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Sunset, from developer Tale of Tales, is a video game.

Sunset is not a particularly successful video game, having sold only 4000 copies since its launch. Sunset isn’t my type of game; to be honest I hadn’t heard about it until the news that Tale of Tales was shuttering broke. Maybe I don’t read the right publications or follow the right people, but at the end of the day, Sunset didn’t attract me, and I’m clearly not alone. The poor sales of Sunset caused Tale of Tales to leave the games industry in dramatic fashion.

But Sunset didn’t fail because it’s “not a game”; it failed because it was a game that only 4000 people wanted to play.

The “not a game” accusation is typically applied to story driven games with no combat, no competition and no fail-state; Games like Gone Home, Dear Esther, Depression Quest and our case study, Sunset.

Many people define a game the way we define games in real life; as a competition, whether it’s you vs. someone else, you vs. yourself or you vs. the machine. This definition of game common to kids’ games and competitive sports means something that results in a winner and necessarily a loser. Games need to have an opportunity to fail—for the player to be defeated or the player to die. TotalBiscuit talks about this view of games in a video from last year.

I disagree, myself. I think because the things we play on consoles and PCs have been called “video games” since they were created, we cling to the original definition of games. As something that includes the ability to fail or lose, just this time on video!

For me, video games are defined by interactivity, not challenge and failure. Don’t get me wrong, I know challenge and fail states are important parts of many games, but I don’t think we need to limit the definition in such a way. Video games exist because they require input from the player; rather than watching the hero shoot the bad guy, you shoot the bad guy. Rather than watching an athlete score a goal, you are the athlete. Fail states are a part of most games, but I believe the concept of a video game starts with interaction, everything else follows that.

If it requires the player to input commands, whether those commands are walk, hit, shoot, talk, dance or move, as long as the audience is actively involved rather than passively observing, it’s a video game.

So by my definition, Gone Home is a game, Dear Esther is a game and yes, Sunset is a game. But this doesn’t necessarily make them good games. Like I mentioned above, Sunset didn’t fail because it isn’t a game, Sunset failed as a game because most people didn’t want to play it.

These games are niche games, art games. They’re not about fun, or challenge or addiction or achievement; they are mostly about experiencing a narrative crafted by the developers. For some games, like Dear Esther, there is little to no reason for the game to be a game; the narrative could have been delivered as a short film with nothing lost in the translation. Whereas something like Life is Strange or Heavy Rain benefits more from the interactivity of the medium. They’re all still games though; the fact they don’t appeal to the majority of the industry doesn’t change that.

A screenshot from Tale of Tales' Sunset.

A screenshot from Tale of Tales’ Sunset.

Really “It’s not a game!” is shorthand for “it looks boring and I have no interest in playing this.” It’s totally fine to hate “walking simulators”, normal even—they’re not what most people are interested in when it comes to gaming—but it doesn’t do anyone any favors to argue that they’re not games.

There are arthouse movies that are painful to watch, consisting entirely of slow zooms on a painting or a close up of a wilting flower, and they’re still movies. There are books that are written by unhinged racists and self published with a PayPal donate button but they’re still books. Just because something is considered a bad example of the medium doesn’t mean its not part of the medium. Just because Sunset the video game was a failure, doesn’t mean its not a video game.

The thing is, most art isn’t lucrative. The artist who sells their work for millions is the exception, not the rule, and clearly, when making Sunset and their other games, Tale of Tales was most concerned with the art. Sunset was bathed in praise by most of the outlets that reviewed it, but still sold dismally because the majority of the potential audience isn’t interested in art games. Just like the majority of moviegoers would rather see Jurassic World and Avengers 2 than an indie-drama. The fact that Sunset is an art-focused game that wasn’t a cash-cow shouldn’t shock anyone.

Call it a failure, call it masturbatory, call it pointless but saying it’s “not a game” is just a lazy accusation that only really causes contention. People enjoying Gone Home doesn’t hurt my enjoyment of The Witcher 3, so why would I waste my breath telling them that what they’re doing isn’t video games?

Not only that but “not a game” frees these titles from scrutiny and responsibility. If you make a video game, it has to survive in the video game industry. If it’s an “interactive experience” or art project, it gets to exist in this parallel world free of the criticism that would come for a sub-par video game. Some would prefer that, for their passion project to exist outside the industry, free of the trolls’ clutches but thats simply not how it works.

