The politics of beauty


Gabriel Ortega is a lover of the arts. Before the military coup closed the museums and operas, he was a well loved curator, critic and, thanks to the money from his marriage with Maria Luisa Veleta, a benefactor of culture.

In Sunset we see him possessing a large amount of books and many sculptures and paintings, appreciating music, and in the end, frantically attempting to rescue artworks from the destruction by military oppression and civil war.

If Angela Burnes, the immigrant housekeeper to his luxurious penthouse, represents the kind of person Auriea and I aspire to be, then Gabriel Ortega represents who we are now.

The dehumanization of Art

I love art, I live through art. Art makes me feel connected to life, opens my eyes for the beauty of creation, moves me to the core of my being where I become one with the cosmos. The pleasure that art brings is the very cornerstone of my existence. Without art I would not exist, or not feel that I did, or that it mattered if I did.

Much like Ortega hates the modernist apartment that he moves into at the start of Sunset, do I find it difficult to extend this love for art to the modern age. So much of 20th century art has centered on the rejection of beauty. The simple beauty of a landscape or a nude has been ridiculed by cynics who consider two World Wars sufficient excuse to destroy everything.

In an attempt to liberate the arts from narrative, mythology, religion, and so on, modernists have abandoned if not destroyed the humanity of the arts. Gabriel Ortega, by the way, was named after the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset who in 1925 published the deeply insightful essay “The Dehumanization of Art” which remains highly poignant to this very day.


Modernism has left us with concrete city blocks and grids of roads to squeeze our very organic bodies and lives into. The skyscraper skyline is the epitome of modernism. And while its criticism was valid and well meant, postmodernism hasn’t produced much to alleviate the distress, stuck in self-referential irony that celebrates the banality of human existence instead of its aspirations, and its charm. So much so that the proud purity of modernism started to appeal to us, while we were building a game set in 1972.

International Style

Modernism started a certain international style that dominated life around the world until well into the nineteen seventies. It was the aesthetic companion of universalist humanism spread by Western culture. Since postmodernism we have of course been reluctant to consider anything as universal. All cultures are always local and temporary and any form of cultural influence is quickly deemed neo-colonial. We want cultures to remain pure, often not realizing how patronizing and cynical such an attitude is coming from a still dominant culture accompanied by a suffocating economy and defended by the largest military aparatus ever gathered on this planet.


From the perspective of today, however, a time riddled with extremism, with terrorism, with preemptive strikes, with forced regime changes and corporate exploitation, I can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for a world that voluntarily embraces some of the benefits of Western idealism. The whole world becoming a village just feels more pleasant than a continuous clash of cultures.

Like Ortega I feel forced to reconsider my position. Maybe there is an aspect of modernism that can benefit mankind.

Beauty and domesticity

Another book that has greatly influenced my thinking about art is “Venus in Exile” by Wendy Steiner (2001). She approaches modernism from a feminist perspective and demonstrates how the abandonment of beauty could in fact be seen as a sexist move.

“Picasso, like other modern painters, transformed the allure of the female subject into the formal beauty of line and volume, and in the process transferred our response from admiration of her beauty to admiration of his virtuosity.” — Wendy Steiner

Attributing certain properties to genders, or even the very concept of femininity, is offensive to many feminists. I don’t share that position. I think men and women can be different and that this is a cause for celebration. I do not believe that women should need to adopt masculine properties in order to gain respect. On the contrary: I believe that most everything in this world would benefit from becoming a little more feminine.

Both Angela and Gabriel attack the oppressive sterility of the modernist penthouse in their own way. Gabriel introduces what would be considered kitsch. Paintings, sculptures, antiques and even pieces of furniture that bring story and color and organic form into the austere apartment. It’s an act of rebellion. Angela attacks the architecture through domesticity: through simple acts of housekeeping and decoration, she forces the perpendicular walls to form a home for Gabriel, and to some extent for herself. Not the grand sublime gestures of great art but the simple loveliness of pretty things. Putting a flower in a vase, hanging a curtain, mending a sweater suddenly become the most subversive acts of all.

Art will save the world

Ortega’s aesthetic sensibility is plagued by civil unrest and war. Mine by pop culture and consumerism. Our museums and libraries are stuffed with glorious art but we’d rather go see some dinosaur space movie or stare at “meme” pictures on the internet all day long. We’d even rather do so ironically than consider a tiny effort to explore some art. Belgian psychiatrist Paul Verhaeghe has basically diagnosed us all with depression. This society is making us sick and we don’t even know it.

