A family is on a tense road trip from Sacramento, California to St Louis, Missouri. The kid is tired; the dad seems conflicted; there’s clearly some unspoken tension between the mother and the grandfather. You get the impression that not everybody is keen on this cross-country move, but you don’t yet know why. I was just getting interested in this small-scale domestic drama when things kicked off properly: stopping at a roadside motel for the night, the little family gets caught up in an escalating stand-off when they are taken hostage by three brothers who have just robbed a sheriff.
As Dusk Falls is a branching thriller that you play out from both perspectives: the antagonists, and the victims. Your choices – what you say, what you do, how long you take to press a button to open a window or make a grab for someone’s gun – affect what happens to everyone, both immediately and hours later, at the end of the story. This develops empathy for every character, particularly when you start delving backwards and forwards through their lives after the tense set-piece of the motel stand-off. It also puts you in some horrible situations, because the interests of the people you’re playing are often at odds with each other.
In horror games such as The Quarry, 2K’s bigger-budget narrative summer blockbuster, it’s kinda fun to play around with characters’ lives. Here it’s more stressful, because it feels like real life. This might be a tense thriller, but it’s about believable characters touched by real-world things such as addiction, bereavement, marital stress and various overt and covert forms of violence. The stakes feel higher, even in moments where the drama is lower.
As Dusk Falls is presented as a series of painted-over photographic stills, somewhere between animated and static. I found this art style jarring at first, but I didn’t take long to acclimatise, and in fact these scenes feel more naturalistic and believable than uncanny-valley characters moving around in 3D space. Faces, particularly, communicate more emotion. It gives the whole thing the quality of something remembered, with particular moments or expressions sticking in the mind – and it’s also a clever way of offering so many different scenes and outcomes without the many, many millions of dollars that it costs to either film or fully animate them.
I would happily have watched six episodes of this if it were a Netflix series, but of course the difference with a video game is that you get to 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. This is a fun idea but on the first playthrough especially, I didn’t really want the story to go to a vote – I wanted to be able to respond instinctively and naturally to what people said. In multiplayer, having to pause for five seconds every time there’s a dialogue choice or a story crossroads so that everyone could vote really broke the flow, for me, and made it harder to invest.
You can go back and replay a scene to see what else might happen: how your daughter might respond if you take a tough-guy approach rather than trying to minimise the violence for her sake; what would have happened if you’d simply tried to run away; whether a character could have been saved. This is mildly interesting, but there’s so much repeated material that it doesn’t feel massively appealing to sit through the 80% of dialogue and scene-setting that you’ve already seen to discover the 20% that’s different, especially when this is a narrative that operates mostly on tension. That tension’s gone when you know how a scene ultimately plays out. Most often, all that changes is how you get there.
It’s also clear that many of the significant decisions you make in the first hours of the game don’t really play out until the last 20 minutes, meaning that you really would have to replay the entire game rather than individual chapters if you wanted to see big-picture changes. That’s a lot of repetition to sit through. And speaking of the ending: the arcs for most of the game’s characters are tied up neatly and finally, however they work out, but for me one of the stories ended in an unsatisfying cliffhanger that seemed to set up a final chapter that never came.
As Dusk Falls comfortably exceeds the standard of its genre when it comes to plotting, characterisation, performance and the impressive malleability of the story. It’s a story about trauma and what it takes to overcome it, really; reluctant teen criminal Jay Holt stayed with me, particularly, touchingly innocent despite what he’s been exposed to in his life. Narrative games exist outside of gaming’s old technological arms race, now, and because we’re not focusing so much on how realistic they look, they’re free to tell much better stories.