For Ever Amber, ennobling working class and marginalized communities

09Youth Unemployment Tish Murtha 1981.jpg
Tish Murtha, Youth Unemployment, 1981

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Amber Films, Launch (still), 1973

My interest for photography, working class culture and marginal communities is fairly well documented on this blog. Hence my enthusiasm when learning about the upcoming For Ever Amber exhibition.

The Amber Collective was born in the late 1960s when a group of students at Regent Street Polytechnic in London realized that their education drove them away from their working class background. Resolving to reconnect with their origins and document working class culture in photos and videos, they moved to the North East of England in 1969 and in 1977 opened Side Gallery.

Over the past 45 years, the members of the collective have been documenting the industrial and post-industrial communities living along the river Tyne, the fishermen, the shipbuilders, the people working in the coal and steel industry, but also their families, the unemployed and the marginalized communities. The result is a vast archive of photos and films that present both both artistic and historical value.

In parallel with Amber's own film & photographic production, the collective has also been collecting and presenting to the broad public a series of classic and contemporary international documentary works, presenting similar socially-engaged concerns.

Village is a Global World,Jindrich Streit 1995.jpg
Jindrich Streit, The Village is a Global World, 1995

Hopefully, i'll get an opportunity to visit the show in Newcastle before it closes. In the meantime, i had a chance to chat with author Graeme Rigby, one of the founding members of the Amber Collective. Here's a transcript with the brief exchange we had over skype:

Hi Graeme! Why is this a good time for an Amber retrospective? Does the timing reflect a particular social moment for example?

There's never a time in this country when an exhibition of this kind isn't relevant!

For Ever Amber is actually part of a programme of works funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England to redevelop the gallery, do some digitalisation and make the works more accessible to people.

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Amber Films, Shooting Magpies (poster), 2005

The work of the Amber Collective is rooted in social documentary, built around long term engagements with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England. I'm curious about the situation of the working class. How has it evolved over the 45 years of Amber's existence?

That changes constantly. A lot has happened over the last 45 years because in the North East of England (and elsewhere but particularly in the North East of England) many of the industries that shaped the identity of the working class communities have closed. When these industries shut down, people send the message out that these industries are not important, that they should be eradicated.

The sense of their identity has changed considerably. This week, members of the Amber Collective worked in a school in Easington. Children there didn't know anything about coal miners even though there is a miner banner hanging in the school hall. It is interesting and important to help children and others find their sense of identity, even if this is an entirely new identity. But having your sense of identity is important. The nature of these communities have changed. It was quite late before you saw widespread immigration in the North East of England. As a result, many of the communities were still overwhelmingly white working class but that has changed since the 2000s.

Whether they are white working class, or marginalised communities, these are people have a lot in common and their voices are denied by the mainstream.

The early members of Amber came themselves from a very working class background and felt that their education pushed them away from the places where they grew up. Instead, they wanted to celebrate their origins and the people who, so far, had mostly been used as material for jokes in films and on tv.

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Peter Fryer, The Arab Boarding House, South Shields, 2006

What about the cultural value of the work done by Amber photographers? The photos seem to resonate not just with people living in the North East of England but also with the rest of the country and i think i can also say that they are interesting far beyond the UK borders.

We find that the work resonates enormously with people from other countries. When you go to countries like Spain, France or Germany, you find that people immediately connect with these images. People see that the images depict lives and streets that are not so dissimilar from their own. It's actually much more the case in Europe than it is in some parts of the UK.

In this country, especially in the cultural world, there is a resistance to document these marginalized worlds. The UK has a few difficulties with documentary. I'm not talking about the audience but about curators and funding bodies. They show some interest in documenting the 1930s and the 1940s up until the 1980s but they don't seem to be interested in documentaries about the present days.

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Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker, 1974

Byker RevisitedSirkka-Liisa Konttinen 2008.jpg
Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker Revisited, 2008

Konttinen explained to The Guardian why the photo above is her "best shot."

