Exactly three months ago we released our game Sunset. Sunset was our first attempt to design a game to appeal to people accustomed to playing games. Contrary to our hopes and expectations, Sunset did not find a bigger audience than we usually reach with our releases. And exactly 1 month after release we admitted defeat and decided that we would not rely on the commercial market for our future productions.
We were rather desperate at that point because we had some debts that we had hoped to pay from the revenue of sales and that didn’t look likely. But thanks to a combination of discounts, bundles and the overwhelming response to our announcement of failure, we were able to collect just enough money to break even (at least if we include art grants and crowdsourcing).
In 3 months, 17,000 copies of Sunset have changed hands. This includes copies in a Humble bundle and those for the Kickstarter backers. This has allowed us to pay our debts and save our company. Tale of Tales is safe now but we haven’t changed our mind about moving away from commerce.
A NEW TALE
Liberating ourselves from the demands of commercial production and conceiving new creations that are much further removed from videogames than anything we’ve dared to dreamed of has been a wonderful experience. A new creative world is opening up for us and we want to explore it, so we can make now work without compromising any of its artistic potential.
Our financial situation is still precarious but we are hopeful that a combination of grants, crowdfunding, donations and patronage will enable us to create things that will inspire people and maybe make life on this planet a little more bearable.
Of note in this context is the enthusiastic support of The Endless Forest community. It’s a free game but many players donate monthly, and some even ad hoc and rather generously, to pay for the server required to keep the multiplayer game running. So we’re very thankful to those crazy magical deer! What would we be without our beautiful forest?
Another important pillar is our campaigns on Patreon. We’re immensely grateful for the commitment of our patrons to support our creative efforts. And we invite you to join them: Auriea creates and reports on art and Michaël shares what’s going on in his mind and on his desk. It’s also a fun and personal way to keep in touch that we really appreciate.
We find ourselves moving closer again to our 2006 Realtime Art Manifesto, published before we started to commercially engage with games. Maybe this whole “indie game development” thing has just been a distraction from our real artistic goals. With your help, we are getting back on track. Thank you!
In 2002, after an intense involvement with web design and net art, we started using videogames as our main medium. Art creation and appreciation has always been a playful activity for us. Even in videogames, we tended to ignore the competitive aspects of rules-oriented sports-like designs in favor of a more playful form of interaction with lots of room for imagination.
The games that made us do it
Tekken was very formative for us. It’s a two-player fighting game but we played it as a romance and sex game. We loved how we could make our avatars interact with each other. And we invented stories about how Ling Xiaoyu Yu would visit Jin Kazama’s house and they would end up making out on the floor.
We also really loved the immersive environments that videogames would allow us to explore. Ico was a real revelation in that respect. We enjoyed hanging out with Yorda in the bright sunlight, looking at the doves hopping around like chickens, and feeling the gentle breeze. That was plenty for us. We had no need for solving puzzles, fighting ghosts or even discovering the story.
When it came to stories, we fell in love with Silent Hill 2. We enjoyed the fact that we couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. That made the fiction so much richer for us. And it also hooked into the complex psychology of game characters, especially avatars, who never really exist in a clearly defined fashion. They are not you and they are not themselves. What they say may be a lie they’re telling themselves, et cetera. Silent Hill’s story feels so much more real than the neat “hero with problem solves problem” storylines in most other media.
And finally there was Black & White 1. We spent hours in its world, feeling part of a living eco-system and above all interacting with the autonomous “creature.” We were delighted about the strong bond that could exist between a human and a synthetic being. Even some of the quirks of the software contributed to this as they reminded us that the creature is not so much a simulation of something else but its own reality. It was real! A real computer being.
Videogames became a medium
We envisioned a grand future for videogames when they would embrace these wonderful unique qualities. We saw a medium that could charm humanity as a whole and fill the gap that was left by the inadequacy of film to address the complexity of contemporary society.