Sunset is a video game and it had to compete with video games and ultimately the video game industry decided it was worth 4000 sales. As soon as we acknowledge the fact that all these “not games” are just video games, then we can acknowledge that these art games aren’t transcendent experiences lost on the majority: people just don’t want to play your game.

Wyatt Hnatiw

Staff Writer

Wyatt Hnatiw is a lifelong gamer with a borderline inappropriate love of BioWare RPGs and Bioshock. Maybe he just loves the prefix Bio...

  • Isn’t it pretty established at this point that Tale of Tales set out to make a game that would appeal to gamers and Sunset was the result? They said so themselves, so they weren’t solely concerned with the art.

    Great points throughout though. Art games or narrative games are still games, they’re just a new category. I tend to agree with TB that they shouldn’t really even be sold right next to other games, their aiming for a completely different audience. Indie movies aren’t peddled to the mainstream, there is no reason why narrative games or walking simulators should be either.

  • Pedro Henrique Ribeiro

    If people want a reference to good story driven video-games why don’t they look up to Quantic Dream games such as Heavy Rain, it has fail states, but the gameplay continues until the end of the story.

  • KefkaFollower

    I like the TB definition. I think a videogame need to have fail states (including unresolved puzzles as a fail state) to be a game.

    Even if you call them something else, the argument of “the fail just ‘cos didn’t sell well” still stands.

    I don’t see why walking simulators, interactive visual novels or whatever you want to call them need to be labeled videogames. I like to have different labels or categories for different things, is consumer friendly. Being consumer friendly is the positive way for the industry to grow.

    I know people use “not a game” in a derogatory way. That’s wrong. Still the misuse doesn’t justify bend definitions.

  • Screech Screecher

    Seems that they are unable or unwilling to market their products on their own merits. I understand that carving out a niche market can be difficult but that is not a reason for me to alter the meaning of words.
    But people are free to use words however they please just as people are allowed to judge people by the way they use their words.

  • Typical

    Uh, no, are choose your own adventure books games by your definition?

  • Typical

    This is the problem, these frigging SJWs think they know what gamers want, then when shown to be full of crap insist that gamers are wrong, or misguided, or neanderthals. Screw them.

  • Toastrider

    Technically yes, since CYOA books have various endings which can result in ‘fail states’ (you took the wrong path and died in the swamp).

    The question is ‘What is a game?’ and the proper answer should be ‘a competition or conflict between two or more actors’. Note that the actors do not always have to be people; Solitaire pits you against the deck of cards. Pandemic and Castle Panic are board games which pit multiple players cooperatively against the game itself.

    But as Mr. Hnatiw points out, it’s not just that Sunset and Gone Home were or weren’t games. They were -bad-. In Gone Home’s case, they were also advertised as something they weren’t.

  • cypher20

    This article would be strengthened by you defining what you consider a video game and what you wouldn’t consider a video game. You hint at that when you mention interactivity and I think that is worth consideration.

    I’ve always been more on TotalBiscuit’s side of things simply because for a definition to work and mean anything it has to include some items but it also has to exclude others. Others who have wanted to include “walking simulators” as games simply have had too expansive of definitions of what makes a “video game” to the point where nearly anything could be considered a video game.

    So, interaction is a good criteria. It would exclude things like movies. On the other hand, what about interactive trailers? I guess you could argue the degree of interaction is “less” but quantifying how much interaction something needs to qualify as a “video game” seems tricky.

    Well, it’s something to consider although at the end of the day I’m still leaning more towards a game needing a fail-state. Ultimately, it’s a bit of a pedantic argument. I understand why people call “Gone Home” a video game, it makes sense to the average person and is easier than trying to create some brand new term. On a strictly technical level, I’m still not sure it’s really a video game per se and I don’t come at it that way simply because I dislike that kind of “game”. And yes, saying “it’s not a game” shouldn’t be a pejorative. Short stories and novels are different types of literature, novels aren’t inherently better simply because they’re longer. Games aren’t inherently better than walking simulators in the same way.

  • Typical

    Sorry, I disagree. A game can have a story, but a story isn’t a game. A fail state isn’t what makes a game. There is some challenge or skill test involved in addition to the fail state. My argument was with the interactivity makes it a game point above. How about one of those kid’s popup books that you pull tabs to make a character look like it’s jumping or something, that’s interactive, is that a game?

    Just because they are telling a story and letting you play with the setting does not make it a game. Where’s Waldo is a game. Magic eye is not a game.

    Gone home I haven’t played, but I imagine it’s a game similar to myst. There are supposedly puzzles to solve. The Stanley parable is a game, the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a phenomenal game, but both of those have fail states.