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Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker Revisited, 2008

Do you think that television is doing a better job at representing the working class then?

No, with TV, we've even gone backwards. We are going back to a situation in which the working class is there to provide cheap laughs. But these things come in circles and we need another movement to challenge the current situation.

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Peter Fryer, Peaceable Kingdoms, 1992

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Julian Germaine, Steel Works, Phileas Fogg Snacks, 1989

I was reading a letter published in The Guardian this morning. The street photographer was from Birmingham and he explained that he was often stopped in public and private spaces. Security spots him on CCTV and ask him to stop shooting. I haven't photographed children playing in a public space for many years, and the work of people such as Vivian Maier and Shirley Baker would be impossible these days. It seems to me, from a photographic point of view, that the public space has become privatised, with CCTV everywhere and the lone photographer increasingly unwelcome. Is this something Amber members have noticed as well? Are people still comfortable with being photographed nowadays? Or are they reluctant because of privacy or other concerns?

Yes, when Amber began, street photography was very much a part of what documentary photographers did. But things have changed in a number of ways. Nowadays, people are suspicious that the photographer might be a pedophile for example. Then there is also the issue that part of the public space has been privatized. Almost everyone has a camera phone so, in a way, there is now more street photography than ever. But people are more suspicious than in the past when they see a camera. All of the photographers responded to the challenge in their own way. By negotiating access to people's life, for example, and by making certain that people were genuinely inviting them into their life. If people were not happy with the photo, the photographer would not use it. This in turn enables the photographer to go further and opens up new areas.

In any case, we've lost a significant amount of what is happening in the street. In terms of photography, a lot of questions have been raised as to what is legitimate for a photo to portray.

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Amber Films, High Row, 1973

I was also curious about Coke to Coke, a series of photographs you worked on together with Peter Fryer. The photos were taken in the 1980s and follow the closure of Derwenthaugh coking plant and the opening of the nearby Metro Centre shopping mall. What was the mood of the people then? Where they angry or sad about the end of an era or optimistic of what the new shopping mail represented?

You can't generalize of course but i think that when i accompanied Peter to photograph the opening of the Metro Center, we had a sense of people being dazed by it. It was all bright and artificial and protected from the weather. It was like a place to visit. It gave you a sense of the 'new world.' And it still does because it is so artificial. People loved it. In the States, it was nothing new but it was the first out of town shopping mall in the UK. There was a fun fair aspect to it, with people looking at the shop as if they were at the fair.

At the time, i had just moved to the Derwenthaugh Valley. Derwenthaugh Coke Works was a vision of Dante's Inferno at the end of the Valley. One place was closing, another one was opening. It was a symbol of time changing. That's why we looked at it.

People working at Derwenthaugh Cokeworks were sad but they were also starting to realize that they worked in a cancerogenic atmosphere. Looking back at the '80s, that's when people started to think about the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Before that, these issues were not really discussed.

The opening of the Metro Center was a moment in time. The steel making town was closing its steel factory, the miner strikes had failed and Thatcher's programme of closures was accelerating.

Thanks Graeme!

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Bruce Rae, Shipbuilding on the Tyne, 1981

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Nick Hedges, Fishing Industry, 1981

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Amber Films, Seacoal (poster), 1985

GoafSimon Norfolk, Dalton Park, 2005.jpg
Simon Norfolk, Goaf, Dalton Park, 2005

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Amber Films, T Dan Smith, 1987

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Amber Films, The Scar, 1997

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Amber Films, In Fading Light (still), 1989

For Ever Amber opens at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle on 27 June and runs until 19 September, bringing together over 150 original photographs and film clips capturing over 40 years of cultural, political and economic shifts in North East England.

'For Ever Amber' is a partnership between Amber Film and Photography Collective and Laing Art Gallery, with support from Tyne & Wear Museums and Archive. The exhibition has been supported by Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.
Image on the homepage: Jimmy Forsyth, Pine Street demolition gang, 1960.

