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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.