    The problem is, that games that no matter what happens, you get to the ONLY ending, it’s a story, not a game.

  • Typical

    TBH, I could argue either side in this.

  • Erud

    “For me, video games are defined by interactivity”

    I’ll have to disagree.

    Something based on just interactivity and a story results in an “Interactive Movie” or a “Visual Novel” while something that is just interactive would be a “Digital Art Installation”. That does not make the product bad, but if you try to market it as a game to people who are expecting a game it will result in a well deserved backlash. The only reason why this is not subject to false advertising laws is because the industry is so new that definitions are blurred. As such it is up to us to enforce them so that we as the consumers can be confident in what we are buying. Gone Home being marketed as a survival horror game is the prime example of how this blurriness was exploited.

  • Erud

    To be fair, the better made CYOA books implement plenty of RPG mechanics from stats to skills and abilities and even equipment.

  • Pesty

    It’s worse than that. The SJWs don’t think that they know what other people want, they just demand that other people like only what the SJWs want.

  • Pesty

    The issue is that the creators and supporters of these often failed products want success – financial, social, and cultural – beyond their own merit. And they will use whatever underhanded or manipulative means available to them.

    They don’t want to build their own niche market, mostly because it is difficult. They want to ride the coattails of the mainstream gaming industry and somehow feel that they deserve to be rewarded just because they are “good people” with the right opinions.

  • bdp

    Have these devs heard of visual novels?

  • Typical

    Much better explanation than mine. What this guy said.

  • TheCybercoco

    I tend to agree with you, but…

    “Just because Sunset the video game was a failure, doesn’t mean its not a video game.”

    You realize that’s a strawman, as it implies that the opposition is using the success of the software as a criteria for whether it is a video game or not. Let me put it this way:

    “Just because Hellgate: London was a failure, doesn’t mean its not a video game.”

    Anyone would consider that statement preposterous and for good reason. Plenty of video games have been failures. That can’t be a criteria for what is and is not a video game, and I haven’t seen anyone try to make that one.


    “Not only that but “not a game” frees these titles from scrutiny and responsibility”

    I’m not so sure about that. In fact, for something that is attempting to be passed off as a video game, whether it is or not, the ‘not a game’ criticism is quite possibly the ultimate scrutinization of it.

  • Wyatt Hnatiw

    Oh come on thats an oversimplification.

    Games are programmed pieces of technology, I’m obviously talking about the kind of things you see on a screen, with controller/key inputs etc. I didn’t think that was necessary to point out.

    If we go by fail states alone, then CYOA books are video games, all sports are video games, everything is a video game, cause you can fail at most things.

  • Wyatt Hnatiw

    I hear ya.

    The point I was trying to make there is that the “not a game” and “this game is boring/pedantic/terrible” arguments tend to go hand in hand. People seem to tie the failure of this game in particular to the fact that it was “not a game” and not that it was simply a bad game.

  • Dee Doubs

    Ah, but all games do have a fail state even if they aren’t explicit whether they are Pac-Man or Gone Home. The fail state in a game without a game over screen is when you stop caring enough to play it through to the end.

  • mike__ch

    Going to say what I said last time: the “is this actually a game” thing has been bickered back and forth since Myst in the mid 90s. That game sold a ton of copies as people want to show off their new CD-ROM drives, and consequently a whole bunch of clones appeared. Once it turned out to be a one-time event, and even the sequel Riven didn’t sell as well as Myst did, the industry stopped these “click the hotspot” games and and went back to the status quo. But before we got to that point, we had to sit through a bunch of lackluster “Myst Clones.”

    It seems like the argument is back again. I guess because Steam has replaced the old game store, and sales keep perpetually giving new games life again.

  • Jake Martinez

    I pretty strongly disagree with the idea that “walking simulators” are actually “games”. I’m a big fan of visual novels, they are interactive, some of them even have fail states, but they are no more a game than any real novel I pick up.

    Also, I am a huge Minecraft fan – even developing my own mods and modpacks for it. I call it colloquially a “game” but in reality, I “play” it like it’s just a big electronic toy. It’s neat, it’s fun, but it’s ludology is nearly non-existent. It’s a game in the loosest sense, and in fact has modes that allow to essentially be entirely NOT a game if you choose (creative mode for example).

    Anyway, regardless of the definition of a “game” your thesis about why Sunset failed is correct – not enough people wanted it.

