Can you run away from your decisions, or the decisions of those who are close to you? Can you escape the trauma that they cause? These are questions that get asked repeatedly of the characters in As Dusk Falls, a new narrative game that, fittingly, also offers choice after choice, before forcing you to live with the trauma of your decisions.
As Dusk Falls was picked up and published by Xbox Game Studios after being demoed by fledgling game studio INTERIOR/NIGHT. You can see why Xbox got so excited about it. As Dusk Falls is not only an intricate story-driven game, leaving you as emotionally punch-drunk as any Life is Strange, but it’s uniquely gorgeous too.
If we were to pitch the art design for As Dusk Falls, it would go something like this: imagine the Richard Linklater animated movie A Scanner Darkly (or the TV series Undone, if you’re after a more modern reference), but at two frames-per-second. The effect is to make them into a flipbook. But the comparison really does devalue it: the stop-start nature of the animation is supremely effective, and likely saved on precious art budget. Playing As Dusk Falls is like scanning polaroids of someone’s worst life-moments.
The plot is supremely simple, but it’s been left to fracture and split in the sun. The largest piece is a robbery gone wrong. Three brothers from the local Holt family (notorious for getting into scrapes) have chosen to rob the safe of the town sheriff. Little do they know, but among the bundles of money is a black book that details all of the backhanders that the sheriff has received, and he will do anything to get it back.
Cut away from the robbery, and we meet Vince and his family, making a trip to their new home in Colorado. Vince has been made into the scapegoat for some corporate malfeasance, and has taken a different job in a different state to escape the shame. After some car issues, the family make a stopover in a local motel, where the Holt brothers make their entrance. The desperate sheriff arrives, and we have ourselves a hostage situation.
This is the set-up for some narrative shenanigans. The plot takes a breather to flit back to the moments before the robbery, to view the Holts’ motives. Equally, we skit over to see why Vince has had to abandon his old job, and the tension it caused on the relationship with his wife. Then the kidnapping accelerates forward, as your player-choices determine who lives, dies, escapes or resides in a cage of their own making. Finally, we skip to the future, reflecting on how the trauma has swelled up and enveloped everyone involved.
While it might seem disparate, the plot is extremely clever, never failing to grow or reflect on the central hostage plot. There’s not an ounce of fat here, as everything tightens up to be as sinewy as beef jerky. You could argue that the plot is almost too lean, carving off characters who become inconsequential by the game’s end. Some big players become nothing more than cameos in the final chapters of the game, and it’s a shame that we don’t see their consequences as clearly as we see others.
Part of this sidelining is down to the way As Dusk Falls handles choice. Significant moments are labelled as ‘Crossroads’ choices, and you have as much time as you need to determine which fork in the road to take. But As Dusk Falls is masterful at pulling out a bag labelled ‘smoke and mirrors’. It makes you feel like you’re making significant, divergent choices to the plot. In some cases you are, and that’s clear from a choice map that appears between each chapter; something that conveniently allows you to see the community choices, and also leap back to previous choices, should you want to. But other choices are smoke and mirrors, offering choices that are momentary or more inconsequential than you might think. As Dusk Falls is very good at snapping back into a prescribed flow, without giving the impression that it’s doing just that.
Even better, As Dusk Falls has a natty habit of offering you the exact choice you want to make in a given moment. Too often, we play narrative games that railroad us into choices that feel unnatural or unbelievable, simply because the narrative needs those choices to function. In As Dusk Falls that was rarely the case. We had a choice in mind before we even approached a fork in the road, and – lo – there it was when we arrived. It felt good to not have to make compromises.
Once a choice is made, there’s no remorse, either. At no point did As Dusk Falls laugh in our faces or make us feel like we picked the wrong options. It treats the player with supreme empathy at all times, as the characters and events understand why you made the choice, and make you feel like no other option was realistic. Yet, of course they were – play As Dusk Falls again, and you come to realise that every branching path is dealt with in this way.
But that’s not to say that the choices are easy. We spent minutes, at a stretch, dumbly staring at the screen, trying to work out which choice was the least damaging. That’s down to the hostage situation, more than anything. Both the kidnappers and the kidnapped are in a situation they don’t want to be in, and would rather be someplace else. So, when you switch between characters (Jay Holt and Vince are the primary players in the unfolding drama), you are pulling from choices that are uniformly sticky and horrible.
That’s not to say that the finest moments are reserved for that terrible night in the motel. In fact, As Dusk Falls gets even better as the characters explode outwards from that one moment. Jay’s relationship with one of the newer characters is the game’s heart, and – if you’re anything like us – you will soon come to realise that it’s their story more than anyone else’s. Until the end, their connection had a lasso round our tear ducts and kept on tugging. We plan to play to unlock more endings, in the desperate hope that there might be a happier one, just for them. But we have such loyalty to our ending, that we can’t accept any other.
Plot divergences don’t only come from narrative choices. Some of the biggest branches come off the back of As Dusk Falls’s QTEs. Yep, you read that right: the lost art of the QTE is back. It’s not as bad as it sounds: the QTEs are extremely simple, and you’re given all the time in the world to complete them. But that doesn’t stop them being some of the game’s worst moments. In early sections, they’re not hugely legible – what does ‘Tap’ and a picture of the analogue stick mean? – and it can lead to unwanted failures. And it’s so easy to get lost in the sweeping story that a sudden turn into QTE territory can be jarring. But we understand why they are there. Without them, As Dusk Falls would have been an elaborate visual novel, with little to no character control or gameplay; with them, important moments can be lost with the wrong yank of an analogue stick.
We grew to love them more than loathe them, pressuring though they were. And that’s down to the non-judgmental approach to the narrative. It will branch and diverge, but that’s okay. You can trust INTERIOR/NIGHT. You will ride the new path to wonderful places, rather than feeling like you’ve committed to a substandard plotline. Everywhere it goes, it feels right.
It’s not a short path, either. Credits roll after chapter three, but this is a red-herring. It’s a little rugpull before the second half of the game kicks off in earnest. Not only are you getting more forks than Uri Geller’s cutlery drawer, you are getting a story that runs to seven or eight hours, with set piece after set piece. As Dusk Falls is extremely generous, and could have put up an argument for running half as long. We’re glad it didn’t.
It’s rare to find a debut game as confident as As Dusk Falls. It’s rarer still to find one that unerringly finds your belly for an emotional gut punch like this one does. If you love Life is Strange or the Telltale games, yet wished they would react to your choices just that little more generously, then As Dusk Falls is your game. We’re calling it now: debut game of the year.
You can buy As Dusk Falls from the Xbox Store