Sunset takes place during a violent revolution. Jet planes roar overhead, gunshots crack in the distance, and recently bombed buildings smolder on the horizon. But unlike most video games set in a war zone, Sunset centers on a protagonist who never touches a gun.
In fact, housekeeper Angela Burnes doesn’t engage in combat of any kind. Instead, she views the military coup at the centre of the game’s story from a distance, observing it through the windows of her employer’s opulent apartment.
When ordinary people are swept up in the turmoil of politics—be it an oppressive dictatorship, civil unrest, armed revolution, or outright war—they are affected just as deeply as the bureaucrats and military involved. Yet video games have a tendency to center their stories on these figures, their take on historic and contemporary politics revolving around the adrenaline-soaked battles, tense covert actions and dramatic assassinations of full-scale war.
A game like Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare—the model for an entire sub-genre of bombastic first-person shooters—shies from any depictions of non-combatants during its whirlwind approximation of the Iraq War. No one shutters their windows as gunfire breaks out on their street; nobody is shown slipping important information to Coalition or insurgent forces; there’s no time for the civilian trying to survive the breakdown of their world. The political situation is rendered in the broad strokes of an action movie. The only figures worth detailing are soldiers and generals, and everyone else is unimportant.
Sunset is one of a number of recent games that takes a different tact, casting the player as a civilian forced to cope with extraordinary circumstances. The story follows Angela, who came to the fictional South American city of San Bavón, Anchuria in 1972 to work as a housekeeper for the extremely wealthy Gabriel Ortega. Originally from Baltimore, Angela is now stuck in a city slipping into violent revolution, but she doesn’t waver in her duties—mundane tasks like dusting tables and washing dishes.
The player listens to Angela’s inner monologue as she details the progress of the revolutionaries working to displace the dictatorial President Miraflores. The skyline viewed from Gabriel’s balcony is increasingly dotted with explosions, the serenity of the flamenco and jazz records placed on his turntable each evening punctuated by the ever more frequent rattle of automatic weapons and reverberations of passing fighter jets.
Rather than focus on the explicit violence of a military coup, Sunset centers on the emotional brutality of war. Angela reacts to the stripping of civil liberties—she notes the increase of city checkpoints and the danger of simply traveling to work—and wonders if the revolution is worth the horrific toll it takes on San Bavón’s people. Depending on the player’s choices, a romance may begin to develop between Angela and Gabriel, and this budding relationship, star-crossed already by class, cultural, and political disparity, is further strained by the uprising’s rhetorical exaggeration of these traits. These reminders of the toll that war takes on the average person are valuable in a medium (and a larger culture) that typically forgets all but the fighters and government officials involved in conflict.
While the game’s Anchuria may not be an actual country, the scenario it depicts draws from a very real history. Its fiction contains clear echoes of both Augusto Pinochet’s American-backed Chilean coup and, more prominently, the rise to power of the Sandinistas in the Nicaraguan Revolution. The game’s newspaper clippings describe U.S. support for the dictatorship, and Angela’s boss’s surname—which seems a direct reference to Nicaraguan President/Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega—calls to mind the turmoil of 1970s and ‘80s Latin American revolutions. Thus the player is asked to remember the recent histories of nations like Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and the sufferings of the ordinary people living at the whims of superpower proxy wars.
Sunset is novel in its setting, but similar in approach to a handful of other recent video games aimed at simulating the ground floor reality of politics and war. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, like Sunset, is concerned with the gradual creep of government influence on its characters’ personal lives. Its pseudo-Soviet setting tasks the player with manning a border checkpoint between imaginary Eastern European nations, choosing whether or not to commit the routine atrocities of separating families, stopping enemies of the state from finding refuge outside their country, and coldly ordering strip searches or closed-door interrogations.
Similarly, 11 bit studios’ This War of Mine takes place within a fictionalized version of the Yugoslav Wars. Rather than fighting enemy soldiers, the player must simply try to keep a houseful of desperate characters alive by sending them to scavenge for food, construct barricades and water boilers in their bombed out house, and stand watch for murderous bandits. And Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War is set during the First World War, but its story is focused on the tragedy of an ordinary family, torn apart by the battles that wracked Europe in the early 20th century.
These games differ greatly in setting and style of play, but all look to accomplish the same thing: an understanding of how difficult it is for the ordinary person to survive political or military upheaval.
One of the great strengths of video games is their ability to blur the line between audience and storyteller—to make the player identify deeply with characters by forcing them into the incredibly intimate role of their controller. It’s an active medium where, for the most part, the plot only moves forward with the player’s involvement. The ultimate effect of this is that a game’s playable characters become something of a second skin to the engaged audience. When the illusion is good enough, the digital environment can feel like a real-world place.
When used for purposes other than simply exciting the player with an experience meant to resemble an interactive action movie, which games like Call of Duty do so well, the effect can be powerful. Politics and the “unexciting” civilian aspect of war become vivid—the lives of ordinary people take on new importance.
Sunset and its ilk make the events of far-off places more real, color in history with personality, and urge a greater empathy for the ordinary individuals caught up in great machinations. The potential for history to come off as dull—as something that happened in other places, at other times, and to other people—is lessened when these stories are humanized. As in so much that endures in art, empathy is engendered and maybe, just maybe, audiences leave the experience with a better understanding of the world in which we live.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.