Players in “Sunset” commit what would be considered acts of war by aiding a rebellion in a fictional South American city. They do this not by fighting but by housekeeping.
“Sunset” is the rarest of war stories, one that touches upon those on the sidelines rather than the frontlines.
“This is not like most video games where you’re the actual hero and you go out and save everyone,” says Auriea Harvey, one half of the two-person Belgium studio Tale of Tales.
The latest game from the independent and experimental studio, “Sunset” illustrates the emotional turmoil war plays on everyday citizens, in this case an overqualified housekeeper who immigrated to South America from the United States.
She’s less worried about peace in our time than she is just finding a peace of mind.
“Sometimes when I get home,” says the game’s protagonist Angela Burnes, “I just lie down and close my eyes.”
“We decided to use the game as a tool to sort of deal with this idea of a war happening, and while you’re a part of it, it’s something that’s over there,” Harvey says. “Even if it’s getting closer to you, what do you do? You get on with your life.”
There’s an action movie within “Sunset,” but the explosions and the gunshots are off in the distance, the details kept just out of the periphery of the player. “Sunset” ultimately is a game about life on the margins — of war, of the middle class and of romance. It hooks by allowing the player to toy with the innermost thoughts of its main character.
It’s also topical. “Sunset” is set in a made-up past but is meant to draw parallels to the world of today. In the early 1970s of “Sunset,” the U.S. is involved in a war in a distant country and struggling with the civil rights movement back home.
“We didn’t know Ferguson was going to happen when we came up with Angela, but when it happened it was exactly what we were talking about,” Harvey says. “Things change, but they stay the same. We don’t have to talk about ‘now.’ We can talk about the past, and it’s the same today. Maybe that sounds pessimistic or cynical, but we live in a cynical time.”
“Sunset’s” Burnes is an African American engineering grad who left the U.S. in the early 1970s seeking a better life; she found a war zone.
“Sunset” finds a way into her head, letting players discover her idle thoughts, stresses and fears as she goes about cleaning the swanky bachelor pad of a member of the South American ruling class. The player is immediately on the defensive, knowing instantly that Burnes is overeducated for her gig.
Some of the game’s strongest moments bring it back home to the U.S., where Harvey, a 43-year-old Indiana native, lived before relocating to Belgium after falling in love with Michael Samyn, her partner in Tale of Tales.
As war in the game intensifies, the player hears Burnes compare the fighting in South America to the civil rights movement in the U.S. She recalls the horror of hearing a car speed away after a neighborhood church is set on fire. It’s a different sort of war, but Burnes appears to have fled one to land in another.
It doesn’t always help her attitude that the penthouse she must clean is filled with useless knickknacks, overpriced furniture and bad, impersonal art. Players discover the house from a first-person point-of-view, getting only a glimpse of Burnes as a reflection in the mirrors and windows she must clean.
Through chores — polishing the owner’s shoes, organizing his vinyl, fixing a window shattered in a nearby explosion — “Sunset” unravels a tale that touches upon race, class and poverty. Players can snoop through the belongings of one Gabriel Ortega and wonder why he hasn’t fled the threat of the government coup.
Burnes early on observes that she’s financially stuck in the faux town of San Bavón, but Ortega is blessed with affluence, here a trait that seems gained by randomness rather than hard work. Maybe this makes a player angry, or maybe this makes a player warm up to Ortega’s perseverance — or his checkbook.
Little choices the player can make hint at these different paths. You can, for instance, leave a passive-aggressive note that suggests Ortega should be spending his money on more than high-class stereos. Or you can leave a flirtatious note instead.
If you’re feeling friendly toward Ortega, one you can playfully arrange his records by mood rather than alphabetically. And if you are skeptical of Ortega, you may read his work belongings and alert the rebel cause if anything seems suspicious.
A lot about the story is purposefully ambiguous. Burnes eventually learns that Ortega is connected to the government, but letters he leaves for his housekeeper imply he is antiwar.
“We tried to get some nuance in there, even though every experience won’t be drastically different,” Harvey says. “People bring their own ideas — their own prejudices about a guy in a house like that or their own prejudices about a woman who’s cleaning.”
From its opening moments, “Sunset” makes the player slightly uncomfortable. At the start, Burnes will unpack and organize the home of a man she never met, forcing the player to suddenly get personal with a stranger. Yet as war rages outside the windows of the fancy pad she must clean, the place starts to feel more like home, or at least a safe zone.
To complicate matters, she’s becoming attached even as she becomes consumed with who’s side Ortega is on and what it means that she’s working for him. One soon realizes that the most personal relationship in Burnes’ life is with someone she never meets face to face.
“Mostly, we thought about love,” Harvey says, and how the heart can be unaffected by “class situations and all that sort of stuff.
“We were trying to think, how can two people fall in love if they never meet? We think this is a really romantic situation, but that’s probably just us.”
No, it’s how “Sunset,” though set in a war in a nonexistent Latin American land, hits even closer to home.
Devolper: Tale of Tales
Platforms: PC, Mac