After Sunset

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

It is very rare for a video game to feel urgent. It is even more rare when that sense of urgency becomes a reflection on video game distribution. Sunset, by Tale of Tales, manages to accomplish both rare feats.

In Sunset you play as Angela Burnes, a woman hired as a housekeeper for Gabriel Ortega, a wealthy and influential cultural aficionado in San Bován, the capital of the fictional South American country Anchuria. Over the course of a year between 1972-73, Angela witnesses a violent coup and counter-rebellion from the balcony of Ortega’s luxury apartment. Between completing menial housework for Ortega, Angela contemplates her involvement in the Anchurian revolution as well as what it means to be a responsible participant during times of civil unrest.

Though set more than 40 years ago, it is difficult to play Sunset without reflecting on the present. My first playthrough coincided with the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore (where Angela is from). More recently, my second attempt to play the game was in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Charleston on June 23rd, 2015. The sensation of watching these terrible displays of violence from afar resonates deeply while playing Sunset. Though Angela’s brother is deeply involved in the rebellion effort, she worries about getting too involved herself and questions what good she could do as an outsider. These conflicting sentiments of close affinity and distant helplessness in Angela are perhaps the most nuanced display of political grief that I’ve seen in any videogame, or indeed contemporary artwork in any medium.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

This tension so deeply affected my initial playthrough that I found myself attempting to find buoys of interaction to stave off the harsher realities of Sunset’s narrative. On every visit to Ortega’s apartment, I found myself going upstairs to change the date on the calendar, finding the stability of this gesture both rewarding and grounding. Performing routine with Angela became a method of finding temporary comfort and steadiness as the civil war literally comes flying through the window of the apartment where she works. Although this gesture could be more a reflection of my own personal ways of coping with uncertainty, I found myself drawn to this task also as a way of empathizing with Angela. When Angela communicated a growing appreciation of Ortega’s apartment as a private sanctuary - and subsequent guilt for feeling so lucky - I felt compelled to make her weekly visits as self-reflective as possible, opting to write a journal instead of finishing Ortega’s cleaning.

At first, these decisions appear minor, but the simplicity of these gestures becomes more significant over time. In this way, Sunset asks players to resolve their own political ambivalences by pairing mundane activities like cleaning dishes with opportunities for espionage and aiding the rebellion. Striking a balance between obligatory tasks, exploring Ortega’s apartment, and personal reflection on the current state of Anchuria becomes a daunting task as the game unfolds. The contrast between chores and political strife positions the player where choice and action become decisions of significant consequence. In a world where triple A games like Bioshock: Infinite conclude that all choice is artificial, Sunset instead offers a mature system of consequence relative to which players work towards resolving their own politics. As a result, the choice of inaction - and thus apathy - becomes a profound commentary on the ways in which players willfully ignore the politics of their play.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset is therefore less about the circumstance of the characters and their world, and more about the ways in which players decide to engage with political oppression from a point of privilege. Though Angela is not a character of significant means, her ability to maintain employment in San Bován while avoiding the scrutiny of oppressive police and military personnel affords her a temporary space of solace and peace that others are fighting and dying for. Her good fortune is mitigated by mixed feelings regarding the conditions of her employment - an attitude scarcely explored within video games, let alone contemporary creative technology. Angela’s active and intricate disquietcould easily be the most significant gesture within a video game to address the nascent place of privilege that the medium has yet to confront.

But this is only half the story - the urgency of Sunset is not merely located in its political overtones and subtle critique of oppressive western influence. The game is also pressing due to the fact that Tale of Tales recently announced they are ceasing the production of video games due to Sunset’s “financial failure.” The duo released a statement on the one month anniversary of shipping the game announcing their decision, citing reasons of debt incurred in production and frustration with the reception of their work within a wider “gamer” community. Though many within indie gaming point to Tale of Tales as being a long-standing paragon of thoughtful, experimental, and ground-breaking development, few of their works have garnered the kind of financial success that titles like Phil Fish’s Fez or The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home have enjoyed.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

The financial underperformance of Sunset could be due to a number of different reasons, however Tale of Tales attributes it mostly to one particular flaw: Being wrong about what gamers want. Regardless of market research, hiring advisors and purchasing advertisements in large traffic (and more centrist) game publications, Sunset didn’t break into a larger demographic.

