A few hours in
Several dozen weeks in, and I have yet to meet Gabriel Ortega face-to-face. It may never happen, I think. But the old man has found a clever way to communicate with me: by leaving notes around the house.
He writes notes, and I write answers on them. Then he writes more notes, next week. It’s a cutesy little system. Romantic, almost.
He also called me once!
But for the most part, the story of Sunset was the story of me, as Angela Burns, and Gabriel Ortega’s apartment. I think I prefer it that way. It’s one of the same reasons I liked Gone Home: I just enjoy the idea of exploring houses that aren’t mine. Sunset’s penthouse mansion has much less in the way of hidden family drama and 90s history than Gone Home’s mega-mansion had, but the principle is the same.
Rather than focus inward, the core of Sunset’s story looks outward, towards the country of Anchuria and the larger world beyond. From the relatively calm beginning of ‘social unrest and regime change’, the tale of Anchuria’s unfolding destiny is back the backdrop and the focus of your weekly visits to the Ortega apartment. Radio broadcasts and magazines keep you up to date, Gabriel’s correspondence and involvement with the new regime is not hard to pick up on, and Angela herself is impacted by and tied to the happenings in ways that aren’t immediately clear.
I’m not entirely sure what I want to tell you about Sunset.
On the one hand, Sunset does a lot of things right. Its multifaceted and unconventional approach to storytelling works, insofar as that I found myself not just interested in the proceedings, but engaged with them, playing along with them. The way it presents its tale is not entirely without flaw, particularly mechanically, but I find I care more about Sunset’s Gabriel Ortega and Anchurian Revolution than I do about many of the ten-minute lore-crawl worlds I visited before. I’d be hard-pressed to name any of the continents name-dropped in Pillars of Eternity, for instance. I think one of them was an island? And one of them was white?
On the other hand, Sunset does a lot of things wrong. At times, the gameplay manages to uniquely be tediously boring and frustrating. The task list and time limit serve as the ludic framework that encapsulates the story, but the way these systems interplay sometimes gets in the way of experiencing the story. And there is very little gameplay-story overlap: for the most part, the evolution of the world is what happens in-between your penthouse visits. There is overlap, of course, both in Angela’s choices and in unexpected events, and the story never comes more alive than during these events. But whenever nothing ‘more interesting’ happens…
Starting with the good: as I’ve mentioned, Sunset’s writing and delivery are pretty excellent. It tells and weaves together various interesting stories: that of Anchuria, a country transitioning from a peaceful democracy to a military regime; that of Gabriel Ortega, a cultured collector of art whose role in the armed conflict evolves with his changing views; and that of Angela Burns, a young black woman from the suburbs of Baltimore, stuck in an increasingly militant country she once fell in love in, whose personal upbringing and family stake in this conflict slowly interweave with the life of the withdrawn Ortega. All of these elements are significant and important to the story, some in overt ways, some more subtly.
And as I’ve hinted at, Sunset tells its story through many different channels. The newspapers, radio broadcasts, and books and magazines that Ortega brings home all provide very straightforward information on the state of Anchuria. Angela herself adds to this: every new day, during the elevator ride up, she more or less recaps important events from the previous week.
The note exchange between Gabriel and Angela forms the more personal, ‘romantic’ arc to the story. Or maybe I should say, the more personal aspect of the story at large: both Gabriel and Angela are involved in the larger conflict, occasionally on different sides, and their budding relationship waxes and wanes as a result. In my game, Angela slowly warmed up to Gabriel: her view of him changed from that of the conflict-avoiding rich man, content to live his lavish lifestyle while the larger country suffered, to that of an idealistic art collector trying to do the right thing for as long as he could. I don’t know to what degree that particular story was a result of my actions, but it seems as though other outcomes are also possible.
And finally, a not-unimportant role is played by the apartment itself. A visual representation of Gabriel’s mood and worldview, the way the apartment changes over time reflects the story taking new directions. Some changes are subtle, others less so: Gabriel’s sudden fall from the new government’s grace is reflected, rather dramatically, by you stumbling on the results of a hard-handed secret police visit.
