26 Jun

Sunset, Tale of Tales and FailGames

After reading the news that the experimental game studio Tale of Tales has sadly ceased game development after their latest game, Sunset, sold only 4,000 copies, I immediately reached out to one half of the ToT's crew, Auriea Harvey. Auriea and her partner in all aspects, Michaƫl Samyn, have been creating work in the same online spaces for as long as I have...which is a substantial stretch of time. On contacting Auriea and offering condolences, I jokingly suggested we start a new category of games called "failgames", and that we whack #PRISOM and Sunset right in there [she agreed]. Rest assured this isn't because I perceive either game as a failure at all, but more that they can both be considered examples of games that push the standard definition of what's considered a "real game" [ie often one that is made popular through AAA-canonisation].

This failgame suggestion isn't one merely made in jest: in this age of heavy-duty game saturation, the segregation of "real games" from anything else "gamelike" always hovers. We now have altgames, gameart, literary games, art games, walking simulators, nongames, simulation games, interactive experiences, pervasive games, mixed reality games, and the list goes on [and on and on]. This bifurcation of game categories [and indeed, the very question of what makes a game a game] is a topic that's being rigorously - and continuously - spun in many a forum setting. Just this week I found myself yakking about non-standard game mechanics in a games forum displaying a healthy diversity of opinions ranging from: "...games aren't games unless they are business-centric" to "...all games are art and deserve to be considered such".

I'm not going to bang on further about game definitions/qualifiers or the Sunset situation, as I'm presently too engaged in actual game creation to let myself hone-focus in on any other game [a general rule of thumb I follow when devving to ensure any unconscious emulation is radically reduced]. So instead here's some excellent extracts from two articles that offer potential reasons why and how this Sunset/ToT predicament came to pass:

  • "Showing the mundane life of a cleaner is not the point of [Sunset] (check out Cart Life for that kind of experience). The game is completely about something else, and the cleaning is merely a pretext. But with the way the game is structured around that "something else", Sunset does not challenge anything other than your ability to stay awake. Its "not fun" parts serve no purpose. Of course, some people did find Sunset enticing. Even though most reviews did not exactly praise Sunset, IGN gave it 8/10, after all. However, it is the case with literally every piece of art that one man's boredom is another man's excitement. It's just that these groups are rarely equal."- From What Really Happened to Tale of Tales' Sunset by Adrian Chmielarz, Designer of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter.

  • "Though it pains me to say it, the fact that Sunset didn't financially live up to expectations is something of a testament to the immaturity of the videogame ecosystem. Where other successful titles have certainly broached complex, serious, and emotionally mature material, few have tackled the fraught political territory that is laid bare by Sunset. Its financial failure suggests that the online market alone can't support this kind of work. Tale of Tales' account of their demise suggests that dependence on the market is not something they're used to, having previously a combination of funding sources which included Belgian grants that have dramatically dwindled in recent years. The end users - gamers - are not the only ones at fault here, since recent infrastructural distribution problems have also plagued Sunset sales. Valve's STEAM distribution platform released a new policy stating the games could be returned for any reason if less than two hours of play have been spent in-game. Since Sunset is a relatively short game, players uncomfortable with - or unwilling to delve into - the intricate narrative of Angela's dilemma might feel entitled to get their money back. Tale of Tales couldn't have anticipated this change of policy, nor could they have foreseen how the critical praise of Sunset would not translate more directly into sales. The timing of STEAM's policy change, however, combined with shifts in the expectations of gamers and entitlement marks Sunset's fiscal flop as a particularly striking moment within the current landscape and future trajectory of independent gaming." – From After Sunset by Nicholas O'Brien [a Researcher, Writer, Cultural Producer and all-round-wonderful-human-being].