Foundations vs. Houses: Thoughts on “Sunset” and the Critique of a Dead Developer

It can be hard to push—to critique. Particularly when it’s a subject matter we care about.

I can remember the first time I took a creative writing course in undergrad. I hate who I was in those days. Or, at very least, the role I seemed to fill. We were artistes, you see. We were all pretension and ambition, lugging the dog-eared masterworks of Anais Nin and Umberto Eco everywhere we went. We smoked, we drank—we made baseless accusations against each other about various subjects and perceived flaws. Hell, we may have even attended a protest or two.

And we critiqued each other. Out of classrooms and in them, we were headstrong and absolutely sure of our methodical attacks on the art of others. No one was safe: not the Pulitzer Prize winners of the mid-1970’s, or the cocksure reprobate who shared your dorm hall. For the life of me, I don’t know how to feel about the workshop method of artistic training. On one hand, it was good to have my opinions called upon during my development as a writer—to feel as if my involvement was necessary in someone else’s exercise of writing the next Great American Novel. On the other hand, my twenty-year-old self could probably have stood to be reminded on more than one occasion that my opinions were often brash, uninformed, and/or naïve. We all could have stood to hear that more often. I would argue that we still can, but the merest presence on the internet provides no lack of opportunity to be torn to shreds by strangers.

There’s a point to this personal nostalgia-shaming, dear reader: I promise.

While thinking about my criticisms of Sunset, Tale of Tale’s final video game endeavor, these memories are omnipresent. Not just because they instill the appropriate levels of “who-the-fuck-do-I-think-I-am”-isms that dance merrily through my brain at any given moment. But also because of the context under which these critiques are given. For those who don’t know, developer Tale of Tales quit the video game industry shortly after Sunset was released, citing its commercial failure (a mere 4000 copies sold) as the reason for moving on. “We really did our best with Sunset, our very best.” Developers Michaël Samyn & Auriea Harvey wrote on the Tale of Tales website. “And we failed. So that’s one thing we never need to do again.”

The whole thing was incredibly dramatic. And sad. It’s almost always sad when a developer must close its doors due to lack of interest. But it was particularly regretful here due to just how many other developers have cited Tale of Tales as an inspiration. There are a surprisingly large collection of places they left a mark: from AAA darlings Naughty Dog to the walking simulator enthusiasts at The Chinese Room.

And it’s all of this that makes me wonder about how dissatisfied I was with my experience during Sunset. Is my criticism after the burial of Tale of Tales somehow equivalent to kicking a dehydrated marathon runner because he isn’t trying hard enough when he drops? I think of that creative writing class and remember more than one classmate who brought in chapters or short stories to read. About how we eviscerated their work, and that when we reconvened a semester later, that classmate was never heard from again.

“Well hell,” I’d muse, a tad guiltily. “I didn’t mean for you to quit.”

The analogy isn’t completely sound, I’ll admit. Tale of Tales didn’t leave the industry because their critics didn’t like them. Nor is it fair to compare their work and experience to the Economics major in my class who thought he had the next Lord Of The Rings in him. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, perhaps partially out of a feeling of misplaced guilt. Because after I’d finished the game and snarked my way through a Let’s Play of it, the more I thought about Sunset and how unsatisfying I found the entire experience.

That’s not to suggest that Sunset is a waste of time: far from it. The very concept of it is unique and fairly exciting. You play as Angela, the maid of Gabriel Ortega, a high-ranking official in a corrupt South American dictatorship. Over the course of several months, you clean his home and learn more about the man and his position regarding an attempted revolution. As you get to know Ortega, you have opportunities to influence and even guide him. It’s a truly inspired idea: one that plays with a more dynamic interpretation of the slower paced “walking simulator” adventures that have found popularity in the last few years. However, the implementation just isn’t always there.

There are moments, of course. Wonderful moments. Beautiful music, unexpected explosions from the government palace, and the muted sound of automatic gunfire in the streets far below. But as the proximity of those two previous examples suggests, you never feel as if you’re a full part of the revolutionary experience. And perhaps that’s the point. You’re not a guerilla with a Kalashnikov—you’re just an ordinary person trying to get by. And even when you do feel like a cog in the coup, the stilted writing leaves you with little to no investment in the world around you.

For every graceful moment of writing or careful observation, there’s something ham-fisted just around the corner. Brief moments of budding, potential romance are smeared by heavy-handed preteen-style gooiness. Gentle musings about the necessity of art in a warzone give way to obvious philosophizing about the government’s attack on culture.

There’s no consistency to who Angela is, and not just because you have to choose from a variety of ways to play her. Some of my favorite moments in the game were when I was able to write directly to Ortega in a number of notes or scrawlings that he would leave around the penthouse. Whether or not his character was always intending for me to find them, I would. And while the difference between one response and another was often balanced or nuanced to the situation at hand, they would sometimes take a hard turn in one direction or another that just didn’t make sense to me. “I don’t think Angela would ever say something like this,” I’d think. “Not the Angela who’s walking around this house, muttering to herself about the rich and art and culture and revolution.”

The best example of this inconsistency comes from the time Angela spends at Ortega’s flat. She spends an hour there—she has an hour to finish the tasks set before her. And no matter what—no matter the importance or severity of the situation before her, when her hour is up, she announces that it’s time to go home. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot force her to stay past that hour. This leads to two things, in my case: jokes about how Ortega refuses to offer overtime, and bellowing chants of “ARE YOU A FUCKING REVOLUTIONARY OR NOT?” Angela will do everything she can to get her ass home in time for her Netflix, apparently, and as the stakes rise it gets a little absurd.

Each trip to Ortega’s has a span of several days (often a week) between them. Because we don’t see her in the days between “levels”, we have a harder time of relating with her story and what she’s going through. Through her opening monologues, we find out the important facts when she arrives at the penthouse, but we know precious little about Angela’s day-to-day life. And with so much time between visits, sometimes her attitude shifts are jarring. One day she’s a-flutter with thoughts of Ortega. The next she’s full of bile and rage at a cowardly leader who won’t stand up for what is right.

The superficial changes from week to week were actually among my favorite moments of Sunset. I found it fascinating to return to the same apartment again and again, only to find it shifting and growing around me. Ortega’s penthouse is a dynamic place, and you begin to feel as if it is your own home. You take pride in its upkeep, and feel slightly violated when it is marred, such as one particular time when it is ransacked and trashed by invaders. And those moments are genuinely precious. And they just aren’t enough to save Sunset.

But moments are something that you can build upon. They’re things that you can improve upon as you continue in your art. And that’s why I find the closing of Tale Of Tales at this point to be particularly sad. It’s also why I bring up some of the guilt I feel in critiquing it in a negative light. That’s not to suggest that I think that Tale of Tales is a defenseless flower, prone to a stomping by overenthusiastic commentators. But I believe that one of criticism’s greatest strengths is its ability to illustrate shortcomings in an effort to make future products and artworks that much better. And it’s a shame that Tale of Tales won’t be around to improve upon what is a very solid foundation, even if the house itself feels a bit wobbly.

But such is life, I suppose: so it goes. This is the end of Tale of Tales. And like its own game Sunset, when the ending comes it’s abrupt and very little is explained. Perhaps it’s poetic in that sense, but I would have preferred to see a little more of what the future had in store.

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