Red Sky At Night: Tale Of Tales On Sunset

By Richard Cobbett on July 14th, 2014 at 2:00 pm.

'Another good day for shepherds then,' sighed Angela.

Sunset is the latest game/project from Tale of Tales, creators of Lego Star Wars The Wolf Among Us many artistically minded offerings like The Path and Fatale. It’s already doubled its Kickstarter goal with its promise of a very different perspective on war; not a man with a gun in the field or some faceless general, but a woman with a feather duster in a luxurious apartment, given one hour a day to both make things tidy and make a difference. I spoke to creators Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn to find out more about their subversive take on modern warfare, and the challenges of making a very different kind of experience to their usual projects.

RPS: So, congratulations on the Kickstarter so far. Before we dig in though, could you give us the quick pitch for people who’ve yet to hear of Sunset and were too lazy to click the link?

Auriea: Sunset is a game that takes place in a fictional South American republic, Anchuria, during a military coup, or shortly after. It’s the early 70s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, when a lot of African American people were frustrated with the slow pace of progress and a lot of people left. Our character Angela Burnes is one of them. She gets to Anchuria before the coup and thinks she’s found paradise, and then all of a sudden the country is torn apart. And that’s when you come in. The only job she can find is as a housekeeper, and so now you’re cleaning the apartment of a wealthy, upper echelon member of this society – Gabriel Ortega.

RPS: And by messing with his stuff, reading his diary, and so on, you have an impact on the wider coup? So, essentially you’re roleplaying a really unprofessional housekeeper?

Auriea: She’s an activist! She’s a revolutionary, and all of a sudden she’s caught up in this situation. Just like everyone, you try to handle it and get on with your life.

Michaël: That’s what it’s ultimately inspired by, seeing all these things happening around us, and as small people it feels like there’s nothing we can do. But we still have our lives, we can still make the best of it. The most concrete things here are part of her housekeeping. For a lot of tasks, the player get options in terms of how to perform actions, and maybe one of those ways implies a little bit of a tease, or something he picks up on and a communication takes place.

Auriea: It can be something like… you leave the radio station on the pirate channel… does he change it back to the military station? It’s a game about playing with someone who isn’t there. He leaves notes, you respond to them, but you have to interpret what he’s thinking. Do you get closer to him? Does it become romantic? If he asks for advice, what do you say? Are are you his enemy… well, not enemy, nothing that strong, but are you spying on him and handing off information to the revolutionaries? It’s about that relationship through interactions with the world.

But what we really want to know is what weapons will be available - a nuclear duster, a pump-action plunger, nanite infused shammy cloth...

RPS: And do you see the results of this directly, in… oh, I don’t know, Ortega proudly displaying Medals of Bastardry after getting in a bad mood because you kept setting his alarm for 3AM, hiding his teddy bear, took all the yoghurt out of his fridge and left him with a potassium deficiency… I’m guessing probably not those examples specifically, but…

Michaël: It’s more implied. Your only contact with the outside world is the view of the city, but you’re in a penthouse – it’s fairly abstract.

Auriea: But if a building that was there yesterday is now gone and there’s smoke in the air, or you get in and the apartment has been ransacked because they’re looking for evidence of treachery, that’s something too.

Michaël: We are hoping there will be multiple interpretations, and some we didn’t even think of.

RPS: I’m assuming you can also choose to just run in, do your job, not get involved…?

Auriea: Even that will have implications! You could speed-run it, I guess-

RPS: Oh, man. I would love to see that at the next Awesome Games Done Quick.

Auriea: Have you seen the speed-run for The Graveyard? It’s amazing, almost zen.

RPS: I need to see this. And then maybe find a Dinner Date speed run. Quick! Eat the soup! Grab the bread! Don’t think about how a Tool Assisted run would end!

Auriea: I wish he (Jeroen D. Stout) would finish his new game. You should talk to him.

RPS: I don’t think I’d be able to resist the temptation to arrange an interview and then just not call. Ahem. It seems odd though that here, the character would be far more connected to the world outside than the player with their multiple levels of separation – that just for starters, she’d have walked through everything outside on her way to the game bit.

Michaël: You shouldn’t over-estimate the action on the ground. Most of the time it’s not constant warfare… she would only hear about much of what’s going on too. It’s not all-out civil war.

Auriea: Maybe at times it gets closer, but mostly it’s far off.

Michaël: It’s more like an… insidious feeling of oppression.

RPS: It still seems like an odd way to show that though – an elite in this context isn’t going to see the gritty details in the same way as someone like Angela at ground level, like all the fruit at the market being brown because supplies haven’t been able to make it through a blockade somewhere, or the banks running out of money…

Michaël: Oh, he’s even more distant than that. He’s an intellectual, he likes art, he doesn’t care about politics, the military, or the war, and he’s extremely cynical and bitter. And to some extent the game asks the question whether that, I guess, elitist attitude is appropriate in this situation – does an intellectual have to get their hands dirty to change a situation they’ve become passive to?

