The Sun at Night salutes history, and not just in gaming. As a 2D platformer, it recalls latter-day Mega Man, and, digging further into history, it offers a narrative set in the Soviet Union. What matters most is the narrative. It’s an interesting twist on communism and nuclear warfare, not to mention animal testing and a dog named Laika. And its timing is quite good, launching the same week as the Winter Olympics, now playing out in Sochi, Russia. Like the Olympics, The Sun at Night contains plenty of action, with a multi-layered narrative developing slowly underneath.
If we look to 1957 (or Wikipedia), Laika was the first test animal of the Soviets’ space programming after Sputnik. Her official story—which was mysterious for decades—goes that she was launched into space and died from overheating soon after. Minicore Studios followed her history, and in promoting The Sun at Night, it took a position on it: “We all have a sense of how dependent and trusting dogs are and it’s this aspect of their nature that makes the story of Laika so tragic."
Laika’s story in The Sun at Night, part one of which launched this month, isn’t as tragic as her reality, but it’s unmistakably dark. Laika returns to Earth, namely the Soviet Union, equipped with weaponry and human intelligence, and happens upon resistance fighters barely holding on to humanity. They take her into their camp in the first chapter of the game. From the start of that chapter, it’s clear that The Sun at Night forks between a main narrative and side quests that Laika can dig through to discover more and more. She slowly uncovers that the Soviets are developing technology perhaps more dangerous than nukes.
What’s not clear from the start is the origin of Laika’s newfound enhancements and how the country got into this conflict. In playing part one for more than five hours, I didn’t have clear pictures of those, but I later understood that The Sun at Night slowly teases out Laika's narrative and the overarching conflict. The intermittent cutscenes, usually between chapters, only reveal so much. It’s really up to the player—the dog—to sniff out as much information as possible.
There’s a clear connection here to reality, namely Sochi, which are also games undergirded by stories of politics and conflict. As I was writing this, I read a story on short-track speedskater Viktor Ahn, who ditched South Korea and joined Russia’s Olympic roster, though he had an opportunity to join the United States’ team. It didn’t take much more digging to find an interesting piece on a village left in the Olympic dust, of which (the dust) there was plenty. To me, digging through stories like these shapes how I think about the competition happening in Sochi.
there are some things you mustn’t say
Sniffing out information in The Sun at Night is just as easy and just as transformative. Laika can interact with many different objects—from lockers and bookshelves, to water closets and computer terminals—from which she can extract information and side quests. Many of those objects contain notes and journals concerning the conflict in which Laika and her comrades are shrouded. One journal may contain a scientist’s last report on animals undergoing cybernetic treatments, such as bears with lasers; another may detail the dangers of radiation exposure. One personal letter to a soldier reflected the iron-clad secrecy in both The Sun at Night and Russia’s space program decades ago: “Alexander, be careful in your letters. I know you want me to know what’s happening in your life, but there are some things you mustn’t say.” It’s this very sense of a suppressed truth that makes further chapters of The Sun at Night so alluring.