  • Typical

    No, it’s not an oversimplification. It’s exactly what you said makes a “game”. You didn’t specify video game. For that matter then, guitar pro is interactive and is programmed, but it’s not a game.

    I am just pointing out that making a single point of data your determination is ridiculous. The rocky horror picture show is interactive entertainment, and is a video experience, is it a game? Your interactivity is as bad as using simply fail state to define it. A game should present a reward for a specific action, should require an aspect of skill or luck, and needs a defined objective. Gone home is exactly like a child’s picture book with the little tabs you pull on to interact with the page. That it’s on a different medium eg: a bunch of electrons lining up to present the story rather than pigments on tree pulp, does not change the definition.

    This argument brings to mind all the horrible patents out there that are basically: something we’ve done for decades, but on a computer.

    Edit: My point is, for instance depression quest: not a game

  • H. Guderian

    I agree with the article, reliance on a Fail-State as part of the definition I think limits. If ther must be a fail state, then the players inability to form a story out of the pieces and mechanics is a fail state. This can be due to a lack of imagination, or just a game that wasn’t made well enough to have anyone assemble a quality experience from.

  • Ajt

    I assume the “fail State” for Sunset was the point where you are purchasing it on Steam?

  • brainy37

    The problem with focusing on interaction as the main trait of a “game” is that it doesn’t hold up as it’s too broad. Currently there are over a dozen downloadable “games” for various platforms that let you tour different museums or other locations. You interact with the different points on a map.

    By your definition, these are games rather than apps. They require interaction and they provide information. There is no fail state. There are no penalties. As you can see, there is little definition between and app and a game solely by using interaction. Gone Home wasn’t a game because you didn’t win, lose, or were penalized for anything. It could be classed as an interactive story or virtual tour very easily.

  • brainy37

    Labeling themselves as games gains a larger interest just from that label alone. Interactive novel doesn’t really appeal to many especially when the details about the app are sparse. A game label alludes to the possibility of entertainment rather than a story.

  • Derp

    “For me, video games are defined by interactivity, not challenge and failure. Don’t get me wrong, I know challenge and fail states are important parts of many games, but I don’t think we need to limit the definition in such a way. Video games exist because they require input from the player; rather than watching the hero shoot the bad guy, you shoot the bad guy. Rather than watching an athlete score a goal, you are the athlete. Fail states are a part of most games, but I believe the concept of a video game starts with interaction, everything else follows that.

    If it requires the player to input commands, whether those commands are walk, hit, shoot, talk, dance or move, as long as the audience is actively involved rather than passively observing, it’s a video game.”

    That’s nice, and that’s like… your opinion and everything, but that is a bullshit definition.

    To start with, the developer of Sunset himself provided us with a Manifesto that he is Not actually producing games:

    But by your broad definition here are things that you are calling “games”.

    Benchmarks, sometimes they offer interactivity, for instance Heaven, would you call them “games”?

    Architectural Visualization, for instance architects have rendered houses or warehouses with products you can walk around it, would you call those “games”?:

    Disaster Simulation/Simulators for training?

    Interactive movies, which let you push a few buttons or any number of things that are rendered using computer graphics and are even slightly interactive, for instance Mountain?

    It’s simply not a very useful or helpful definition, since it describes absolutely everything that is rendered on a PC and interactive, which is kind of stupid and if you try to stretch a word and its meaning too much it loses it, especially with VR on the horizon there will be a lot of different “interactive experiences” and whatnot coming for us that I wouldn’t call games.

    It doesn’t help gamers, because they usually don’t want to “experience interactive drama” and it doesn’t help the people that actually like these art games and “interactive experiences” either since it makes them hard to find and build up a market. It’s frankly just pretty stupid to insist on calling everything a “game”.

  • KefkaFollower

    As I understand it, the fail states that makes from a computer program a videogame are fails for the player performance.

    If you stop to care while playing, the chances are is the game failure, not yours.

  • KefkaFollower

    Yes, I understand it gives the developer a larger audience… at the beginning.

    Later, will come low online ratings from customers with unsatisfied expectations and the refunds. And if the developer was who mislead the buyers into that expectations, its all its fault.

  • Pedro Henrique Ribeiro

    And the least a developer MUST do is to capture his audience’s attention. If he fails to do that the game is doomed.

  • brainy37

    At the beginning is generally sufficient. Most studios look at immediate sales and very everything after a few months as just a trickle. I bought Gone Home on the recommendation of Kotaku. Those people still got my money and many others as well. With Steam doing refunds that behavior might change but I wouldn’t bet on it.