Developed by: Tale of Tales
Published by: Tale of Tales
Available on: Windows, OSX

On the surface, the work of a house cleaner doesn’t seem like the perfect occupation around which to base a game. “Sunset” does just that, putting you in the role of a recent engineering graduate who can’t find work other than a weekly cleaning appointment for the penthouse of a rich artist with government ties. “Sunset” creates a beautiful and sometimes-unnervingly artificial platform for the alienating role-play bound up in employer-employee relationships, staged against a backdrop of historical revolution that threatens to spoil it.

Developed by Tale of Tales, a video game endeavor formed by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn after years of collaboration in an online art collective, “Sunset” removes the physical particulars of cleaning and leaves only its theatrical script, moving through rooms in a certain order while attending to the week’s checklist of tasks—arrange the bookshelf, make the bed, fold the laundry, wash the windows. As you play through more than a year of weekly cleaning shifts, the distant sounds of passenger planes and car horns give way to gunfire and explosions, military helicopters scouring the earth below, the buzzing pseudo-silence they leave behind and signs of welling political conflict in the streets below.

Set in the fictional South American country of Anchuria (taken from O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings  from 1904), and decorated with the not-yet-kitsch modernism of the 1970s, the game is structured as a series of minor variations that develop a relationship-in-absentia through work notes left by the apartment’s owner, Gabriel Ortega. Ortega is an aging artist with financial ties to the sitting government and his connections add stress and resentment to the early cleaning sessions of Angela, the cleaner players will control. Angela is tied to the growing forces of revolution through her brother, who becomes one of the most infamous public figures in the country.

“Sunset’s” plotting and design capture the uncertainty and open-ended timelines of war, imparting a sense of impossible distance between Angela’s penthouse view and the street battles below–heard but rarely seen. There is a sense of helplessness and alien intrusion in the way war finds its way to Angela in Ortega’s apartment. In one moment, a huge helicopter hovers up into view, guns aiming directly at the reading nook Angela’s is cleaning. Later, a short chore in an upstairs bathroom is interrupted with the shock of a ringing telephone, which for an instant sounds like a siren.

These radical shifts in perspective – from the glacial contemplation of moving through the same living room for the 47th time to the sudden and singular incursions of history – fight against each other. The game is at its most unsteady when it is most specifically political, attempting to chart a clear line of the events that led to Anchuria’s uprising while maintaining the focus on Angela and Ortega.

It seems too neat and easy that Angela’s brother is a central figure in the revolutionary forces, while Ortega’s dealings with the government give him a direct connection to the counter-revolution forces. This kind of magically coincidental exposition sometimes counters the aesthetic of alienated distances and disempowerment that permeate game. To the game’s great credit, these moments are fleeting, quickly reclaimed by the rhythm and structure of the labors of a house cleaner, which must be done regardless of how the revolution is faring.

Each week’s task list presents its own small puzzle, a request to water the plants in a sprawling penthouse apartment with close to a dozen rooms doesn’t point to an immediately obvious endpoint. The lingering possibility that you may do something wrong because of a lack of clear instruction is compounded by sterility of the space and no two-way communication. And each week, the apartment is rearranged in slightly different configurations, a new magazine on the coffee table or a mussed set of bed sheets are both signifiers of unspoken narratives and prompts for labor. The game presents work as an act of ritual submission before a sea of things.

In 2010, Tale of Tales delivered a joint presentation to a gathering of game developers and academics imploring them to “make love not games,” implying that the “video game” label was preemptively narrow and overburdened with expectations about learning, achievement, and artificial self-congratulation. The duo wanted to make software where spaces for contemplation replaced artificial checklists, interactions and objectives. “Sunset” feels like a beautiful culmination of their vision, a loving attempt to turn the idea of private interiors into shareable spaces.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.

More game reviews: