We’re a culture that adores stories of all shapes and sizes, yet we often forget that some of the most personal tales are relayed through the environment itself. Our framed photos, shelved books and unkempt beds telegraph elements of our past and present lives to anyone who knows where to look. Games like Gone Home and Thirty Flights of Loving are built around exploring such spaces, piecing together others’ lives by the miscellaneous junk they leave behind, but your all-too-brief exploration ensures you’re an outside observer rather than a participant. Through covering a lengthier period of time and suggesting the player take a more active role, Tale of Tales’ Sunset forms a remarkable story that says as much about you as it does its world.
Over the course of one year, you’re employed to maintain an exquisite South American penthouse in the 1970s, owned by one Gabriel Ortega. Once a week, an hour before sunset, you ride the elevator up, complete your written instructions (by simply walking up to them and answering a Y/N prompt), which passes the time by a set number of minutes, and take your leave as soon as it gets dark. As the player, you’ll never see Mr. Ortega in person, or explore outside of the penthouse’s confines: it serves as a fortress through which bits and pieces of the outside world seep in.
Every return trip offers some new insight on Mr. Ortega, from the boxes he has yet to unpack to his childlike defacement of a magazine cover. The penthouse meaningfully captures his current goals and state of mind with minute changes that would likely be overlooked in any other context. This already-intimate method of observation grows even stronger as he starts acknowledging your presence, leaving playful memos strewn about the rooms and sharing his favorite vinyl records. There may not be any physical contact, but Mr. Ortega’s scattered messages create an enthralling, borderline romantic relationship that transforms a lonely environment into a comforting sanctuary.
Through housekeeping duties (and several chances to go above and beyond your instructions), you’re given the opportunity to leave your own mark on the penthouse. Aside from writing responses to his notes, many chores come with their own binary forks: do you want to set Mr. Ortega’s table traditionally, or should you experiment with a new arrangement? Pretty soon, you find yourself in a position to make permanent changes to the penthouse, painting the walls and spreading new bed coverings. While every choice is simplified to an either/or decision, as those decisions add up, the penthouse reflects your own actions. Despite the simplicity and lack of ownership, you feel invested in this empty dwelling and its organization.
Unfortunately, there are moments where the illusion of progression fails to match up with your own expectations. At one point, I was given the chance to learn how to play Mr. Ortega’s piano. His memo mentioned that if I kept practicing, I would eventually improve, but week after week, practicing the piano meant hearing the notes struck in the exact same way, with no apparent changes. Eventually, the option to practice disappeared, and the whole ordeal felt like a colossal waste of time I could have spent exploring the penthouse further.
While the penthouse is the extent of your domain as the player, the outside world is far from dormant. The South American city is subject to the whims of a brutal dictator, and local citizens are on the verge of a violent uprising. You will hear soldiers marching through the streets, the exasperated cries of residents who have had enough, and the muffled echo of gunshots. There are even a few choice moments (which I will not spoil) that rob the penthouse of its protective aura, and serve to remind you that being 50 floors above the rest of the world won’t keep you uninvolved.
There are even moments where Sunset directly nudges you and whispers “Hey, maybe you SHOULD do something.” Mr. Ortega is slightly more involved with the chaos outside than he lets on: every once in a while, he’ll “accidentally” leave a few confidential documents in plain sight, and the game will offer a choice that might just impact the war between a corrupt leader and his dissidents. The intense gravity of such decisions feels out of place in a game that otherwise places you as an average citizen working in an unstable city. Though your stake in the city’s well-being is duly noted by the accompanying narration and family ties, this is neither the time nor the place for yet another narrative about one person deciding the fate of an entire region, and it bogs down the rest of the game’s stellar sense of place.
By hunkering down for an extended period of time and having an intimate back-and-forth relationship with an unseen employer, Sunset breathes life into its limited setting better than any exploration-based game that has come before. It may not have the intense visual detail found in Gone Home or the size and scope of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, but it manages to tell a remarkably personal story that blurs the line between observance and involvement. Who knew that cleaning a single residence could be so meaningful?
A press copy of Sunset was used to write this review.