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.
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.