Decorative column, or really awesomely artistic tank?

RPS: It definitely feels more like a ‘game’ than both your own output and most of the arty releases of late, save Papers Please. Do you think pushing that aspect is more likely to make the player approach the situation in terms of winning rather than exploring?

Auriea: Well, as with all our games, there’s no way to win or lose, it’s just how you play, right?

RPS: Kind of, but you’ve got goals there, the idea of affecting the war… presumably people are going to have an idea where they want it to go.

Auriea: That’s totally a way to approach it, but Angela isn’t a blank slate. She has a personality, she has thoughts of her own that may affect how you play it.

Michaël: It really depends on the player. I think some people will role-play her in terms of what she would do rather than what they would.

RPS: The website does seem to push in a very specific direction, with talk of flirtation and romance? Is that how you see the story going for most players?

Michaël: It really depends on how people play it, but for us as designers, as a couple…

Auriea: We like romance in games!

Michaël: But it’s perfectly possible to play without getting too involved, and we like being able to offer that range to people.

Auriea: Yeah. It’s going to be tense and uncomfortable at times, because you are in this luxury apartment while people outside are living and dying, so the space undergoes a lot of transformations that might affect how you want the story to turn out.

RPS: Has conceiving and now pitching it more as a game than an art project/experience changed how you approach development?

Auriea: Yeah, now we’re wrapping the ‘thriller’ moniker around it, which we like to do to let people know how to approach it, but it helps us approach it too. When we do things like this, we have an audience in mind – with The Path, it was people who like horror games, with this, it’s people who like these first person walking simulators-

Michaël: (covers, rubs eyes)

Auriea: People who like narrative first person games. It changes things in that we decided we wanted to write our own story, rather than taking one that already exists or where it’s more about a feeling or something. We always said we didn’t want to write stories because we’re not writers, so we’re collaborating with someone on that – it’s our story, but he’s helping us make it good. That changes our process a lot.

Michaël: Thing is, I don’t think Sunset will be very gamey, not even like The Path which was kind of ironically game-like, but we do want to make something that people who play games find enjoyable. That’s the challenge for us, looking at how people play and what they enjoy and moulding that into a form that’s still in our creative interest. We’re not interested in obstacles and locked doors you have to find keys for instance, it’s more about atmosphere and having people go through a specific experience. It’s the first time we’ve tried to make something really comfortable for people who are comfortable with games… and for everyone else, that would be normal, but for us-

Auriea: Shocking! You can use mouselook! And WASD!

And then Angela realised her hair was on fire.

RPS: What’s the challenge of getting a character in an inherently powerless, subservient role like Angela’s into an active one, without either losing the powerless feeling or having the player just be an advisor – what, apologies for the name here, places like TV Tropes would describe as the “Magical Negro” role to the more important rich character?

Auriea: (Bursts out laughing)

Michaël: Well, you never get to play as that! It’s always another person. You never know what it feels like to be one!

Auriea: Maybe you’ll find out this time!

Michaël: No, no, it’s not that kind of character. Angela has her revolutionary ideas, but the effect she can have is limited-

Auriea: More human than magical! And everyone is brown in this game, so there’s that too…

RPS: Looking at the Kickstarter pitch, it seems to be based a lot more in American history than South America, with the main character notably an American immigrant with a lot of personal baggage rather than a local. Is that an attempt to push the sense of otherness?

Auriea: It’s more for players to feel both comfortable and alienated. We want people to feel like they are who they are, but also a tourist in this South American environment, like Angela. She’s someone who has somewhat idealised everything except where she’s from.

Michaël: We noticed that a large proportion of the people who play our games are Americans, and so we wanted to play with the idea of the American immigrant, because that’s so rare in terms of peoples’ mindset.

Auriea: I mean, I’m an American immigrant (to Belgium), so felt like playing with this idea of culture shock. We’re trying to say a lot of things underneath all this, but we’re not drawing any conclusions about cultures, class structure, what it means to be an immigrant and so on.

Michaël: The point of making the game is to create this situation and let people draw their own conclusions, as opposed to a movie or something more defined. That’s what a game is for.

Angela is using Steam as a blog at the moment, expressing thoughts on the coup, life in a war torn land, and whether Drow Ranger is totally OP.

RPS: I’ve noticed of late there’s been a fairly depressing amount of pushback to calls for diversity and wider perspectives, from Gone Home’s focus on a lesbian relationship to more general ones. Do you think that’s a deep-seated thing, or just a surface layer?

