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A Tale of Tales on the politics and interior design of Sunset

Longtime indie developer Auriea Harvey speaks to our sister site IndieGames.com about the design, goals and politics of Tale of Tales' upcoming first-person game Sunset.

Konstantinos Dimopoulos, Blogger

April 17, 2015

10 Min Read

[Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.com recently spoke with longtime indie developer Auriea Harvey about the design, goals and politics of Tale of Tales' upcoming first-person game Sunset.]

Auriea Harvey from Tale of Tales has agreed to answer our questions on the forthcoming Sunset -- a unique, artful and even revolutionary first person offering that's appropriately all about revolution. A game that you can already pre-order and will soon be released.

So, Sunset. Would you say this is the most political game you've attempted so far?

Harvey: Yeah. So this is the first game in which we try to address politics directly. And I think it's political on two levels - the background story of a popular uprising against a military dictator in the early 1970s in Latin America, and the core emotional experience of defining one's own position in the world we find ourselves in. Which is, of course, the basis of political activity.

That being said, please don't expect Sunset to be a theoretical treatise. It really isn't. For us, the point of a videogame experience is the opportunity to live through something, almost without needing to think long and hard. Things learned through experience are always more personal and important, so that's something we try to bring to all our games.

How would you describe the game briefly? How will it play and feel?

I think it feels at once calm and hectic, removed and immersed. The entire situation is set up as this duality - so, for example, the tasteful interior of the apartment offers a haven for the threatening hostility of the city, but no protection.

You visit the apartment every week, while the owner is out. You get a short list of housekeeping tasks to do. But there are also other activities that are not on the list. And you're entirely free to choose what you do. There's no victory or failure conditions in Sunset, but everything you do nudges the narrative a little bit.

And you only have a limited time to do your work, as well - so when the sun sets, you have to leave and come back the next day, when new activities will be available. Every time, the apartment changes - sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically. Many tasks take time to do. So often you will have to choose which things you will do before the sun sets. Everybody's experience will be different.

Strictly speaking, you could run through the entire game, going up and down the elevator, without doing a thing. You would still get the basic storyline... but it's only by interacting with the environment that you'll have a deep understanding of how the protagonists live through the events.

How will Sunset's characters and players interact with the world and each other?

Basically, you play a housekeeper and interact with the world by cleaning it. It's super realistic! Well, except that, since we have been making this cleaning woman simulator, our real house has been a mess. We need to urgently "do some research"!

There are few big choices in Sunset, a sense of powerlessness being a core theme. But through all the small things you see and do, you come to understand the situation better and develop a relationship with Gabriel, the unseen owner of the apartment. There's notes that Gabriel leaves for you, and Angela has a lot of thoughts about the things she sees in the environment.

A lot of the tasks can be done in either of two ways. Which way you choose affects not only the look of the apartment but also your relationship with the unseen owner. Seemingly trivial decisions will influence that relationship, and thus your experience of the game.

Like leaving the lights on, or more importantly selecting which music you will play on one of the apartment's groovy sound systems. Sunset doesn't feature a conventional soundtrack, but Austin Wintory is composing lots of pieces of music that will all be presented as objects to interact with, things like vinyl records that you find in the apartment. You choose which one fits your mood!

We hope that players will have Angela flirting with Gabriel because we like the idea of a passionate romance against the backdrop of a city in flames. But it is also possible to follow a more serious path where you retain a professional distance towards Ortega - and a greater enthusiasm for the revolution.

Why did you go with the 1970s theme? Did you feel a revolution would feel more believable back then?

Yeah. It seems like in the 1970s people still believed that the world could be changed, by people, for the better. What we're enamored by is this desire for change that people had back then and the passion they put into imagining a better world.

The outcome is not as important as the process. Ultimately the goal of social struggle, and thus of politics, can only be one thing: to make life good for every creature on this planet. Everything else - and that includes democracy, capitalism, communism, ideas of liberty and egality, etc - is a means to that end. And if we're noticing that we're not getting closer to that end, we need to change the means.

This is sometimes difficult. But it's the desire to do so that matters. Not whether we actually succeed. And we feel that that desire was very much alive in the early 1970s. So we want to reconnect with that spirit because we could use a good revolution right about now.

What were you inspired by when designing the penthouse, the characters and the plot?