It’s interesting, looking back, how much the apartment grew on me. It was strange seeing the screenshots of the first day again, and realizing how alien and empty that place felt back then. It doesn’t, now. I know all rooms in this apartment more or less off-hand. Here is the kitchen, where I sometimes make food. Here is the living room, where Gabriel left his piano for me to play on. I actually got audibly better, practicing the same song over and over. Here is his bedroom, sparse and undecorated, and here is the guest bedroom, which I’ve slowly been making mine.
I can actually pinpoint the moment the chance started, believe it or not. Somewhere in the fifth week, Gabriel left his first note to me: the one all the way on the top of this page, the simple ‘thank you’. He also left some flowers on that table, under the bright yellow light of the sun-shaped lamp. And because I thought that was sweet and thoughtful, I’ve been turning on that lamp every time I got back to work. Every week, over and over, for twenty, thirty weeks or more: almost the first thing I do is go to that table to turn the lamp on. Our lamp. I like to think Gabriel understands what that means as much as I do.
For all Sunset’s slow-burning story has been drawing me in, however, I don’t think it’s actually fun to play.
Angela’s housework chores are kind of dull. I mean, of course they are: that part, I’m almost on board with. Mechanically, they almost all boil down to the same gameplay trick: find the place where you can use an item or do a task, make a moral choice if necessary, and then watch a splash screen for a few seconds as time ticks by. Then fade back into reality, with the house a little or a lot of different from how it was before. The level of visual change depends on your task, ranging from ‘the windows are clean and the leaves are gone’ to ‘there’s a Day Of The Dead skeleton in the hallway and I’ve put up some eye-searing wallpaper’.
You receive a new list of tasks every week — give or take — but it’s never entirely clear to what degree the task list is important. I usually tried to complete every task on the list, because, you know, that’s what I was getting paid for to do. But at one point in the game, I was given a list that — given time constraints — I literally couldn’t pull off in the allotted hour. And the results were… nothing, as far as I can tell. I wasn’t fired, I wasn’t even reprimanded. That may have been because I’m pretty sure Gabriel Ortega is way in love with me at this point, but still.
And on the other side of the coin, there are some ‘routine’ tasks that you can do entirely outside your list purview. As long as the storage cabinet is open, you can always choose to clean the floor. Either efficiently or happily, though both are blue options after the first time. Again, though, there’s very little reason why you’d want to: every major task eats some of your limited daily hour.
The strictness of the hour limit makes sense as a mechanical driver at first, but I found myself running into more and more situations where it just didn’t make sense. Would it really have been such a big issue to work for half an hour more, just to get everything done? And during the eight or so weeks Gabriel was on vacation, there wasn’t really any reason to go home at all: Angela kept complaining about the dangerous walk to work and the harassment of the soldiers and the checkpoint, but it never occurred to her to stay in this giant rooftop house that she knew would be unoccupied for a while.
That you only have an hour for your tasks wouldn’t be so big a deal, if it weren’t for Angela’s diary-writing. By sitting down in Gabriel’s cozy covered chair — a few times, sometimes, because it doesn’t always take — Angela starts writing a new entry in her diary. These diary entries are interesting to read, because more than anything else they relate Angela’s personal story and upbringing to what’s happening around her… but by God, they take long to write. We’re talking, like, fifteen minutes, twenty. Angela writes so incredibly slowly, you’d think she’s manually recalling what each letter looks like before writing it down.
I want to see what Angela has to say, I really do. But I also want to complete my chores! Those are my raison d’être, after all. And if I do sit down in that cozy chair, and Angela starts writing, and the time runs out… well, the last minute runs for a lot longer than the other ones. But eventually, I’ll be booted out to the elevator. Better luck next week, Angela! Better hope there’s nothing big on the list then.