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.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset’s urgency is not only found in its politics, but also in shedding light on a need for changes in the funding and sustainability of independent games. Though stories of overwhelming crowd-funding efforts like Star Citizen and recently Shenmue III entice young developers, the fact remains that developing inventive and innovative games is a daunting financial risk. As Austin Walker discusses in his GiantBomb article, the recurring critique of disappointing E3 booths and lack of new imaginative IP’s (game franchises) are a result of major studios avoiding risk in favor of dependable money makes. Walker goes on to suggest that larger studios could collaborate or support smaller and experimental efforts given the amount of financial power they wield over the industry. Such possibilities point toward a system of where games like Sunset and artists like Tale of Tales can thrive: a more diverse pool of public funding and visionary patronage.

Certainly, while Tale of Tales’ departure could be seen as a great loss for independent and artful game development, it can also be seen as a potential promising step for the individuals working within the medium to break through the stigmas that have colored gaming since last year’s Gamergate debacle (the root of which extends much further back in time). In this way, the duo themselves conclude with a section about how “being wrong can set you free.” Tale of Tales’ recent statement ends on a bittersweet note:

So now we are free. We don’t have to take advice from anybody anymore. We were wrong. Everybody whom we consulted with on Sunset was wrong. We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a “game for gamers.” We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that’s one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don’t think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.

Not all that dissimilar from Angela’s story, Tale of Tales’ decisions pave the way for a brighter future. What Sunset and Tale of Tales’ show, however, is that all freedom comes at a cost.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

After Sunset

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

It is very rare for a video game to feel urgent. It is even more rare when that sense of urgency becomes a reflection on video game distribution. Sunset, by Tale of Tales, manages to accomplish both rare feats.

In Sunset you play as Angela Burnes, a woman hired as a housekeeper for Gabriel Ortega, a wealthy and influential cultural aficionado in San Bován, the capital of the fictional South American country Anchuria. Over the course of a year between 1972-73, Angela witnesses a violent coup and counter-rebellion from the balcony of Ortega’s luxury apartment. Between completing menial housework for Ortega, Angela contemplates her involvement in the Anchurian revolution as well as what it means to be a responsible participant during times of civil unrest.

Though set more than 40 years ago, it is difficult to play Sunset without reflecting on the present. My first playthrough coincided with the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore (where Angela is from). More recently, my second attempt to play the game was in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Charleston on June 23rd, 2015. The sensation of watching these terrible displays of violence from afar resonates deeply while playing Sunset. Though Angela’s brother is deeply involved in the rebellion effort, she worries about getting too involved herself and questions what good she could do as an outsider. These conflicting sentiments of close affinity and distant helplessness in Angela are perhaps the most nuanced display of political grief that I’ve seen in any videogame, or indeed contemporary artwork in any medium.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

This tension so deeply affected my initial playthrough that I found myself attempting to find buoys of interaction to stave off the harsher realities of Sunset’s narrative. On every visit to Ortega’s apartment, I found myself going upstairs to change the date on the calendar, finding the stability of this gesture both rewarding and grounding. Performing routine with Angela became a method of finding temporary comfort and steadiness as the civil war literally comes flying through the window of the apartment where she works. Although this gesture could be more a reflection of my own personal ways of coping with uncertainty, I found myself drawn to this task also as a way of empathizing with Angela. When Angela communicated a growing appreciation of Ortega’s apartment as a private sanctuary - and subsequent guilt for feeling so lucky - I felt compelled to make her weekly visits as self-reflective as possible, opting to write a journal instead of finishing Ortega’s cleaning.

