In Sunset, you sweep dusty floors, wash spotted windows, and fold a stranger’s well-pressed, tailored clothes–every week for a full year.
These acts might sound routine and tedious, but when you’re rooted in the fictional Latin American country of Anchuria during a 1972 military coup, a ritualistic comfort goes along with carefully making a bed or unclogging the upstairs sink. Still, uncertainty lies even within these constants because the man whose house you maintain has ties to the political and cultural turmoil engulfing the streets. Sunset beautifully pairs its dull corners with a sharp, sociopolitical edge, and while its inconsistent pacing and nagging technical hiccups blur the vision, there’s an unquestionable beauty in watching the sunset kiss the tips of skyscrapers as another somber day comes to a close.
You’ll spend Sunset’s four-hour run with Angela Burns, an African-American engineer working as a housekeeper to cover her hefty school bills. Angela works for the affluent art collector Gabriel Ortega, whom Angela gets to know solely through his surplus of sculptures and paintings, his eclectic taste in literature, and a series of notes on which you can write personal responses. You become most intimately acquainted with the actual apartment, though, which both subtly and dramatically morphs as the revolution outside its walls progresses. It’s a character all its own, and you grow accustomed to its many distinguishing features–such as the deep closet dug into Ortega’s bedroom, the neatly prepared chess board in the game room that pines for players, and, maybe most importantly, the wide windows by the patio that act as a thin veil between calm and chaos.
How this apartment is decorated and what you do during each in-game hour is up to you. If you feel compelled to go above and beyond the to-do list and hang up pictures of Ortega’s accomplishments, you have the option. If you just don’t feel up to lifting a finger on a cool September evening, you can simply turn around, open the elevator doors, and call it a night.
You do work within boundaries, though. You can’t throw a chair in the fireplace or send the grand piano out the window and into the streets (I tried), but the chores you’re assigned have variations. You’re given a warm and a cool option when you hover your cursor over a task, which determines whether you want to add some personality to the work or complete the task plainly. You can decorate the second floor with bright, floral wallpaper or slap on whatever drab design Ortega has tucked away in the closet. The material of the rug in front of the fireplace, the color of the fresh coat of paint on the bar walls, the care taken when stitching a patch into a ripped piece of clothing–this system provides a fork in every road. How these decisions affect actual change in the grand scheme of things isn’t always clear, but they do act as a silent, day-to-day means of communication between you and Ortega.
Much of the storytelling in this first-person experience is visual, but Angela’s running monologue provides direct context for each week’s happenings and her current feelings toward Ortega. In addition, Angela can sit on a canvas-wrapped chair located within the apartment at any time to begin scribbling notes into her diary. Beyond questioning Ortega’s intentions and worrying for her rebel brother’s safety during the conflict, she digs deeper into her interpretation of Ortega’s art, the social differences between Anchuria and her hometown of Baltimore, and her place in this unstable country. This is where the superb writing shines brightest, and while the text’s sluggish scroll quickly drains precious minutes before the sun sets, it’s worth your time to drink it all in.
Depending on how often you complete tasks and reply to notes with a warm sensibility, a strong romantic bond begins to form between tenant and housekeeper. It starts as an innocent flirtation, but as the revolution escalates, so do their feelings toward one another. And while the passion isn’t capped by a nightly embrace and kiss goodbye, watching the unspoken dance grow and evolve into something deeper is satisfying. It’s hard to know whether or not it’s a kinship born from tragedy and stoked by fear, but they find comfort in each other’s presence–even if that presence isn’t physical.
For the most part, the deliberate pacing benefits the relationship’s establishment. However, the steady climb toward a resolution is occasionally broken by days of inactivity and narrative stagnation. More than a few visits feel like filler, with no notes to respond to and few tasks to complete. These periods slowly drag you away from an otherwise compelling story. Sunset excels at using subtlety to build tension and curiosity, but when the progression halts, the activities start to feel like exactly what they are–chores.
Running Sunset on higher graphical settings can also be called a chore. Even after experimenting with a handful of different option combinations, I couldn’t find a mix that permanently steadied my framerate or prevented hitching. The presentation–from the glamour of the sky’s often-lavender glow to the dark smoke billowing from the buildings in the distance–is salient but often muddled by technical inconsistency. It’s a shame, too, because when Sunset does run smoothly for a visit or two and the powerful, orchestral soundtrack booms across the household, it can be an audiovisual marvel.
Sunset presents so much, all while asking you to do so little. A revolution burns, bombs burst just out of sight, and all you can do is decide if your boss would rather have a fancy dinner or a hefty portion of macaroni. The complexity of your decisions is occasionally greater than setting the table, but Sunset succeeds at making each small action feel significant by giving them all similar weight. Though the story is peppered with periods of inactivity that are detrimental to the pace, Sunset acts as a thoughtful, pensive walk through social themes and struggles not often explored in this medium.