Step one would be to take videogames seriously as a medium for expression. We could see the attraction of competitive forms of play and even the pulpy stories that such structures lead to, but we felt that holding on to them would limit the potential of the medium. One or two artists adhering to certain restrictions can lead to interesting results. But if these become rules that everyone needs to obey, a medium suffocates.
Especially a new medium like videogames. Videogames didn’t start out as a medium. Their name is not a coincidence. Videogames really were games in the beginning, electronic games. But as computers developed more sophisticated graphics, audio and algorithms, they outgrew those origins and became a medium.
To this very day, most developers resist this evolution. They insist that videogames are still primarily games and that all visual presentation, characters, stories and even themes only exist in service of the sport. Or when they are advanced they will claim that the two go perfectly well together.
We never believed that. And we also felt it’s needlessly complicated. When you embrace videogames as a new medium, a whole range of possibilities opens up. They run on computers. Computers can do anything!
I guess we approach videogames pretty much in the same way as a painter approaches a canvas, or a writer a sheet of paper. We have an idea in mind, a little chunk of reality, maybe a memory, or a fantasy, and we want to make it more tangible, more perceptible. Because we want to spend time in that idea, contemplate it further, explore it. And, of course share it with others.
This is probably why we always felt that videogames were more similar to architecture than to film as a medium. We wanted to create spaces for a user to visit. But not just buildings. Entire realities, worlds, environments. Places that were inhabited. To some extent our games attempted to be simulations, but only in as far as a painting or a novel is a simulation, a representation. The purpose is never to take you away entirely from your own reality, but instead to enrich your existence with beauty, with aesthetic elements that you could relate to, that could bring joy, that would help you embrace life as it finds you.
Tales of Tales
Part of our desire was cultural. Computers are about connecting things. We wanted computers to connect with all of culture. We saw the computer network as a natural evolution of the people network, a network that extends through time. Hence our desire to work with fairy tales and existing texts.
The way a fairy tale morphs into different shapes and stories over time and space reminded us a lot of the flexibility of computers to present many realities simultaneously. In our first game –we were young– we wanted to incorporate all of the different versions of the story of Sleeping Beauty. But without intimate knowledge of these stories you would never be able to make sense of it all. You would just be traveling through a “narrative environment”: a place where you knew every element has meaning but you don’t necessarily know what it is.
Much like our dear Saint Bavo Cathedral in our home town of Ghent. A Gothic masterpiece filled with baroque and rococo art. We deeply enjoy simply being in that space, feeling immersed in its history and connected to the stories that each and every object emanates. We can only place a small number of these. Most figures or ornaments mean nothing to us. But that doesn’t matter because we know that they are meaningful, or have been at some point, to someone. We feel cradled by ancient wisdom as by a loving mother: we don’t need to know what it means, we trust that we will be taken care of.
To be, to feel
Up until our last game, we had no inclination to tell a story. We only wanted to create “narrative environments.” Places soaked with story but without the need to tell any. Places where our souls could find rest. Often in the knowledge that there are no heroes, that there is no solution, that life is complicated, but that that’s okay, because the birds flutter and clouds float and the wind blows. The world is beautiful.
Our games were about being, not seeing. And about feeling real, not looking real. They were made for human bodies. Not just eyes or ears or fingers. But entire bodies, including the thoughts and memories, conscious or not. We wanted to connect to that, to being human, to living on earth. It wasn’t about providing some momentary fun to forget about your sorrows. On the contrary, it was about showing how those sorrows are beautiful, how living, having a living body, is amazing. Not just as an organic being, but also as a cultured, social one. We are connected to others, through similarities and through differences, we can empathize with others, we can care for others, we can love them. And we can also be hurt by them, and hate them and feel alone. But the connection is always there. Between people, between people and history, place and time.
It’s not easy
Despite computers being a major inspiration and enabler, they haven’t exactly been easy to work with. We’re very proud of the eight games we have been able to wrangle out of this stubborn technology. But only with respect to the grave inadequacy of both software and hardware to our ends.
Personally we don’t mind some things being broken in our games. For us, it adds to their charm and even their believability as synthetic beings and locations. But it was never our goal. We would prefer things to be perfect. We console ourselves with the knowledge that you can’t have both, or at least I haven’t seen it in this medium: either a videogame is interesting or it is a solid piece of technology. Many games are solid, skillfully engineered software programs.
We are sad that we haven’t been able to make anything we can consider a masterpiece. Computer technology evolves so slowly and along such convoluted paths, that we know it will not be ready in our lifetime, let alone we. We can only hope that our modest contribution can inspire future, more capable generations.
The Sunset we love
Sunset is a bit of a hybrid. We embraced conventional first person navigation because it seemed that successful games with similarities to our own all use it. We thought if it takes FPS controls to enjoy our work, we can do that. We also noticed that such games compensated for a certain poverty in gameplay with lots of text, often a complete story. So we wrote a story. Initially we were content simply creating the characters and the environment and then having events happen without any justification. But we were afraid that some people with dysfunctional imaginations would again be weirded out by that. So we invented a story to embed all our narrative elements in. It was fun to do. And if it helps people enjoy the game, no problem.
We’ve always enjoyed loops, repetitions. Six girls in The Path, open and closing a box in Vanitas, going back and forth between sea and café in Bientôt l’été, twelve tunnels of love in Luxuria Superbia. So going up and down the elevator to progress the story in Sunset felt very natural to us. The elevator panel allowed us to incorporate a start menu, another convention we had never used. And the repetition could be used for handing out missions since our character was, conveniently, a housekeeper here to do chores.
Using such conventions made production a lot easier. Suddenly a big chunk of the work wasn’t personal anymore. We didn’t need to think or to design. Instead we studied and copied. It felt kind of dumb, but we just flipped that switch in our brain and stopped worrying about it.
The choice for conventions, even if we felt that they diminished the play experience (Auriea can only play Sunset for a very short time before the first person camera makes her nauseous, for instance), gave us a lot more time to focus on building an environment, which is what we love to do.
We love the apartment we created, with its subtle but complex soundscape, its shifting light, its reflections and shadows. We love how it changes over time, as if it were a character. We love how it evolves from a sterile box to a messed up nest, in parallel with the player’s interaction with a game.
We love Angela, we adore her. It’s still hard to believe we created her. She feels so real to us. Her words, her sound, her looks, her ideas, the way she moves, the way she dresses. We wouldn’t mistake her for a real person. She has too many flaws for that, too many computer quirks. But somewhere in that little electronic box, there’s a living creature made of bits and light. And she will always be there for us, like a patient Madonna, to breastfeed us or to lament our corpse.
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.
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.
Sunset is by far the most complicated thing we’ve created in Unity. When we made our first Unity game, The Graveyard, we quickly realized that the tool was only going to be useful to us for making simple games. We came from the grand luxury of realtime visual programming offered by Quest3D with which we, artists and programming idiots, had built a multiplayer online game (The Endless Forest) and a horror game with semi-autonomous characters (The Path). The fact that Unity only offered script-based programming immediately meant that we had to dial down our ambitions. Our artist minds can perform magic with visuals but code makes our brains hurt. And compiling is the death knell for realtime creativity.
So here’s some of the state machines that make Sunset tick.
I love how visual programming gives me an overview of the logic that helps me decide whether it is correct. Maybe it’s superstition but when a graph looks pretty I think the logic runs better. A good looking state machine cannot have bugs.
Obviously some of the things above would be faster to program in code. If you know what you want before you start. And if you can keep a big game like Sunset in your head. But when experimenting or just forgetting about certain things, to me these graphical representations are much easier to read and much “lighter on the brain”. The excessiveness of some of the graphs helps me think about the logic. And the fact that you simply cannot make any typos in PlayMaker is a huge time saver. Now if they would only add realtime programming to Unity…
I have a theory about decades. In terms of style and spirit, decades don’t start in the ’00 year but only halfway through. And they last until the middle of the next decade. So what we think of as “the nineties” actually only started in 1995 and lasted until 2005. Similarly the seventies as we know them, only really started in 1975.
Sunset is set in 1972. So, according to my theory, it takes place in the style and spirit decade of the sixties, not the seventies. And we have definitely embraced that in the game.
In 1972, there was no punk, there was no disco. We listened to crooners, soul and psychedelic rock. The Beatles released their last album in 1970. And Diamonds Are Forever was the most recent Bond movie in 1972. Pong was released in 1972. And LCD screens had just made their appearance on the first digital watches. The wide-body Boeing 747 jet airliner with its glamorous upper deck had only been around for a few years. And the VW Beetle was the car that everybody wanted. Cassettes and video tapes had just been invented. But vinyl records were all the rage.
1972 was the year the first Godfather movie was released, and Cabaret, and Deliverance, and Solaris, and Last Tango in Paris, Hitchcock’s Frenzy, Fellini’s Roma and Godard’s Tout va Bien. And of course also Super Fly, with the wonderful soundtrack by Curtis Mayfield (Pusherman! Freddie’s Dead!). Star Wars did not exist. And the first Emmanuelle film would only be released 2 years later.
In architecture and design, the cool sixties still reigned supreme, with a touch of space age and a love of gadgets. Designers were fantasizing about multiple tv sets, remote controls, video intercom systems and even mini-computers that would control the lighting from central control panels hidden behind the seats of your sunken living room with wall to wall shag carpet.
But the eclecticism that the seventies would become known for had already started, premonitioned in 1968 in Vadim’s Barbarella and Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. So next to your plastic phone and your dropped projection screen, you would have a baroque chair and an African statue.
And if you had money you’d combine this with modernist paintings and Art Deco furniture, as Yves Saint Laurent did in the apartments that very much inspired Sunset.
Sex and Race
The revolutionary spirit of the sixties was still alive and well in 1972, despite of the commodification of hippie culture. Angela Davis was finally released from jail in 1972, only to be followed by Assata Shakur the year after. Nixon visited China in 1972. Right before the Watergate scandal. Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973. The Vietnam War was still going on.
This tension between the sneaky authoritarian elite with its conservative morals and a new generation that wanted to see the much touted ideals of liberty and egality realized for all was also very apparent in two phenomena that are incredibly confusing to our present-day “with us or against us” mentality. And therefore endlessly fascinating to us: blaxploitation and objectification.
The summer of love had left 1972 with an ambiguous relationship between the genders. On the one hand, we were all each other’s sex objects. But on the other it was mostly women who were presented as sexy and attractive. This still very much fit within the centuries-old equation of beauty with femininity. But it got a raunchy edge and the behavior of James Bond towards his Bond girls or Derek Flint’s women flatmates is on the verge of intolerable to our contemporary morality. Yet women didn’t seem to mind and played along gladly. Jane Birkin did not appear to be suffering under her relationship with Serge Gainsbourg. And Pam Grier triumphs in every one of her movies, even if she flaunts her impressive bust in the process.
Which brings us to blaxploitation. On the one hand, it’s a sheer delight to see films where black people are not thrown in as tokens to teach kids to “not be racist” but where everyone just is black and flaunts their blackness. But our modern minds can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable laughing at the silly jokes about stereotypes, knowing that the source of this humor is actual everyday racism that still exists in reality and gets people gunned down in the streets, even today, because of the color of their skin.
But no matter how complex and ambiguous, I think it is worthwhile to make an effort to enjoy, both beautiful women and cool Black Americans. Much better than to pretend that we don’t see the difference, which I fear often leads to in-difference (and the hiding or ignoring of problems rather than addressing them). Vive la difference!