Michaël: I must admit, I was shocked by how little the lesbian thing was mentioned when people talked about Gone Home, but…

Auriea: We hang out in the soft places on the web, based on being burned in the past ourselves!

RPS: It just seems like people are getting oddly angry about calls to broaden horizons right now, and even at some of the games that have set out to do so.

Michaël: Maybe that’s a good reason to do it!

Auriea: Yeah! The beautiful thing about these games is that they’re still popular despite all that. I don’t know if bitching about games has ever been more or less prevalent.

Michaël: I see a big resurgence on the other side, advocating diversity.

Auriea: Both sides are stimulated right now, in a very large and vocal way, to advocate for what they want, which is interesting. You’ve got the people pushing for diversity, and those who don’t want that for whatever reason.

Michaël: Something we’ve experienced throughout our career is that there’s a certain group of people that plays video games that is resistant to change – any change – and they want things to stay the same forever, and they’re afraid that whenever something appears that is different, it’s going to replace what they like instead of sitting alongside it.

Auriea: We’ve always felt that we’re creating a space for people who want to play something different, not taking things away. As well, we’ve always been big advocates of other people making games that others might find weird and providing some kind of support by showing that yeah, you might get a lot of heat for this, but it’s still worth doing.

RPS: Certainly the Kickstarter seems to have gone well.

Auriea: Yeah, and we’ve definitely reached more people than we normally could have reached.

Do we have toucans? My friends, we have ALL the cans! Do not believe the imperialist pig-dogs and their lies!

RPS: The Kickstarter is still running for a couple more days of course. What plans do you have for the extra cash?

Auriea: We’re working with a lot of very talented freelancers, so we get to have people help us with programming and modelling, and we want to pay them well! We’ve already got them for a certain amount of time, and the money we’re collecting now is to pay for more of that, which is really great because it’ll make the game better than us working it all out.

Michaël: We’re used to minimal budgets and trying to squeeze as much out of it as we can, so it’s great that the Kickstarter lets us pay people closer to what they deserve and for more time to work on it. It’s going to be amazing. We want someone who can do rigging and animating, someone who does shader programming, someone who does UI… that’s where the money’s going, giving really talented artists work.

Auriea: (laughs) No-one has paid for our highest tier yet, where Michael and I come and clean your apartment and hide messages and you can play Sunset for real.

RPS: Can I suggest a stretch goal? Get the Viscera Clean-Up Detail guys involved, and then if you get the worst ending, you have to tidy the shameful mess you made while the credits roll.

Michaël + Auriea: (do not immediately seize upon this amazing idea)

RPS: …thank you for your time.

The Sunset Kickstarter ends this week, with the full game planned for release next March.

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23 Comments »

  1. Bull0 says:

    ಠ_ಠ *edit* The trolling I was replying to has been removed now, yay!

  2. AngelTear says:

    I’m always very much in love with the concepts of their games, and less so with their actual execution.
    That said, I’m really looking forward to it. Nice interview ^_^

    • Sinomatic says:

      This was pretty much my response. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing how it turns out, and hoping it can deliver. I find the concept intriguing at the very least.

    • Philomelle says:

      I’ve grown to like the execution in Tale of Tales games much more once I realized that a lot of awkward or uncomfortable things about their execution is intentional. I think they’re the only studio who would ever consider adding something normally perceived as bad design in order to enhance the emotional experience provided by their projects.

      I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing (it does frustrate and inconvenience the player) or a bad one (it does contribute to the overall experience). But I do think it’s fascinating how they intentionally muck with game design philosophy.

    • Grey Cap says:

      My experience exactly. However, I happily backed this and look forward to being culturally enriched and vaguely disappointed once more.

      Honestly I think that if Tale of Tales or Ice Pick Lodge had enough money to use a lot of playtesting in their design process they’d rule the world. As it is, they turn out characterful awkward things with brilliant ideas and raspy edges.

    • The Random One says:

      My thoughts are in line with most people in this thread. I do have high hopes for this one, though – mostly because it seems like it’d benefit from ‘traditional’ gameplay (just look at Gone Home), so they won’t have to sacrifice good control in the pyre of artistic integrity. But even if they do I suspect I’ll still enjoy the results immensely.

  3. alw says:

    :edit: yup, as above

    I’m loving how there seem to be more and more developers these days who are thinking about what else a game can be. I mean, I’ve been PC gaming for decades now and, while its nice to shoot things in the face sometimes, it does tend to get a bit samey.

    • kwyjibo says:

      If it gets a bit samey, you could try going to a gallery. They can be full of interesting interactive experiences which don’t involve shooting people in the face.

