Mission Sunlight

Developer:  Media Factory
Publisher:  Index+
Year Released:  1998

Review by Steve Ramsey (July, 2008)
Mission Sunlight screenshotThis is an arty little number, aimed at an age group of 8 to 13 and emphasising the edutainment aspect of the life and work of the painter Vincent van Gogh. It's a gentle and colourful affair, if a little one dimensional.

Liking or not liking a painting can be a simple thing, but it can also be a many layered experience. Why does the subject matter look the way it does, what was going on in the artists head, and who or what influenced the style? One piece might simply be a haystack, but see a few studies of the same haystack at different times of day and it becomes a study in light and shade. A printed reproduction can by pretty, but flat and somewhat lifeless; the oil original can be lumpy and detailed and alive. And a series of works across a painter's life can encapsulate that life better than any book or film.

This latter aspect is vividly apparent in the works collected by the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam. I have been lucky enough to visit and it's a remarkable collection. That collection provides many of the works used in Mission Sunlight, and whilst it's a much lesser beast, it does a pretty good job of giving a sense of the life of a much revered artist.

Nothing that takes about 4 or 5 hours to complete could do more than dip into that life, and Mission Sunlight attempts to do more than that in any event. It talks of colours and what they convey, perspective and how it was used (and ignored) by van Gogh, and why he painted potatoes and not gilt vases. It's a snapshot and a primer to art and an artist, and not a bad one.

Still Life with an Earthen Bowl with Potatoes
You start in a gallery with a robotic creature telling you that the sun has been lost and the colour therefore taken from van Gogh's paintings. You need to put things right. As far as an overt story goes, that is the extent of it.

Mission Sunlight screenshotYou restore colours to the paintings by visiting the rooms in the gallery and completing tasks within the paintings themselves. This is the first little delight of the game. You "enter" the painting and get to move around within the 3D world it contains. More than that, each room in the gallery contains only paintings from a particular place and time, and in Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise, the paintings chosen "fit" together to create the place itself (i.e., the village of Arles). It isn't seamless, but it works well enough.

Walking in and through the paintings was a highlight. It has been done before (Monet for example), but it's always a buzz. Many of his well known works are utilised, and whilst the people have been removed (a tad strange) they are faithfully reproduced. They are also somewhat dynamic; a train goes past in Arles, rain washes The Yellow House clean, and you can lower the Langlois Bridge (and then niftily explore the other side).

Having entered the painting, there are two objectives. One is to locate various objects, the other is to find the links to what are called "studios", where you utilise the objects to complete each studio. A successful competion results in a sunflower which you place in a vase. Once you have obtained enough, you can move on to another room in the gallery. There are 3 rooms in all and about 25 sunflowers to collect.

In keeping with the age group aimed at, the tasks aren't hard. Objects you can collect will be indicated by an active icon when the mouse is moved over it. Also, in each studio the outline of each object required to complete the studio is shown. So its essentially a treasure hunt for the shapes.

This gets a little tedious, as there would be 30 to 40 objects in all, and it’s the only real challenge in the game. It is made a little harder, but also potentially a little more frustrating, by the fact that some objects are either not visible within the game world, or not able to be gathered until you have achieved something else. A billiard ball for example cannot be picked up until you do something else, and the links for certain studios cannot be "seen" until you have visited somewhere else. As you don't know this, and as there is no indication that the game world works in this way, it could cause frustration for the younger players. However given the general ease of the game, it is likely that many players will not even be aware of this aspect, and will complete the necessary triggers without realising.

Mission Sunlight screenshotIndeed, the game rules could do with a little further explanation. You get the colour back into a painting by completing the studios within the painting, but it doesn't mean you have found all the objects within that painting. Given that getting back the colour is what you are trying to achieve, it suggests a completion, but it's a completion of sorts. Again, taking into account the target audience, I thought that could have been better explained.

If you do get stuck though, there is a nice little hint book included with clues as to where to find the things you need.

Collage with Decrepit Barn and Stooping Woman
Each time you place a required object into a studio, you get some information about an aspect of the painting in that studio. It could be Vincent himself telling you that he likes painting portraits but people think his paintings are ugly and don't want to pose for him. It could be an explanation of why the walls of his room are are painted blue and the impression that conveys, complete with animations and accompanying explanations as to the difference if the walls were painted yellow or red. Or it could be an exposition of the lack of perspective in a painting, with an animation showing how the painting would look if true perspective was applied.

I thought these things were extremely well done. They were simple and clear, and articulate and illustrative. You couldn't help but learn a little, and I will look at several of van Gogh's works differently as a result.

It is also where Vincent's life seeps through, and his story is the real one in this game. Nor is it simply a frothy exposé of colourful paintings; the sorrow in his life is evident.

There are some little challenges within the studios themselves. You might have to reassemble a painting, or place charcaters in their correct place. They are all quite easy, and whilst they don’t really add anything to the learning, they do provide some different things to do.

Mission Sunlight screenshotThe studios also allow you to examine the paintings in close up, which reveals the textures of the pieces, and you can find out where the painting is currently held and a few other things including its actual size (well conveyed by having a figure "hold" the painting).

You use the arrow keys to move in the game world, as well as look up and down, and the mouse to manipulate objects. Get too close too an object and its pixels are apparent, but the graphics are generally well done. It's a colourful game as you would expect. Hit the mouse key for the menu, where you can fiddle with a few things, and also revisit any completed part of the game, or replay any of the completed sequences. Clicking on a utilised object in a studio will also repeat the information provided when that object was first placed. The game saves automatically, and returns you to where you were up to. It can manage this for more than one player at a time.

Best seen as an edutainment outing, its hard not to like Mission Sunlight. What it does it does well, and whilst it is a game primarily for the age group specified, I think it successfully adds a layer (or three) to his work even outside that target audience. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey 2008. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
Pentium 133 processor, Windows 95, 16MB RAM, 2MB Video RAM, 4 X CD-ROM, 16-bit sound card, 256 colours