When creating a videogame independently with a fraction of the budget of the blockbusters, a major concern is always how your game will look and compare to those popular games. There’s a sort of arms race going on in commercial videogames where big companies try to outdo each other in terms of aesthetics. They continue to up the ante in realism, detail, spectacle, and so on. As an independent developer you can only really stare at that with open mouth in utter awe. This must be how people in Antwerp must have felt like when they first saw Rubens’ work. Or here in Ghent when they encountered the Van Eyck altar piece in Saint Bavo’s cathedral.
The popular solution to the impossibility of competing with that stuff (simply because indies don’t have that kind of money) is to go retro. Making your game look old on purpose is a huge time saver and taps into the audience’s nostalgia. This would have been an interesting area to explore for Sunset, especially given that Sunset is set in the year that Pong was released: 1972. But we decided against that.
The thing is, we absolutely adore Rubens and Van Eyck. And this sort of aesthetics is what drew us to videogames in the first place. We want to make art with places that you can visit and characters you can relate to. We want to feel the lushness of the environment and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere. But could we afford it?
More is less
After paying close attention to our own reactions to aesthetics in videogames and reading about those of others, we discovered something remarkable. For all the effort put into realism, paradoxically it seems that to closer a game gets to it, the less players care about it.
When you think about it, it makes sense. We play videogames to surround ourselves with an imaginary world, to basically get away from reality for a while. So when a game starts looking like that reality, we tend to ignore it. At the initial first encounter, there we may go “wow”. But a few realistic trash cans and true-to life palm trees later, we tend to stop feeling so impressed.
I’m not going to argue that the effort was wasted. The effect of that initial wow-factor is not to be underestimated. But this observation did seem to offer us, underfunded indies, an opportunity.
Art in the cracks
It wasn’t just practical reasons that drove us to stylization in Sunset. Conceptually, realism is easy. This is probably one of the reasons why it’s so ubiquitous in a field where technology dominates. Copying what you see is a straightforward idea and offers a clear goal to compare your efforts to. When done literally, there’s no artistically creative thinking required.
But, as noted above, absolute realism is also absolutely dull. We are human, we like to feel connected to other humans. When we look at a picture, we like to notice the presence of its creator, if ever so subtly. We enjoy noticing how the artist solved a certain presentation problem. Maybe because it tells us something about the person who made the picture, or about what they were trying to evoke. Or simply because it reminds us that the image was created by a human like ourselves, not a machine.
I have this theory, somewhat derived from something that Raph Koster said in Theory of Fun, that art happens exactly where realism is lacking. It is where a picture deviates from reality that the art expresses something, that the cosmic divine is allowed to peak through.
This doesn’t mean that completely unreal images immediately have a better effect. The tension between the abstract and the real seems to be pivotal. I deeply enjoy being fooled into thinking something looks real only to find out on closer inspection that it isn’t at all. Especially when the abstraction is meaningful in some way.
A realistically modeled object is easily identified and ignored. But something that doesn’t look quite real invites investigation. If only because our mind wonders “Why can’t I ignore that thing?”
Stylizing in the Sunset
One of the tricks we use to pull Sunset away from realism is the exaggerated effect of the setting sun. Realistically speaking, when the sun sets its light diminishes and the effect of light from the sky increases. As a result, the world tends to look more bland and blue at sunset. But in our game it looks saturated and orange. Yet any human totally reads it as “setting sun” because it’s the color of the sun itself.
Another style choice is something we’ve developed over years of creating semi-realistic looking games on a budget. Based on something Fumito Ueda once said about Ico, we try to focus our efforts on the elements that are important, while leaving the others very simple, almost symbolic. This approach meshed really well with the particular seventies style that inspired us with its simple modernist architecture contrasted by detailed artworks and antiques.
A side effect of deviating from reality is that photographs look really weird in our world. And there’s lots of family photos of Ortega, and newspapers and magazines. So Auriea developed a style of fudging with photographic collages, halftone effects, and drawings that makes the pictures still read as photographs but look like they belong in our stylized apartment.
This is at the heart of our aesthetic motivation: things should feel real, but don’t have to look real. And in a medium where images are produced synthetically, not photographically, stylization tends to contribute to feeling real. I think this is because stylization is always subjective and as such an artist can guide the viewer to a place where they think the emotion happens.
