Narrative adventure games often land developers in a precarious situation. Inspired heavily by film and TV, the genre tends to stand out thanks to its branching paths, interactive roads not taken, and various endings. That means any team making such a game is writing not just one story, like a TV or movie writer, but many, and because any player could travel down any particular path, each one needs to feel satisfying in the end. Thus, many games in the genre struggle to strike that balance. Having played and seen several of As Dusk Falls' various outcomes, I find it to be one of the best examples of a story that ends well no matter where players take its characters.
Finding out how that delicate balancing act is achieved is chiefly why I recently spoke to Interior Night, the new studio that launched As Dusk Falls earlier this year. Speaking with CEO and creative director Caroline Marchal and art director Mike Bambury, we also touched on how the game manages to make its motion comic so emotive, that sequel teaser you likely caught at the end of the game, and who the players most cared about keeping safe in the years-spanning crime drama.
This article contains spoilers for As Dusk Falls.
"We've got a lot of bittersweet endings, and some of them are even pretty sad," Marchal told me. "It's the hardest part, the narrative design. You want to give players enough agency that they feel that their ending is satisfying. That doesn't mean happy, but satisfying and compelling[...] We've got two wonderful writers, Brad [Kane] and Phil [Jackson], who are very experienced in narrative branching. So on paper, we've got a good base, but you only realize, I think, once you're actually playing the game, because you see all the stories are so modular. And sometimes you realize, 'Oh, wait, this one is really short actually, or this ending, we just have a loose end here.'"
Bringing every possible story thread to a close is a back-and-forth process that is liable to change the story before most people ever get to see the final version. Marchal revealed that an entire branch of the final act was added specifically to account for playtesters who felt Vanessa heading to the national park with the fugitive Jay was too dangerous and felt forced upon them as players. They wanted her to be able to go home and avoid Jay's likely dramatic fate. After the changes were made to allow players to convince Vanessa to leave Jay and stay safe in the US, the team had to reimagine Jay's arrival over the northern border. "When Jay arrives alone in the national park, he can meet this park ranger. And this park ranger didn't exist initially. He's one of my favorite characters because he's just like an older version of Jay if he'd had more luck in his life."
Marchal also revealed that Jay is the character most playtesters and streamers have shown great compassion for--though Zeus the dog is a close second. The team added a way out of the story for Jay that would keep him from killing anyone after sensing that some players felt they needed that option to avoid at least some of the darkness in the complicated saga.
Sometimes, these changes lead to new breakthroughs such as that one, moments born out of necessity that can end up feeling more meaningful to the team and players alike. But no matter what, Marchal says, there is no golden path, and there cannot be one in a game like this.
"We really didn't want to steer [players], or pass any moral judgment. I think that's really important, writing all the characters from a place of empathy, hoping that the players will feel the same thing." That's a tricky thing when the game puts two families at odds with each other, while telling their stories in a vein similar to how The Last of Us Part II wants you to see both sides of its conflict. "There are no good or bad people in the game. When you take that approach, then it means the story is always thematically resonant, and there's no better path. Your version of a happy ending might be different than mine."
The way the game best exemplifies this is in its scenes between Zoey and Jay, the two youngest characters in the opposing families. Zoey can forgive Jay for his family's misdeeds when they meet in Canada or she can turn the fugitive in to the police. If he's already been caught, he'll be on death row, and Zoey can then meet with him in prison to forgive him there, attend his execution, or keep her distance completely.
That forgiveness can come after a fateful night where Zoey loses as many as both her parents, or as few as neither of them, so the specific details skillfully combine with each player's own morality to bring them to a decision--your own "right answer" might rely on the facts of the event inside the motel many years prior. All of this is then further muddied by playing the game in multiplayer like the world's most depressing round of Jackbox, where your co-op partners can end up feeling like rivals if their idea of justice looks starkly different than yours. It's partly this chaotic moral mash-up that led me to give the game a 9/10 in my As Dusk Falls review.
None of these nuances or character arcs land if the performances don't, and As Dusk Falls uses an interesting strategy to ensure they do. The motion comic art style was not some players' preference for a game like this--I think some preferred something more like a Telltale or Quantic Dream game where they have direct character movement controls. But because each scene plays out with expert voice work and an enriching sense of atmosphere akin to an audio drama podcast, I had no qualms with it. I was only curious how it was all built. Art director Mike Bambury explained it in detail.
"Every frame is a painting," he told me, describing the way any particular moment in-game was treated with close attention to detail so that it can stand on its own as an aesthetically impressive moment in time. "We painted about 15,000 of these paintings for the characters, and painting them isn't the end of the story. We actually had to integrate them with really detailed, fully 3D worlds. And it's hard, you know, the team did an incredible job, and every single one of those characters has to be hand-composited and graded for color and lighting into the scenes. So, you know, it's crazy. Nobody does this alone."
How then does the game so consistently capture the essence of any particular frame in the expressions of its actors, I asked, recalling one of the things that I liked best about the game's art style. "We were trying to shoot still-frames. And it didn't work, because we were kind of inhibiting the actors and we weren't getting those moments you're talking about. That's what you want to hit again, and again and again. So we actually shot live-action and full video. And we selected, really carefully, those moments. But if you looked at the source material, you know, the painting, they're adding portraiture skills on top of that. So what we're doing effectively is going really deep on every frame, and we're doing it 15,000 times."
If it sounds like a novel approach, that's because it is. No one else is making games this way, but Bambury said the team sought such a creation tool because it needed its versatility. "The thing is, it's got to be able to tell the story about Vince, who's having marital problems. It's got to be able to do bombastic action sequences. It's got to be able to do all sorts of different things. So to an extent, the conceit of 'every frame is a painting' was designing it to be able to tell different types of story."
While Marchal said the team is still undecided whether to use this process for future games, it seems certain that the teased As Dusk Falls sequel will use it once more at the very least. Despite the cliffhanger, though, the team playfully danced around my questions regarding the sequel. "We're still very focused on [the first game, including] books one and two," Marchal told me, "because we try to analyze what people thought of it. What worked, what didn't work. And we're also doing patches. So we're just absorbing all of that. And then a lot of us need a break. So figuring out what's next, I think we'll look at that in a couple of months." Interestingly enough, when I asked if perhaps the team already had books three and four "in the can," to borrow a filmmaking term, Marchal responded with what could be read as telling. "You know, I can't really answer that," she said with an evasive smirk.
It would make sense to record multiple games at a time when using a complicated process like this, especially when you consider some actors, like those portaying young Zoey and Ash, might age beyond their roles quickly. For now, the team is staying tight-lipped about that sequel, even as the game itself leaves little room for speculation.
It'll be interesting to see how the game accounts for player choices in a sequel. After games like Telltale's The Walking Dead and Mass Effect have helped pave the way for choice-driven stories to carry player decisions across multiple games, the blueprint is there for Interior Night to follow if it needs to. Then again, as a new studio seemingly more than happy to reinvent the wheel to serve its lofty narrative goals, don't be surprised to see As Dusk Falls 2 launch with its own way of doing this, too.
As Dusk Falls is now available on Xbox and PC and is included on both platforms via Xbox Game Pass.
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