her work, players will have the chance to peruse Ortega’s books, artwork and possessions, finding out the personal history and philosophical leanings about the man she works for. It’s snooping, yes, but it’s made to feel irresistible in Ortega’s well-appointed living space.
Gabriel and Angela never interact directly in Sunset. Instead, the two characters communicate via notes, scattered about his home. Players can have Angela respond warmly or coldly, and the same options are available for some of the tasks she does. So, a routine bit of tidying up can be done in an efficient and neutral way or with an extra bit of flair and growing affection. Each of these choices build up the asymmetrical relationship between the pair, which gets more dramatic as the situation outside the apartment gets volatile.
Sunset happens in San Bavon, capital city of the fictional Latin country of Anchuria, a former colony rocked by a sudden political takeover by General Ricardo Miraflores.
Angela’s snooping reveals that Ortega has indirect connections to the coup and their relationship reaches a tense turning point once her activist brother David joins the rebels trying to oust Miraflores. We don’t see these dramatic events but you can see the characters’ reactions nonetheless. Ortega draws devil horns on a magazine cover with David’s picture on it and, naturally, Angela takes offence. Cranky interactions like that come and go but the man and woman at the core of Sunset find themselves increasingly connected to each other, despite the fact that they live on opposite sides of the political and economic spectrum.
It’s not insignificant that two brown people are at the center of Sunset, a game that wears its politics on its sleeve. On the macro and micro levels, Sunset is concerned with how people live within systems that sustain crippling differentials of influence and wealth. Angela’s hours in Gabriel’s apartment are filled with her commentary on art, politics and religion. Take her into the right sequences and you’ll learn that Angela was a member of the Black Panthers. The game doesn’t explain why she left America after getting an engineering degree. But the player is left to wonder if both the activism and the college education were unable to give her a place where she felt like she belonged.
Presented as a man of Afrolatino heritage who’s become part of the upper class, Gabriel has a harsher reckoning with the realities of post-colonial dysfunction, finding out exactly what he can and can’t accomplish via higher income and friends-in-high-places. He doesn’t come across well in the game, sketched out as a bit of a naive dreamer who follows impulses into dangerous crossroads. His high perch above the streets of San Bavon has disconnected him from the people he moves amongst.
About two-thirds of the way through the game, the back-and-forth clashes between the rebels and the junta reach a boiling point. The possibility of United States intervention looms like a malignant threat, as American military might would be helping Miraflores’ strongman regime. At the same time, Gabriel and Angela’s exchanges also starts building to a culmination. The country they live in might cease to exist as they have known it and the question of whether they wind up as more than employer and employee is ultimately in players’ hands. At one point in Sunset, Gabriel finds himself trapped outside the country thanks to the military junta’s strict border lockdowns. The note-passing between he and Angela stops and the game starts feeling even more lonely. For better or for worse, you’re connected to this man even if you might not like him all that much.
Sunset is a short and rather lonely game, but it manages to use its vast stores of quiet to let a rich web of themes breathe through the player. The first-person game turns on the adage that all politics is personal, starting with biases born of station or circumstance and playing out in ways that change people’s individual lives. The ramifications of seemingly innocuous decisions like making and owning art get touched on in Sunset, which meditates on how access to culture changes depending on the whims of those in power.
While the war happens around Angela’s workday, the sights and sounds outside the apartment change as the situation worsens: gunshots, sirens, honking horns, marching and military drills all become part of the daily noise. With Angela, you get a character asking herself where she belongs and what defines her.
The art direction, set design and soundtrack in Sunset are all glorious. I’m a child of the 1970s and got a fair few flashbacks to the way that TV sets looked, hi-fi stereos sounded and food was packaged. Different tones gleam off the screen as the sun moves from afternoon to evening, creating a great sense of mood. Yet, there’s a bit of aloofness to Sunset, which seems to be intentional. It happens in a beautiful living space that the player character doesn’t own in a land she doesn’t belong to, which is threatened with upheaval you only have intellectual connection to. Yet the home Angela cleans starts to feel more alive as you play. Filled ashtrays, unorganized photos and notes left to each other make it feel like some kind of symbiosis is happening.
Initially, it seems like Sunset might be a game about the futility of individual heroism against systemic oppression. It doesn’t appear that Angela’s passion or Gabriel’s connections will be able to do anything to stop the bloodshed happening in Anchuria. But as it goes on, it transforms into a parable about little gestures having big impacts. The ending I got had Angela and Gabriel becoming much closer than seemed possible, yet I could recall most of the little gestures I made that got them there.
Part of the message that Sunset delivers is that, even when your life is falling apart, you have to live it. You have to pace and plod through the days, hoping to get just enough rest to do it all over again. When you have energy to spare, sometimes you can cobble together some semblance of meaning. Or even hope, for however long you can lie to yourself. And, if you make the right decisions about your relationships, the sunsets you share will be with people who make you stronger.