A little joke
An extreme example of stylization is Sunset’s minimum quality mode. It was created to allow the game to be run on computers without proper graphics processor (ie those pesky integrated things that can only run 3D in theory). By leaving out the shadows and the reflections, the animated character and most of the image effects, we got pretty good performance but the game looked rather bland. So we added a pixellated and slightly posterized effect to that mode. It looks a lot better in our opinion. And as a bonus, it seems to be easier on the stomach of those sensitive to motion sickness in first person.
Sunset is modeled with mostly realistic proportions, give or take a bit of exaggeration for the sake of realtime 3D videogame presentation. We use reflections, and shadows and shiny materials that have a somewhat realistic effect. But we try to steer clear of anything looking too real. Which, ironically, doesn’t come easy with engines and shaders and scripts mostly created for the purpose of realistic depiction.
But through simplified shapes, generated textures and the extreme lighting conditions that the setting sun allows for, I am quite pleased with how the look of Sunset deviates from reality. And it is precisely the “how” that matters! I hope this means that some art will come out in the process. But that will be your call.
Sunset is a game in which you fall in love with somebody you never meet – as the passion rises, the city outside explodes and burns. We were super excited about that idea, but we also wanted to reach more people with Sunset, so we did some research and added a million other things.
Once upon a time
The original idea for what became Sunset is almost as old as our studio. Ten years ago, we wanted to make a first-person game in which you play some sort of invisible ghost, changing things in an apartment by night that influenced the lives of the inhabitants during the day. A few years later, after realising that one of the things we like most about games was well-defined characters in well-defined environments, the main character of “The Apartment” became an immigrant cleaning woman.
More years passed. Years in which we made The Path, Fatale, and Vanitas, as well as all sorts of prototypes before Bientôt l’été and Luxuria Superbia. We were preparing to continue our merry quest for adventure in video game creation land with An Empty World and The Book of 8 when we suddenly noticed that lots of people had started paying attention to the kind of games we really liked: games where you are immersed in the atmosphere of a simulated environment with the freedom to explore.
On closer inspection, we noticed that the most appreciated games in this new genre – if that’s what it is – had something in common: a first-person perspective. Our love of characters had meant that we never used first-person, except for the spirit in Fatale, but we remembered this old idea for “The Cleaning Woman In the Loft”, as the idea was called in the wiki where we keep all our notes, and figured we should give it another chance.
We immediately started imagining explosions and fire and smoke, maybe because we associate the first-person perspective with shooter games. We thought this violence would mesh well with a romantic story. There would be a sprawling city on the other side of the windows and as the protagonists fell in love, the fires in the city would express the rising passion in their hearts.
Then we did some more research.
Seeking And Finding
As we wanted to work within a relatively established area of the industry, we started reading up on what people enjoyed in particular about these games. We’d already learnt the hard way that our own love of games rarely aligns with others. We didn’t want to make the old mistake of working purely on instinct and then struggling to understand why players didn’t get it.
Scouring forums and blogs and reviews, one thing became abundantly clear to us: if a game doesn’t focus on action or competition, it needs a compelling story. This might seem obvious to most of you but we were quite astounded by this discovery (it just goes to show one should never underestimate the stupidity of an artist). We’d never actively created a narrative for our games before – even though we’ve always been labelled as creators of narrative games and (duh) the name of our studio is Tale of Tales (that’s two instances of “tale” in one name!). We’re usually content to just explore a situation without any real storytelling or plot advancement, or much of a backstory for that matter.
We’d always been reluctant to write stories because we were never confident in our own writing skills. With that in mind, we adopted the role of students and began learning to become writers, at least for the purpose of this one project. There’s an ocean of advice for aspiring writers on the internet. It’s like everybody wants to be one and everybody either really needs to give or receive information on how to become one and be a good one. It made our heads spin at first, but then we found the formula.