In the game industry, to call a videogame “a work of art” is generally intended as an insult. Or at the very least a legitimate excuse for the player to ignore the piece. To aspire to beauty and greatness is considered pretentious. We are constantly being dragged down for trying to enjoy life.

I understand that many people “just don’t get it.” It is not unimaginable that art would require a level of intellect and sensitivity that not everyone possesses. But usually it’s a lack of education that lies at the basis of our indifference towards the very thing that could cure us. Now that secure employment is a thing of the past, maybe the education of our children can shift towards teaching them how to become happy and satisfied. A big part of that could come from acquaintance with the arts.

— Michaël Samyn.

2 thoughts on “The politics of beauty

  1. I was a Kickstarter backer of the game. I was very excited to get the opportunity to play it. When it came out, I was disappointed. Is that because I lack the intellect and sensitivity to understand the art? That’s not for me to say, although if pushed I’d venture not. For me, the issue was that it’s just not a very good game, and if you’re going to choose a video game as the vehicle for your art, it has to also be a good game.

    I’ve loved innumerable games that I also considered art. But they also worked as games. That’s where Sunset fails.

    The colour palette chosen for the game may have been an artistic and aesthetic choice, but it interferes with gameplay to a degree that I was not expecting. It’s just plain hard to see things. Like, problematically hard. The settings adjustments available seem unable to alleviate the problem, and are hard to work with since they overlap the screen, so you have to exit and re-open the settings panel each time you make an adjustment.

    Controls are clunky and the immersion is frequently ruined by seeing parts of you or reflections of you seeming to float or moonwalk in unrealistic ways.

    The character can’t look straight up or straight down — their up-and-down look is in fact confined to an extremely narrow band. There’s no game-world explanation for this (does she wear a neck brace?). However, it makes it very hard to get a decent look at anything that’s not hung on a wall. Object on the floor or on a coffee table? Prepare to step back ten feet to be able to point your view at it. At that distance even the zoom feature doesn’t really help. As an actual person, I can look up and see the ceiling directly above my head or look down and see my own feet. In fact, I can tilt and see behind me in both directions. What’s with the restriction? It’s awful.

    The interaction UI is just plain broken. Getting the Y or N choices to show up on screen is painful at best, and often just plain unworkable. Even if they were easy to choose, it’s too limited an interaction space, and often the sense you get of the choices in advance doesn’t at all match how they actually play out.

    The pixel-hunting nature of completing the assigned tasks is tedious at best. The triggers are often arbitrary or even slightly irrational, and having to hunt the entire space to find them is tiresome. Clean the windows? Sure. Oh, standing in front of the windows doesn’t give me the option? The bucket and squeegie in the cleaning closet doesn’t give me the option? Some random other bucket half hidden under some papers in a random room does? Why? My character can’t just decide to clean the windows?

    I like the idea that you were going for with this game, and I like elements of the game a lot. But it’s a flawed and disappointing execution, and missives like the one you wrote above seem to petulently (and often insultingly, as with the remark about people just not having the intellectual wherewithal to understand the work) place all the blame for lacklustre sales on your userbase, who have been very supportive, while refusing to accept any yourself.

    You could try to address some of the issues with the game through a patch and hope to boost sales through positive later reviews of the patches version. You could be happy that it reached what audience it did. But I think that whatever it is you’re doing with this article wasn’t the right choice.

    1. I loved The Path, it gave me a sense of possibility in this medium. Tale of Tales’ anti-modernist stance always felt conservative and elitist to me, but I didn’t think it mattered, as long as their output had more layers than the discourse. Their following projects felt like half developed ideas, but I thought they were just getting ready for something more ambitious. Now I feel like they´re the flip side to the gamer coin. Games are what they are: Nintendo was founded as a card company, Konami started as a jukebox retail and repair business, Taito imported vending machines and jukeboxes, Namco ran two rocking horse rides in a department store, Midway manufactured mechanical carnival toys. The medium was born inside carnival boxes, not unlike film or recorded sound. The world’s first audio products were talking dolls, envisioned by Thomas Edison himself. These people were not joking around, they were entrepreneurs operating in a shallow industrial culture that thrives on standardisation and mass production, they have to appeal to a mass of individual entities called consumers, but not all of them at once. The concept of market segmentation is the next natural step, they need labels like pre-teens, teens, young adults, older adults, gen-x, gen-y, male, female, professional, trade or unskilled in order to deliver a message to a specific group of people. To some extraterestrial circles, this whole thing might come off as an elaborate joke, but the most laughable segment is “artists”, the ones with good taste, the anti-philistines, the ones Auriea & Michaël seem to identify with.

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