This past summer saw, within a month of each other, the arrival of two of the year’s most unwanted works: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and Tale of Tale’s Sunset. No one asked for, and no one is celebrating, Watchman’s publication. Leaving aside the troubling context surrounding the “discovery” of the book’s manuscript and the alleged role Lee’s caretaker had in its release, there is always an uncomfortable silence after the shattering of an idol. That’s despite the deconsecration of Atticus Finch being especially timely in the context of, say, the swell of the Black Lives Matter movement. In slight contrast, Sunset is a quiet compromise between the more experimental pieces like The Path and Bientôt L’été and more conventional, narrative-driven videogames—and yet it too found few takers because it nevertheless remained transparently highbrow.
And yet these works are oddly twinned: they are both works centred around an angry young woman; they are both entangled in questions of race, agency, and societal wrongdoing. Then there are the similarities that emphasize their dissimilarity: one is set at the relative beginning of the Civil Rights movement, while the other takes place after the movement’s own sunset. Though they approach these characteristics from drastically different angles—to say that one is a photo negative of the other is a stretch, and yet the metaphor does capture the sheer oppositeness of both works—one is the last native glimpse of a world over sixty years old now; the other is an avant-garde example from a studio that has consistently pushed the envelope.
Watchman is a deeply conventional work: twenty-something-year-old Jean Louise Finch (née Scout) returns for a vacation to her hometown, her father, and her boyfriend, Henry. The first half of the book is a combination of setting and flashbacks to her childhood. These vignettes set the stage for the profound betrayal that marks the book’s turning point: Scout surreptitiously observes Atticus and Henry introduce and tacitly consent to one Mr. O’Hanlon, who gives a monologue that would make Strom Thurmond blush. And from this consent cascades a sense of outrage and moral horror at her family, her hometown, and the gap between the polite, genteel exterior and the hierarchical and corrosive interior. So far, so good. The only issue is that Jean Louise takes this revelation as a personal betrayal on the part of her family and community—but that is the extent of her outrage.
Scout’s meeting with her former housekeeper and surrogate mother, Calpurnia, is an exemplary display of this kind of inutile hurt. Having just learned that Calpurnia’s grandson is being arraigned for manslaughter, Jean Louise tries to talk to her old nanny—an old, tired woman, confined to a rocking chair and trapped by the certainty that her grandson will be found guilty “with or without Mr. Finch.” Contrast this hollowness, however, with Jean Louise’s own concern for her sudden sense of hurt: “Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me?” Scout goes on, “What are you doing to us?” What indeed?
It is a poor victim that asks “what about me?” when another’s harm is brought to light. But it emphasizes the solipsistic perspective of this coming-of-age novel. Another example: while confronting her beau over his presence at an all-important town meeting, Henry defends himself by arguing for compromise with the community he lives in.Though he did not necessarily want to attend a meeting where an avowed racist was given a platform, he defends the necessity of his presence: “Look, Honey. Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” When she calls this compromise hypocrisy, he responds, “How can I be of any use to a town if it’s against me?” This is where the conversation ends: Atticus interrupts, and there is no resolution, no constructive way forward. There is only anger upon anger, hurt upon hurt, all borne from a personal grievance and not any sense of a greater injustice.
But where Watchman’s emotional arc is powered by self-pity and misdirected anguish, Sunset’s is lit up by political and aesthetic outrage, and its rejection is more troubling: it is, after all, a rich compromise between conceptual art and convention. Angela, the protagonist, like Nina Simone and other African Americans who bore witness to the slow rollback of the gains won during the Civil Rights Movement, has fled America—though she still carries memories of burnt-out churches and the difficulty she overcame to earn her engineering degree—for the fictional South American country of Anchuria. But plus ça change: she can only find work as a housekeeper for an hour every few weeks at the penthouse suite of a wealthy aesthete named Ortega. Then the military stages a coup d’état and the country collapses into civil war—yet Angela keeps cleaning. She expresses outrage, fear, weariness, resignation, and hope as she looks at herself in the elevator on the way up to the penthouse each evening. But there is not an act that is not charged with the terror outside—whether she plays a revolutionary song on the piano, or a more nostalgic folk song; whether she responds to her employer’s notes with either affection or a rigorous call to arms. The apartment becomes a refuge from the war outside, but it becomes impossible to fully escape that conflict. The sound of gunfire is carried up to the balcony even as Angela brings her fear for her guerrilla brother’s impending execution to up the elevator.
Sunset is a game that asks what we value in art: social commitment or pure aesthetic pleasure? Despite its setting—a rich, open-air apartment filled with modern and classical art—supporting the latter stance, the militant fervour and righteous indignation Angela brings to the apartment every day is the injection of outrage at injustice, preventing naked enjoyment at the statues representing the labours of Hercules. Angela’s rage is twin to that of Jean Louise: there is a grievous wrong that needs righting; Angela, however, has no Atticus to castigate, no symbol to attack. Instead, she curates an apartment and reflects upon the world outside and the items inside,often at the same time. But Angela is not doing anything different than we normally do when engaging with the art in Ortega’s apartment. She brings her lived experience to the piece. What we say about the work is as much a commentary on ourselves as it is on the piece itself. But the corollary of that idea is that we cannot escape the piece’s effect on us: if you gaze too long at a Grecian urn, it gazes back into you.
