Sunset‘s [official site] preview showcases a game of guiding and shaping rather than explicit storytelling. It’s about gently influencing a relationship with an unseen person according to your own interests against the backdrop of a South American revolution in the 1970s.
You play as Angela Burnes, an American working in the fictional city of San Bavón in the equally fictional republic of Anchuria. Her employer is the wealthy Gabriel Ortega. You visit his penthouse apartment each week for the hour before sunset. Each visit to the apartment sees you fulfil a few simple tasks – emptying ashtrays, clearing desks, putting protective drapes over the eclectic art collection. You can also explore the apartment (WASD and mouse-type explorations) and you’re given a number of options for leaving traces of your visit.
In the preview I could play three visits which were spaced pretty far apart, so the effects of any relationship I started to develop with Ortega were likely magnified. I suspect in the game they’re supposed to be a lot more subtle, developing gradually over a year of visits. I mean on my second visit Ortega required me to grease his telescope. On one playthrough I spent my second visit pointedly aligning said telescope so Ortega would see the Big Dipper when he looked through, while notes around the house had him wondering what it would be like to look up and see me on the second floor balcony.
The revolution was a presence in the preview and the game hinted at Ortega and Angela’s own involvement with the conflict. Confidential documents on his desk, a helicopter rising up near the penthouse, Angela’s own mentions of activism, then explosions and gunshot sounds. There was a sense of escalation in that but also, because of the game’s setup, normalcy within it. That’s because the conflict is being billed as a backdrop and an ongoing reality rather than a Call of Duty-type vector for the delivery of heroic experiences. The focus is very much on this effectively turn-based relationship between absent employer and employee.
The relationship seems to unfold in a number of ways. There are objects around the house with which you can interact. Some are simple activate/deactivate commands – light switches, taps and so on – while others give you three options. These are things like the notes Ortega might leave on a piece of art or record players or chess boards. In these cases your options are either to ignore them completely, to respond in a romantic or flirty way, or to respond neutrally. That’s not to say it’s a love story, particularly. From the preview it seemed to me to be about navigating a relationship with an unseen other – interpretation of actions and ideas of trust, whether that’s flirty post-its or simply doing the tasks you were hired for and leaving.
You get a decent sense of Angela through these three days. She’s strong, politicised, but with moments of doubt about her own agenda. With that in mind the most satisfying version of the preview I played was a mixture of neutral and flirty responses. I wrote warm responses when he left notes on the art, but went for neutrality elsewhere.
When faced with the chess board the flirty option is to move the queen, the neutral is to move the pawn. When I’d moved the queen previously, Ortega’s response was to leave the queen in the middle of the board and to set the rest of the pieces out on the edge of the circular. This time I moved the pawn and my next visit just had his pawn moved out to mirror mine. The reciprocation and equality there felt closer to the relationship I thought Angela would have been comfy with.
Something I was unsure was having an effect was leaving the lights on. I spent three whole days wasting Ortega’s imaginary electricity and leaving every single light and appliance on when I departed the penthouse in the hopes that he would leave a snotty note asking me to please turn things off if I used them, but he didn’t. Perhaps that’s stuff which manifests in the full game, perhaps it’s seen as insignificant.
Another possibility is that those actions – because the icon for interaction in the game is the same colour as the one for flirtiness – are another part of building a relationship. Perhaps leaving an inviting-looking house means Ortega is happy to come home to it and that what he’s seeking isn’t best-termed flirtiness but simply activity or the traces of another life in proximity to his. After all, the general mood of the game is one of an oppressive dusk infused with that awkward crepuscular light.
I would feel like I was grasping for meaning with that last idea if this were a game by a different developer but over the years Tale of Tales’ games have provided unexpected pleasures and rewarded that type of thinking. I don’t know how well the relationship-building will be sustained in the full game but what I’ve seen in the preview was promising.
I also really want to know why the light-up staircase started off yellow and gradually turned a bluish white.