The Secret Formula
A little program called Contour caught our attention. We were simultaneously amused, aroused and titillated by the confidence with which its creator, Jeff Schechter, proclaimed to offer the exact recipe for successful scripts. He didn’t promise that a story following this recipe would be successful but he did convincingly demonstrate that most successful films and novels could be broken down to fit within the structure the program was built around.
At its core the Contour method is a classic three-act structure broken down into 44 explicit plot points. Each of these plot points covers a specific message and together they build a story arc. Now that we’re acquainted with this system, we see this structure everywhere. It’s very pervasive and very powerful. Knowing and recognising the formula doesn’t prevent these stories from having their intended effect on us emotionally – it just works!
I’m not going to claim that our story will work. But Contour did offer us an almost paint-by-numbers way of writing for Sunset. We had already collected a lot of ideas for characters, situations and events, many of them recorded during lonely car rides between our home and Paris where Auriea was attending a life drawing workshop. But now we were able to structure these into a story that had a chance of making some sense, if only emotionally.
This is why Sunset consists of 44 sessions: one for each plot point. According to the formula, in the first act, the protagonist must be an “orphan”, somehow separated from their community, different, maybe an outcast. Since our story needed to serve a first-person game, we immediately ran into the question of who the protagonist is. The player character is obviously the most important one but since they are controlled by the player, we can’t force their story arc too much. So we decided to focus on the unseen owner of the apartment as the primary character in our three-act story. Although, Angela and Gabriel do find themselves in a similar situation, so they share this role a bit.
Both Angela and Gabriel are symbolic orphans. She’s an immigrant whereas he has been removed from his social position and separated from his family. During the first act, the villain must be introduced. In Sunset, this is the ruthless dictator Generalísimo Ricardo Miraflores. Emotional tension between the protagonist and the so-called “stakes character” must also be established (i.e. potential romantic interest), specifically a result of a threat from the villain. This is an area where Gabriel and Angela share roles: they are concerned about each other as both suffer in different ways and can both help one another.
In the first part of the second act, the protagonist becomes a “wanderer”. We don’t want to spoil the story, but let’s just say that people and things are moving around at this point in Sunset. This part of the story ends with the protagonist figuring out a way to defeat the villain.
In the second part of the story, the protagonist becomes a “warrior” and the fight is on. The villain is confronted and the fancy apartment becomes a war zone, so to speak. At the end of this part of the story, things seem completely bleak and desperate. We feel that there is no way that the protagonist can ever defeat the villain.
But then he becomes a “martyr”; he gives up on his old ideals and principles, embracing the knowledge he has acquired along the way. And thus the protagonist conquers not only the villain, but also the hangups that were preventing him from leading a full life. There you go, we just spoiled the story of Sunset for you!
Topics of conversation
So it would seem that we “sold out”, gave into “The Man” and set out to create some “mainstream pulp”. Part of us felt rather uncomfortable about this actually (the part that is usually referred to as pretentious and artsy fartsy). We think of all of our games a little bit as our children. We love them no matter what other people say of them. Sunset was feeling a bit like a bastard child: a mix between what we wanted and what we thought people would appreciate. But as we dove into the source material for our story, we really started to enjoy the journey. And Sunset was quickly adopted in the Tale of Tales family.
We had decided to set our story in a foreign location, in the past because this would give us and our players some distance to allow ourselves to believe in the fiction. Since we know that the large majority of the people who play our games are either from the US or the UK, we decided on Latin America. There’s some interesting political and social friction between North and South America, Spanish is a second language for many US citizens, and Latin America is at least partially part of the Southern hemisphere while still being sufficiently modern to host the skyscraper city that we needed for Gabriel’s pad. It also happens to be a prime location for left-wing revolutions and right-wing military coups (we wanted the conservatives to be the bad guys because that worked best with our characters).