Actually, the duplex penthouse apartment is directly taken from a design for the ideal modern bachelor pad we found in a 1970 issue of Playboy magazine. Angela herself is inspired by a mix of the American activist Angela Davis and blaxploitation movies super actress Pam Grier. The narrative setting of a housekeeper in an empty flat was in part inspired by Wong Kar Wai's film Chungking Express and for the backstory we mixed James Bond style spy movies with documentaries, books and films about the Cuban revolution, Latin American dictators and the Black Panther Party and the American Civil Rights Movement.

Do you believe a game can help our understanding of what living through the horrors of a war or the scary exhilaration of a revolution feels like?

No. I mean it would be nice I guess. But it would be even nicer if such horrors didn't exist at all.

The focus of Sunset is on what happens in regular people's daily lives. Today, we are all living our lives while in the background a war is going on. Maybe not right outside our window, as in the game, but often fought in our name nonetheless, far away from home. Everywhere in the world people are being abused and exploited and oppressed to grease the wheels of capitalism. If the violence is not physical, though it very often is, then it's psychological, social and cultural. Sunset is about all of our lives, the lives we all lead: in our peaceful apartments while the world is burning outside.

And one of the things we try to explore is how a relatively normal life still happens, even in extreme circumstances. We still feel joy, we still sing songs, we still do our work, we still fall in love. And those things are important. So important that, well, maybe they are worth fighting for.

Care to let the IndieGames readership know a bit about the art and culture to be found in the game?

This is a bit embarrassing. We're basically stuffing the apartment with everything that we love. We've even come to appreciate some things in the process that we thought we hated before.

It's a very eclectic mix. The apartment where the entire game takes place starts out being this sleek modernist duplex that could be located anywhere. In fact, it was inspired by ancient Roman architecture. On top of a skyscraper and filled with electronic gadgets of the time. But Ortega isn't too fond of shag carpets and space age furniture and when he moves his stuff in, the place transforms.

One of Sunset's many themes is confrontation of cultures: a North American Black woman trapped in a South American city where most people are Black too, but speak a very different language and are oppressed by a regime supported by the government of her home country. This poor immigrant is confronted with a wealthy local who owns art and artifacts from all over the world and many different eras.

We were very inspired by photos of Yves Saint Laurent's apartments for this. Somehow after he died we were put on a mailing list to receive all the fancy catalogs for the auctions of his belongings. And it was all such beautiful stuff! Ranging from Renaissance bronzes to Cubist paintings, from Ancient marbles to African masks, religious artifacts and Art Deco furniture. So Gabriel Ortega has this enormously diverse collection of beautiful objects. We hope people take the time to really look at them. Because it's not just backdrop material. All these pieces also tell a story.

Since it's the seventies, the atmosphere is very international modern. Back then, you could be a citizen of the world no matter where in that world you resided. As a result, the local Latin American elements sort of sneak their way in. There's beautiful organic looking modern furniture that we discovered while making the game. And of course, since our fictional country is located at the equator, there's the local plants. Ironically many plants we know as house plants grow in the wild in the rain forest. Also through the music and sound, local elements seep in.

Next to the game, we are also having a lot of fun with the graphic design of advertising materials and the like. The Sunset logo is set in Helvetica. People who think that Helvetica is a neutral typeface are using it wrong. It's a weird funky thing that likes to be badly spaced and blown out. We love the way it was used in early 1970s advertisements. And how those ads made everyone look attractive yet just-like-me and told stories with wit and innuendo. We've made a little website for the airline in our fictional country and we hope to do more things like this.

Also Angela keeps a diary called "Reflections of a Housekeeper." We release excerpts on the Steam page for the game. It's a way of giving bits of the backstory we've written for the game and sharing it with the community. We'll compile a lot of the narrative, artwork and other stuff into a digital artbook after launch as well.

Sunset was very popular on Kickstarter. How did you find this experience? Did you expect that level of support? Do you feel burdened by it?

Running a successful Kickstarter is a lot of fun. And a lot easier than making a game. Which is also fun, but hard fun. We didn't know what to expect. And we're super grateful for the result. Thanks to the overwhelming Kickstarter support, we were able to expand the game with a visible and playable character that we love. Angela is fantastic!

And are you happy with the way Sunset is shaping up?

Very much so. The production process is excruciating. But looking at the game makes it all worth while. Thankfully we can count on a number of very talented, skilled and well organized collaborators without whom we couldn't even dream of making this crazy thing.

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