At first, these decisions appear minor, but the simplicity of these gestures becomes more significant over time. In this way, Sunset asks players to resolve their own political ambivalences by pairing mundane activities like cleaning dishes with opportunities for espionage and aiding the rebellion. Striking a balance between obligatory tasks, exploring Ortega’s apartment, and personal reflection on the current state of Anchuria becomes a daunting task as the game unfolds. The contrast between chores and political strife positions the player where choice and action become decisions of significant consequence. In a world where triple A games like Bioshock: Infinite conclude that all choice is artificial, Sunset instead offers a mature system of consequence relative to which players work towards resolving their own politics. As a result, the choice of inaction - and thus apathy - becomes a profound commentary on the ways in which players willfully ignore the politics of their play.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset is therefore less about the circumstance of the characters and their world, and more about the ways in which players decide to engage with political oppression from a point of privilege. Though Angela is not a character of significant means, her ability to maintain employment in San Bován while avoiding the scrutiny of oppressive police and military personnel affords her a temporary space of solace and peace that others are fighting and dying for. Her good fortune is mitigated by mixed feelings regarding the conditions of her employment - an attitude scarcely explored within video games, let alone contemporary creative technology. Angela’s active and intricate disquietcould easily be the most significant gesture within a video game to address the nascent place of privilege that the medium has yet to confront.

But this is only half the story - the urgency of Sunset is not merely located in its political overtones and subtle critique of oppressive western influence. The game is also pressing due to the fact that Tale of Tales recently announced they are ceasing the production of video games due to Sunset’s "financial failure." The duo released a statement on the one month anniversary of shipping the game announcing their decision, citing reasons of debt incurred in production and frustration with the reception of their work within a wider "gamer" community. Though many within indie gaming point to Tale of Tales as being a long-standing paragon of thoughtful, experimental, and ground-breaking development, few of their works have garnered the kind of financial success that titles like Phil Fish’s Fez or The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home have enjoyed.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

The financial underperformance of Sunset could be due to a number of different reasons, however Tale of Tales attributes it mostly to one particular flaw: Being wrong about what gamers want. Regardless of market research, hiring advisors and purchasing advertisements in large traffic (and more centrist) game publications, Sunset didn’t break into a larger demographic.

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.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset's urgency is not only found in its politics, but also in shedding light on a need for changes in the funding and sustainability of independent games. Though stories of overwhelming crowd-funding efforts like Star Citizen and recently Shenmue III entice young developers, the fact remains that developing inventive and innovative games is a daunting financial risk. As Austin Walker discusses in his GiantBomb article, the recurring critique of disappointing E3 booths and lack of new imaginative IP’s (game franchises) are a result of major studios avoiding risk in favor of dependable money makes. Walker goes on to suggest that larger studios could collaborate or support smaller and experimental efforts given the amount of financial power they wield over the industry. Such possibilities point toward a system of where games like Sunset and artists like Tale of Tales can thrive: a more diverse pool of public funding and visionary patronage.

Certainly, while Tale of Tales' departure could be seen as a great loss for independent and artful game development, it can also be seen as a potential promising step for the individuals working within the medium to break through the stigmas that have colored gaming since last year's Gamergate debacle (the root of which extends much further back in time). In this way, the duo themselves conclude with a section about how "being wrong can set you free." Tale of Tales' recent statement ends on a bittersweet note:

So now we are free. We don't have to take advice from anybody anymore. We were wrong. Everybody whom we consulted with on Sunset was wrong. We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a "game for gamers." We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that's one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don't think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.

Not all that dissimilar from Angela's story, Tale of Tales' decisions pave the way for a brighter future. What Sunset and Tale of Tales' show, however, is that all freedom comes at a cost.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

After Sunset

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

It is very rare for a video game to feel urgent. It is even more rare when that sense of urgency becomes a reflection on video game distribution. Sunset, by Tale of Tales, manages to accomplish both rare feats.