Sunset’s gameplay is not great. When you can’t find where to activate certain tasks, it’s a frustrating game of hide-‘n-go-seek: running through whatever rooms are open to you this time around, trying to find the hotspot that’ll trigger the activity. When you can find where to do your tasks, the actual result is often more boring than anything. But the nature of games is such that you’ll be hesitant to just ditch all your assigned work to soak up the world instead. And, in fairness, it wouldn’t fit the Angela I’m roleplaying either. If Sunset achieves player-character congruence by making both me and Angela loathe our assigned busywork, is that something to be praised?
Sometimes I find myself wondering if Sunset would have worked better at what it’s good at in another format. Maybe a visual novel? Or maybe a non-game format would have been good for it: the weekly setup and the unchanging environment seem like they’d lend themselves well to a soap opera / telenovela setup. It’s not like the player has much influence over anything the characters think, anyway.
But then I walk through the penthouse, and I consider: a large part of what makes Sunset work for me, personally, is the sense of space and personality provided by the apartment. Being able to walk through it myself, interact with it myself, make decisions about it myself, all put me in this place much more efficiently than any outside depiction or series of still images could have achieved. Maybe the busywork is the price I pay for slowly being drawn into this story?
Even if this is the case, though, Sunset suffers from some mechanical flaws and design choices that hamper the immersion. It can be terribly frustrating to walk from one place to another, when it’s not immediately apparent what surfaces you can and can’t traverse. Why can I only cross the couch from one direction? Sitting on one particular cushion and then getting up can lead to you getting stuck in the table for a moment. Interacting with the diary-writing chair doesn’t always register. And if you choose to sit behind the piano, cancelling that animation leads to Angela being ejected three feet into the air.
It is a very pretty game though. Colourful, and friendly. And the lack of ‘default’ background music makes the music you play or create impact all the more effectively.
Sunset is a game of contrasts. The story is interesting and well-told, but the gameplay is dull and off-putting. The mechanics don’t always work, but the aesthetic is gorgeous. I love hearing about the world and the character interactions, but it feels like the game punishes me for doing the work it tells me to do first. And what is the deal with that little robot I see everywhere?
I don’t know. I don’t know what I think about Sunset, I think that’s the summary. Maybe I should play some more, see how the story unfolds further. See if that does anything to clear up my mind.
In the end, I didn’t complete Sunset. The dreariness of the busywork and the repetitive structure slowly overwhelmed my desire to see the story conclude. Part of this is because the story didn’t seem to conclude: every time I thought it was building up to a climax, a narrative ending, it would just… plod on, afterwards. All for the sake of realism, I don’t doubt: in the real world, stories as complex as a military revolution don’t simply end. But on the other hand, there’s a reason the stories we tell each other do: human interest wanes over time, seeking climax and completion, and a narrative that keeps twisting and turning without clearly allowing me to be done is a narrative that is guaranteed to eventually lose me.
I still think everything I said about Sunset holds. It’s an interesting experiment in multifaceted digital storytelling, and it certainly drew me into the world and the characters in a way that not many games can pull off. Simultaneously, while it makes good use of its digital space for immersion, it fails at making the game part of its experience something that’s actually worth experiencing. As a result, Sunset’s Radness Arc is a clearly quadratic: it starts off low, builds higher and higher as you start ‘getting into’ the world and the characters, and then starts declining as the story babbles on and the end that was once in apparent sight is yanked out from under you.
Maybe I’ll try to ‘finish’ Sunset, after wrapping up this review. I’m kind of curious if there even is a final climax of sorts. Or maybe there won’t be? Maybe Gabriel and Angela will continue dancing their dance, the slow romance of note-based communication and house cleaning, as Anchuria churns and burns around them? That would be quite the achievement, but it won’t be my story: my Angela has just tendered her resignation to mister Ortega. Either to join the rebellion, or to join Gabriel as something more than his housekeeper… either way, I don’t see much more cleaning in my immediate future.
Sunset can be yours for the relatively high price of twenty bucks, both DRM-free and Steam-wise.
Jarenth hasn’t actually cleaned his own ‘swanky bachelor pad’ in ages. Motivate him to pick up a mop on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?