For the time period, we randomly called out “1972!” and somehow stuck to it. As it turns out, 1972 is a super interesting time. It’s when the 20th century broke in two and different visions of society clashed head-on. The conservative mundane well-to-do bourgeoisie was confronted with the escalating demands for liberty and civil rights from countless minorities. In 1972 the world shifted from a modern fairy tale land to a hard and cynical reality. We had discovered the man behind the curtain and still live in the shadow of that schism as the postmodern crisis remains unresolved.
But as happens often in turbulent times, the friction between cultures gave rise to an explosion of creativity.
As we dove into that source material, we discovered a lot of things that we loved. Fondness for the early 007 movies was something that Auriea and I Bond-ed over when we met in 1999. We love the suave man-of-the-world attitude the definitive secret agent holds and find the sexy sexism highly amusing (it’s doubtful that you could get away with that stuff anymore). Sunset is not an action game, but it does have an element of spying and the apartment has its fair set of gadgets.
Time for a confession. I own a moderate collection of Playboy magazines from the 1960s and 1970s. I love the smell of old paper and yes I not only read the articles but also look at the pictures. In one of those copies, I found pictures of the perfect bachelor pad, equipped with the latest in technological comfort, a duplex penthouse destined for the heart of a metropolis. In other words: the perfect mansion for our disgruntled intellectual Gabriel Ortega. He doesn’t appreciate the sleek minimalist modern swingers apartment one bit. This is how the other side of seventies aesthetic enters: eclecticism.
We had been looking at pictures of Yves Saint-Laurent’s apartments that were circling around when his partner was auctioning off many of the art and design pieces the couple had collected over the years (somehow we had ended up on a mailing list that all the fancy invitations for these auctions get sent to). Beautiful stuff in overwhelming combinations: ancient Greek sculptures, cubist paintings, art deco furniture, Louis chandeliers, salon statuettes, religious ornaments, lush flowers, all together in a dizzying whirl that was so seventies! We wanted some of that in our game.
The final, huge, piece of the narrative puzzle was blackness. Auriea is black. In fact, she’s a black American immigrant just like the player’s character. 1972 Is the year when the trial against Angela Davis took place. It’s a long and complex story that by now we know way too much about but suffice it to say that this was a crucial point in the American civil rights movement. The trial demonstrated exactly how racist (and sexist) the American establishment really was and Miss Davis became a symbol for Black Power, almost as prominent as Malcom X and Martin Luther King.
It’s been a joy to immerse myself in that history. It’s not something many black people talk a lot about and when you’re in a relationship with a black person, the color of their skin doesn’t really remain a topic of acute interest for very long. Researching Sunset gave me the opportunity to understand the struggle that black Americans are still going through on a daily basis. I was moved to tears by Angela Davis’ biography. So we named our character after her. It is ultimately her insight into our society and her energy to fight that inspired the revolutionary narrative in Sunset.
We feel current times could use a bit of the ‘hope for a better world’ that still existed in 1972 and the belief that humans can create such a world, for all its occupants. If you get anything out of Sunset, we wish it to be that.
Embracing several accepted game conventions has been a new and exciting development for us. In the past we tended to approach videogames as typical media artists: you look at the technology and break it down and do something with it that you feel makes more sense than how the technology is normally used. This is a great process for discovery and innovation but it is slanted heavily towards the creators and medium itself, not the people engaging with it.
We’ve always wanted to create for people. That’s why we started using computers and the internet in the first place – it’s why we make videogames. The desire to innovate, to do things that haven’t been done before is a sort of reflex for us and it has led us astray, away from many of the people we wanted to reach in the first place.
Sunset is still filled to the brim with things we find interesting and haven’t seen anywhere else, but we’re working hard on wrapping all of that up in a package that is fun to play. It feels a bit like preparing our home for an evening of entertaining guests. We want to be good hosts!
Somehow, along the way the story of Sunset and the world we’ve built up around it have become a vehicle for many themes and concerns that are dear to us. The whole thing has quickly become an elaborate metaphor for how we see the world. But we’ll let you discover that yourself.