In Sunset you play as Angela Burnes, a woman hired as a housekeeper for Gabriel Ortega, a wealthy and influential cultural aficionado in San Bován, the capital of the fictional South American country Anchuria. Over the course of a year between 1972-73, Angela witnesses a violent coup and counter-rebellion from the balcony of Ortega’s luxury apartment. Between completing menial housework for Ortega, Angela contemplates her involvement in the Anchurian revolution as well as what it means to be a responsible participant during times of civil unrest.

Though set more than 40 years ago, it is difficult to play Sunset without reflecting on the present. My first playthrough coincided with the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore (where Angela is from). More recently, my second attempt to play the game was in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Charleston on June 23rd, 2015. The sensation of watching these terrible displays of violence from afar resonates deeply while playing Sunset. Though Angela’s brother is deeply involved in the rebellion effort, she worries about getting too involved herself and questions what good she could do as an outsider. These conflicting sentiments of close affinity and distant helplessness in Angela are perhaps the most nuanced display of political grief that I’ve seen in any videogame, or indeed contemporary artwork in any medium.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

This tension so deeply affected my initial playthrough that I found myself attempting to find buoys of interaction to stave off the harsher realities of Sunset’s narrative. On every visit to Ortega’s apartment, I found myself going upstairs to change the date on the calendar, finding the stability of this gesture both rewarding and grounding. Performing routine with Angela became a method of finding temporary comfort and steadiness as the civil war literally comes flying through the window of the apartment where she works. Although this gesture could be more a reflection of my own personal ways of coping with uncertainty, I found myself drawn to this task also as a way of empathizing with Angela. When Angela communicated a growing appreciation of Ortega’s apartment as a private sanctuary - and subsequent guilt for feeling so lucky - I felt compelled to make her weekly visits as self-reflective as possible, opting to write a journal instead of finishing Ortega’s cleaning.

At first, these decisions appear minor, but the simplicity of these gestures becomes more significant over time. In this way, Sunset asks players to resolve their own political ambivalences by pairing mundane activities like cleaning dishes with opportunities for espionage and aiding the rebellion. Striking a balance between obligatory tasks, exploring Ortega’s apartment, and personal reflection on the current state of Anchuria becomes a daunting task as the game unfolds. The contrast between chores and political strife positions the player where choice and action become decisions of significant consequence. In a world where triple A games like Bioshock: Infinite conclude that all choice is artificial, Sunset instead offers a mature system of consequence relative to which players work towards resolving their own politics. As a result, the choice of inaction - and thus apathy - becomes a profound commentary on the ways in which players willfully ignore the politics of their play.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset is therefore less about the circumstance of the characters and their world, and more about the ways in which players decide to engage with political oppression from a point of privilege. Though Angela is not a character of significant means, her ability to maintain employment in San Bován while avoiding the scrutiny of oppressive police and military personnel affords her a temporary space of solace and peace that others are fighting and dying for. Her good fortune is mitigated by mixed feelings regarding the conditions of her employment - an attitude scarcely explored within video games, let alone contemporary creative technology. Angela’s active and intricate disquietcould easily be the most significant gesture within a video game to address the nascent place of privilege that the medium has yet to confront.

But this is only half the story - the urgency of Sunset is not merely located in its political overtones and subtle critique of oppressive western influence. The game is also pressing due to the fact that Tale of Tales recently announced they are ceasing the production of video games due to Sunset’s "financial failure." The duo released a statement on the one month anniversary of shipping the game announcing their decision, citing reasons of debt incurred in production and frustration with the reception of their work within a wider "gamer" community. Though many within indie gaming point to Tale of Tales as being a long-standing paragon of thoughtful, experimental, and ground-breaking development, few of their works have garnered the kind of financial success that titles like Phil Fish’s Fez or The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home have enjoyed.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

The financial underperformance of Sunset could be due to a number of different reasons, however Tale of Tales attributes it mostly to one particular flaw: Being wrong about what gamers want. Regardless of market research, hiring advisors and purchasing advertisements in large traffic (and more centrist) game publications, Sunset didn’t break into a larger demographic.