      The Digital Revolution exhibition is currently showing at the Barbican – http://www.barbican.org.uk/digital-revolution

      At no point do any of the artists and creatives insist their works be called “games” and that they should be reviewed in PC Gamer.

      • Smion says:

        @kwyjibo From the site you linked
        “Digital Revolution
        An immersive exhibition of art, design, film, music and videogames

      • alw says:

        Bit of a crap argument, that. The way you’ve just framed it, the word “game” HAS to involve shooting people in the face. Which is blatantly stupid, no?

        Besides, I don’t need to go out to a gallery, what with there being more and more games – sorry,” interesting interactive experiences” – that don’t involve face-shooting. I mean, its not like it’s me that has a problem with them being called “games”.

  4. Thirith says:

    I (completely ineffectually) dare the people who are planning to respond using terms such as “artsy-fartsy” and its less folksy brother, “pretentious”, to write their responses without resorting to that sort of lazy critical shorthand. For those of us who are interested in the discussion, tell us what makes Tale of Tales’ games those things, rather than just saying that they suck and are only for pretentious, artsy-fartsy wankers.

    • AngelTear says:

      Many game critics (Yes, the most pretentious, artsy-fartsy category of all game-related categories) I have read lately are starting to embrace the term in an ironic way. Others, unfortunately, are apologizing whenever they need to mention something vaguely intellectual – “I know it seems pretentious, but hear me out”, as if they should feel ashamed for it.

      Now, I’m sorry, but I have to go burn my pretentious philosophy books before someone finds out I read them.

      p.s.: Don’t forget to keep a couple of porn videos open in different pages, in case someone comes in your room while you’re reading games crit, so you can save face.

    • Frank says:

      I’m not expecting much of that. I think Richard (who says “I’ve noticed of late there’s been a fairly depressing amount of pushback to calls for diversity and wider perspectives”) is wrong — the hey day of those sorts of objections is behind us… or at least they won’t be used to attack this project.

      I’m not a fan of say, the Path, but I don’t see any reason to make this thread about ToT’s entire body of work. And I’m looking forward to what they’re making now.

  5. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    I really liked the interview, Richard. Thanks!

  6. Megakoresh says:

    I played The Path. It’s not really a game, it’s more of a digital art gallery. There’s no interaction or challenge in the game in any real sense, it’s like Stanley Parable, except more linear and with a more grim theme than Parable. Can’t say I liked it, but I wouldn’t say it was bad either. It’s a very artistic game, it’s about hidden messages and thought-provoking presentation. If this game will be anything like that, I think it might end up being like The Line without the actual gameplay elements.

  7. kwyjibo says:

    If it gets a bit samey, you could try going to a gallery. They can be full of interesting interactive experiences which don’t involve shooting people in the face.

    The Digital Revolution exhibition is currently showing at the Barbican – http://www.barbican.org.uk/digital-revolution

    At no point do any of the artists and creatives insist their works be called “games” and that they should be reviewed in PC Gamer.

  8. Smion says:

    With all these fictional south-american and eastern-european republics in indie-gaming nowadays I’m kind of getting skeptical whether these parts of the world still exist. Did anyone check on Latvia recently?

    • The Random One says:

      That must be why Ursula LeGuin says she can’t contact Orsinia any more…

  9. rexx.sabotage says:

    Diversity is nice

    but, the call for diversity has garnered so much momentum behind it that it is snowballing into the mandate for diversity.

    Art and creativity are best when they are free.

  10. malkav11 says:

    I’ll be interested to see how it turns out. I think it’s a cool concept for a game, but I haven’t been that enamored of their work in the past (although I thought The Path was worth experiencing, once). The fact that Sunset isn’t being pitched as their usual sort of thing does suggest I might be more interested, but on the other hand, how capable of moving outside their comfort area will they prove? We’ll see!

  11. James Pursaill says:

    My favourite game from Tales of Tales was the Endless Forest. Racing with other deer through the forest was eerie for it’s complete lack of text chat and purely emote-driven communication. Nuzzling, dancing, bowing, jumping over logs and rivers, gifting flowers onto the antlers of other deer. Apparently the gods of the forest would sometimes walk through, Princess Monoke style.

    I wanted to like the Path but found the ropey controls and lack of direction left me frustrated and baffled rather than spooked and immersed.

    Sunset, like all other tales games, sounds great on paper. Hope the extra kickstarter dosh gives it a smooth finish that lets them find a bigger audience that their ambition deserves. Wonder if their unfinished game 8 will see a revival on kickstarter too?

  12. P-Dizzle says:

    It’s the gaming equivalent of modern art. Really “intelligent” and “thought provoking” if you are in that group of people – but actually just unintentionally funny and full of twaddle.