A family is on a tense road trip from Sacramento, California to St Louis, Missouri. The child is tired; the father seems conflicted; there is clearly an unspoken tension between mother and grandfather. You have the impression that not everyone likes this trip across the country, but you don’t know why yet. I was just beginning to take an interest in this small-scale domestic drama when things got off to a good start: stopping at a roadside motel for the night, the little family find themselves caught up in an escalation when they get caught hostage by three brothers who have just robbed a sheriff.
As Dusk Falls is a branching thriller that you play from both angles: antagonists and victims. Your choices – what you say, what you do, how long you take to press a button to open a window or grab someone’s gun – affect what happens to everyone, both immediately and hours later, at the end of the story. It builds empathy for each character, especially as you begin to explore their lives back and forth after the tense setting of the motel dead end. It also puts you in horrible situations, as the interests of the people you play are often at odds with each other.
In horror games like The Quarry, 2K’s big-budget narrative summer blockbuster, it’s pretty fun to play with characters’ lives. Here, it’s more stressful, because it’s like being in real life. It might be a tense thriller, but it’s about believable characters affected by real-world things like addiction, grief, marital stress, and various forms of overt and covert violence. The stakes seem higher, even in times when the drama is less.
As Dusk Falls is presented as a series of painted photographic still images, somewhere between animation and static. I found this art style shocking at first, but it didn’t take me long to acclimate, and in fact these scenes seem more naturalistic and believable than the Strange Valley characters moving through 3D space. Faces, in particular, communicate more emotion. It gives the whole thing the quality of something to be remembered, with particular moments or expressions sticking in the mind – and it’s also a clever way to deliver so many different scenes and outcomes without the many millions of dollars it costs to film or fully animate them.
I would have gladly watched six episodes if it was a Netflix series, but of course the difference with a video game is that you can influence it. As Dusk Falls supports up to eight players, online and in the same room, using phones or controllers to vote on what should happen next. It’s a fun idea, but especially in the first playthrough, I didn’t really want the story to be voted on – I wanted to be able to respond instinctively and naturally to what people were saying. In multiplayer, having to pause for five seconds every time there’s a dialogue choice or story crossroads for everyone to vote on really broke the flow, for me, and made investment more difficult.
You can go back and replay a scene to see what else might happen: how your daughter might react if you take a tough approach rather than trying to minimize the violence for her; what would have happened if you had simply tried to run away; if a character could have been saved. It’s mildly interesting, but there’s so much repeated material that it’s not very appealing to sit through the 80% of dialogue and acting you’ve already seen to find out the 20% that are different, especially when it comes to a narrative that operates primarily on tension. That tension is gone when you know how a scene ultimately unfolds. More often than not, all that changes is how you get there.
It’s also clear that many of the important decisions you make in the early hours of the game don’t really play out until the final 20 minutes, which means you’d really have to replay the entire game rather than individual chapters if you wanted to. see large-scale changes. That’s a lot of reps to sit down. And speaking of the ending: the arcs of most characters in the game are neatly tied together and ultimately no matter how they work out, but for me one of the stories ended with an unsatisfying cliffhanger that seemed to set up a final chapter that never came.
As Dusk Falls comfortably exceeds the norm for its genre in plot, characterization, performance, and impressive story malleability. It’s a story of trauma and what it takes to overcome it, really; The reluctant teenage criminal Jay Holt has stuck with me, in particular, touchingly innocent despite what he’s been exposed to in his life. Narrative games exist outside of the old technological arms race of gaming now, and because we don’t focus so much on their realism, they are free to tell much better stories.