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.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Sunset's urgency is not only found in its politics, but also in shedding light on a need for changes in the funding and sustainability of independent games. Though stories of overwhelming crowd-funding efforts like Star Citizen and recently Shenmue III entice young developers, the fact remains that developing inventive and innovative games is a daunting financial risk. As Austin Walker discusses in his GiantBomb article, the recurring critique of disappointing E3 booths and lack of new imaginative IP’s (game franchises) are a result of major studios avoiding risk in favor of dependable money makes. Walker goes on to suggest that larger studios could collaborate or support smaller and experimental efforts given the amount of financial power they wield over the industry. Such possibilities point toward a system of where games like Sunset and artists like Tale of Tales can thrive: a more diverse pool of public funding and visionary patronage.

Certainly, while Tale of Tales' departure could be seen as a great loss for independent and artful game development, it can also be seen as a potential promising step for the individuals working within the medium to break through the stigmas that have colored gaming since last year's Gamergate debacle (the root of which extends much further back in time). In this way, the duo themselves conclude with a section about how "being wrong can set you free." Tale of Tales' recent statement ends on a bittersweet note:

So now we are free. We don't have to take advice from anybody anymore. We were wrong. Everybody whom we consulted with on Sunset was wrong. We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a "game for gamers." We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that's one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don't think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.

Not all that dissimilar from Angela's story, Tale of Tales' decisions pave the way for a brighter future. What Sunset and Tale of Tales' show, however, is that all freedom comes at a cost.

Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

Contra-Internet GIFs



Contra-Internet Totality Study #2: Internet, a .gif triptych (2015).

These three gifs by Zach Blas are currently showing at IMA Brisbane as part of "Imaginary Accord" (through July 11). They form a part of Blas' ongoing Contra-Internet project, which draws on Paul B. Preciado's Manifesto contrasexual to imagine alternatives to the neoliberal internet we know today. The project isn't an argument for unplugging, exactly; more for building or dreaming up alternative infrastructures. 

Consisting of 3D globes with stock images as their skins, these gifs represent one aspect of popular imagery about the internet. They cast a critical eye toward the many efforts to visualize or map the internet that always seem to convey the same message: it's big, and it's everywhere. 

Read more about Contra-Internet here

Contra-Internet GIFs



Contra-Internet Totality Study #2: Internet, a .gif triptych (2015).

These three gifs by Zach Blas are currently showing at IMA Brisbane as part of "Imaginary Accord" (through July 11). They form a part of Blas' ongoing Contra-Internet project, which draws on Paul B. Preciado's Manifesto contrasexual to imagine alternatives to the neoliberal internet we know today. The project isn't an argument for unplugging, exactly; more for building or dreaming up alternative infrastructures. 

Consisting of 3D globes with stock images as their skins, these gifs represent one aspect of popular imagery about the internet. They cast a critical eye toward the many efforts to visualize or map the internet that always seem to convey the same message: it's big, and it's everywhere. 

Read more about Contra-Internet here

Contra-Internet GIFs



Contra-Internet Totality Study #2: Internet, a .gif triptych (2015).

These three gifs by Zach Blas are currently showing at IMA Brisbane as part of "Imaginary Accord" (through July 11). They form a part of Blas' ongoing Contra-Internet project, which draws on Paul B. Preciado's Manifesto contrasexual to imagine alternatives to the neoliberal internet we know today. The project isn't an argument for unplugging, exactly; more for building or dreaming up alternative infrastructures. 

Consisting of 3D globes with stock images as their skins, these gifs represent one aspect of popular imagery about the internet. They cast a critical eye toward the many efforts to visualize or map the internet that always seem to convey the same message: it's big, and it's everywhere. 

Read more about Contra-Internet here