Q&A: Tale of Tales tells its first original story with Sunset

This first-person exploration game set in '70s-era Latin America is one of the larger games Tale of Tales has ever worked on, with collaborators like Austin Wintory and an anonymous writer.
"It's like a shooter game where you are not the hero but one of the people in the background," is how Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn described their new project, Sunset, when they announced it back in March. It's the first game they've worked on with a completely original, fictional story, though it's certainly not the first game they've made. The pair are lovers, game developers and cofounders of Tale of Tales, the two-person indie studio best known for producing intriguing games like the IGF award-winning sensual touch game Luxuria Superbia. The studio has been using an arts grant and their own money to fund development of Sunset thus far, but now they've launched a Kickstarter campaign to finish funding development of the game. Those funds are going, at least in part, towards paying a remarkably diverse array of collaborators, including award-winning composer Austin Wintory, an anonymous writing consultant who serves under the alias Senor X, and the Agency game consultancy, which is operated by Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander and industry veteran Ste Curran. That makes this one of the largest projects Tale of Tales has ever worked on, rivaling the scope of their 2009 horror game The Path. To learn more about Sunset, Gamasutra caught up with Harvey and Samyn via email to ask about their goals for the game and how its development differs from their previous work.

What drove you to make Sunset?

Sunset is based on a very old idea that has gone through many permutations over the years. There was a 2005 prototype, called "The Apartment", in our anniversary bundle that we released last December to celebrate ten years of Tale of Tales, that was an early related sketch. For the current version of the idea, we are looking at the early 1970s for inspiration. We chose the year 1972 as a reference point. It's a time of communist revolutions in Latin America and
"We realized that some of our work was difficult to enjoy for many people and we want to try harder to help players see their beauty and find the joy in them."
the Black Panther Party in the States. It also seems to be the time when Western culture morphed from an authoritarian civilization based on rules of decency and formal traditions to an egalitarian society that celebrates individual freedom above all. The tension between these two streams is very interesting to us. The game takes place in a penthouse apartment in the capital of a fictional country. The architecture of the apartment is based on floorplans of an ideal bachelor pad published in a 1970 copy of Playboy magazine. It's very sleek and modern and comes equipped with all sorts of electronic gadgets. But in our game the occupant of the place is kind of old-fashioned, so he decorates it with antique furniture and old art. For the latter, the Paris apartment of Yves Saint-Laurent is a big inspiration. The player character is an immigrant engineer forced to worked as a housekeeper in this apartment. We're calling her Angela, in a tribute to the African American political activist Angela Davis. But since Sunset is a first-person game, you won't be seeing much of her. You'll mostly be exploring the apartment. That aspect was inspired especially by Gone Home. A major difference from that game and even from our own first-person game Fatale though, is that in Sunset the story happens while you play instead of discovering a story that has already happened. There's discovery of things from the past too but the main story happens in real time.

Why did you assemble such a diverse coterie of collaborators, including Austin Wintory and an anonymous writer?

We collaborate a lot, and look at every new project as an opportunity to collaborate with people whose work we admire. Most often we have collaborated with women, almost always even. We were starting to feel a bit sexist! So we are giving in to our desire to collaborate with men this time. Not that sexism was the only motivation to work with Austin; in fact, we had been talking about collaboration for a long time. And when Sunset became a real production, we immediately thought of Austin for the music. He has already come up with some surprising ideas for the game. We're very much looking forward to working with him. Kris Force is doing the sound design, like she did on The Graveyard, The Path, Fatale and Bientot l'ete. Sadly she is female. But we've worked with her so much that she
"Most often we have collaborated with women, almost always even. We were starting to feel a bit sexist!"
feels like a part of Tale of Tales now. Sound will be a very important element in Sunset. There will be a lot of silent rummaging through other people's stuff in an empty apartment. And then there will also be deafening explosions! As for the anonymous contributor, he is a man. That is about all we can tell about him. He's a writer. And he's involved with games too. I wish we could tell you who it is. It might surprise some people. But he wishes to remain anonymous. He's not exactly writing the story but evaluating what we come up with and helping us make good narrative decisions. This is invaluable because we're not writers. We've never invented a story before. All of our games have been based on existing stories. This is a new one and a new experience for us. Along similar lines, but more focused on the actual design, are the contributions of Leigh Alexander and Ste Curran from Agency. They help us create a game that can actually accomplish our ambitions for it. We really need their sanity and experience because as designers we easily follow paths that lead far away from things that people understand and enjoy when playing a game. Basically to keep it from becoming too much of an "opaque artsy fiasco", something we have been criticized for in the past (though we feel that is an arguable point). Still it's not at all what we are aiming for with this game.

That's interesting -- what inspired you to try and make a game that is, for lack of a better term, more accessible than your previous work?

Our desire for accessibility was triggered by the things we describe in the Beautiful Art Program. Basically we realized that some of our work was difficult to enjoy for many people and we want to try harder to help players see their beauty and find the joy in them. We chose this particular design (originally from 2005) because games like Gone Home, Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, etc, had shown that there was a taste for first person exploration now in the gaming audience.

Fair enough! So how are you putting it all together?

We're very early in production, but it's pretty safe to say we'll be using Unity and Blender once again. The current prototypes are being built with the help of PlayMaker. Its Finite State Machine-based approach works really well with a game that takes place in a single place that is different every time. For design and organization notes we use an Oddmuse wiki. The original story was written with the help of Contour but has now been moved into an Open Office spreadsheet so we can keep track of how things are linked. For the graphics so far we've been using Blender 3d, Pixelmator, Illustrator and Photoshop.

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