The apartment then becomes this refuge, and a metonym for the rest of the world: the changes made to it over the course of the game are not moments of self-expression in a void, but reactions to the rising chaos outside. The statutes of the Labours of Hercules, the outré abstract sculptures, the piano, or the canvas-covered armchair are all pieces whose meaning keeps shifting as the progress of the civil war continues. The ivied wall that serves as a marker of the passage of time, the way statuettes shift as they hold down a map of the city, or the sudden closing down of various areas of the apartment, as Ortega turns from curation to preservation, are all testament to the way in which time can shift aesthetic values and interpretations. While critical of various pieces’ opulence, Angela nevertheless helps to secure their protection, and even finds some small comfort in their presence. The progress of time does nothing to dull her rage, but it finds new expression in every interaction with various pieces: the reflecting pool disappears underneath crates filled with straw, the pictures the player has chosen are taken down again. And this shifting valuation even applies to Angela herself, when she steps in front of a reflective surface, the player sees her in the same way as she might another work of art.
These confrontations reach their climax when, respectively, Scout lambasts her own father for his views while Anchuria’s civil war reaches its conclusion with the overthrow of a dictator. In Watchman, the debate that has been smouldering throughout the book’s second half is never resolved. Instead, the project of grappling with the wrongs of the past is transformed into a cute moment where Jean Louise must realize her independence. Her hometown’s conservatism and her father’s paternalism make her realize she must become her own woman, independent from Atticus’ moral compass. It’s a lesson that, perhaps, all those lawyers inspired by Gregory Peck should heed. But by transforming the book’s climax into a lesson, the whole historical context collapses to an interesting background put up for the sake of the main character. Yes, Scout learns to set her own watchman—her own conscience, as it were—at the end; but of what use is that when the conflict raging is inside, not outside, the city walls?There is crisis, and then not so much a resolution as an acclimatization. Her father is still a patronizing racist, and her boyfriend is still a conventional hypocrite, but it’s all okay because Scout has learned that she needs to be her own person.
Angela’s deliverance is found in the end of the war, an experience that becomes an almost religious apotheosis as she has a vision not of the smoking city, but beyond it into the wild, paradise-like jungle beyond the walls. There is a sense of apocalyptic discontinuity, to be sure—this scene represents the entry of a wild, uncultivated, and naturalistic beauty lacking in the videogame’s art—but the overall effect is that of a constant search for some kind of numinous meaning that can be found in the world. It represents the eye searching beyond the city walls for some kind of answer or meaning.
This, then, is the primary difference between the two works: Watchman is solipsistic in its engagement with the world, while Sunset denies that this solipsism is possible. The complex social and political shifts present in 1950s Alabama are reduced to a sitcom-like moment of personal growth, where all strife is merely meant to serve as a personal opportunity or lesson.The civil strife in Anchuria is inescapable, even from the relative safety of a penthouse patio—and the explosions, figuratively and literally, color the artwork on the walls.
This difference might also explain the various receptions these works had. Watchman came at a time when its literary solipsism runs afoul against a plurality of voices.For who can care about a young, inward-looking woman’s own loss, given the context in which that loss operated? Sunset came at a period where questions of exegesis and videogames are still in their relative infancy. The Beginner’s Guide, it should be remembered, came out only a few months afterwards, and its more straightforward approach to the interpretative relationship between artist and audience was heavily praised. Watchmen was a closed work that came much, much to late. Sunset is a more open experience far behind its rightful time.
A few weeks after Sunset was released, the pair behind Tale of Tales—the Belgian couple Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn—vented their frustrations over the videogame’s reception. As of late July, Sunset had only sold 4,000 copies of the game, inclusive of copies offered to its Kickstarter backers. The studio announced that they were free. Having tried, with their latest venture, to cater to a more conventional crowd, they were now done compromising with the world. Granted, Samyn admitted in a recent interview with Endgaget that the airing of their frustrations had been partially motivated by the need to drum up further sales to pay their collaborators.Nevertheless, their language had the tone of a sincere and righteous indignation, and the zealotry behind the Latin maxim Fiat ars—pereat mundus: “Make art, let the world perish.”
Tale of Tales’ latest project is Cathedral in the Clouds, a digital cathedral created for VR headsets like the Oculus Rift. For the last few weeks, their Twitter account has been festooned with pictures of churches and religious artwork from Ghent to Santiago. The feel of this new project is something of a drastic leap from the political commitment of Sunset: there’s no meditation on art and its place in revolution; there’s only a spiritual retreat into traditional and ethereal conceptions of beauty. The monastic dictum contemptus mundi (contempt for, or perhaps detachment from, the world) is an apt descriptor, but there nevertheless remains a thread of connection between Sunset and Cathedral: the presence of that second word, mundi, and the need for a world to withdraw from. In other words, Tale of Tales’ new project still grapples with the world outside, and all its complexities. But it defines itself by opposition to and distance from that world: sunlight from the outside nevertheless seeps in through the stain-glass windows, coloring the world within.