GameCentral goes hands-on with the new Xbox exclusive narrative game from one of the designers of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls.
It’s fair to say that the games of David Cage have not been GameCentral favourites in the past. Titles like Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Detroit: Become Human are flawed experiences but they have been very influential for narrative games in general and, despite our misgivings, they’ve also been extremely successful. Although they’ve always been promoted as Cage’s work there is, naturally, a huge team of professionals at French studio Quantic Dream, including, at one point, designer Caroline Marchal.
Marchal is now CEO and creative director of London-based indie developer INTERIOR/NIGHT and while her new game As Dusk Falls does have some similarities with Quantic’s output, the immediate impression is they’re much closer in tone and gameplay to Life Is Strange, originally created by French developer Dontnod.
You may remember As Dusk Falls from Microsoft’s not-E3 showcase, with the graphic novel inspired visuals that feature no animation – just cross fades to different poses and expressions. There are 3D cut scenes, and a moving, cinematic camera, but the distinctive presentation is definitely a polarising one. We can’t pretend to have been instant fans, but we have a feeling it grows on you, because after having played the first chapter of the game itself we’re now a lot more excited about experiencing the whole thing.
As Dusk Falls tells the stories of two families across 30 years but starts in 1998 with a robbery in a (very) small Arizonan town. You play as both the father of a family moving across state and a teenage boy talked into taking part in a robbery of the local sheriff. There’s no movement controls of any kind but you do have full control of their actions in terms of a constant stream of moral and practical decisions.
Unlike other similar games these choices come roughly every two minutes and in just the first, hour-long chapter range from playing a memory game with your daughter (and deciding whether to cheat or not) to navigating a tense gun stand-off when the two groups inevitably collide. Apart from a few simple QTE sequences there is no action whatsoever, but the most immediately impressive aspect of As Dusk Falls is how quickly it grabs your attention and how surprisingly fast paced it is.
Within just a few minutes the main characters are clearly outlined and you’re making what could potentially be life or death decisions. Many don’t necessarily seem that way at first, though, as you decide whether to pick up a dropped earring from a hotel manager being held hostage or start what at first seems to be a simple white lie. These decisions can quickly lead to potentially disastrous outcomes, as you quickly chastise yourself for not being more mindful.
These are subtly different styles of decisions than most narrative games, that can be much more easily related to real-life experiences, and it’s impressive how the game can quickly stack up multiple bad decisions and yet not seem at all contrived.
We were playing the preview with six other people (someone must not have turned up as the game allows for a maximum of eight, with a mix of controllers and smartphones) and this works very well, as you argue out the decisions and make your vote between what are usually three separate choices. Although everyone gets a chance to overrule once per chapter.
At the end of the chapter, you’re showed the complex branch of decisions and what percentage of other players did the same thing, and it turned out that our accidentally getting a policeman killed was actually a rare mistake that not many people made. And yet while playing, it seemed absolutely inevitable and that’s impressive, given what it implies for how well the game’s branching narrative is designed and how well it will hold up to repeat playthroughs.
Formats: Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC
Price: £24.99 (Game Pass day one)
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios
Release Date: 19th July 2022
Age Rating: 16
GC: When you were doing your introduction you talked about the sort of movies and TV shows that have influenced you, and I think I can probably guess a few of those. But I’m also interested in what sort of games have been an influence? What were you playing as a kid that led you to where you are today?
CM: So I started playing late, like with PlayStation 1 when I was like 18. Tomb Raider and most importantly Metal Gear Solid 1. The first game I finished alone, before that I played a bit of Tetris and Sonic, and I was like, well, ‘No, that’s really not for me, it’s just about jumping and running.’ But I was amazed with Tomb Raider, the sense of presence in the place, exploring… but then Metal Gear Solid, it’s that meta element of how smart the design was that it even went beyond the game, like when you had with Psycho Mantis to swap the memory card, I thought that was amazing.
And then the third one that really convinced me also was Omikron: The Nomad Soul [Quantic Dream’s first game, from 1999 – GC]. ‘Cause that was the first open world game at the time. You could navigate in a city with a sense of great music, really atmospheric art direction. And when I realised they were French, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna try’. And I had no idea what a game designer was at the time, I just learned on the job.
I had no idea what Fahrenheit [Quantic Dream’s second game, from 2005 – GC] was, I just made it with other people. I just assembled it and was a designer. Mostly the games I play right now are indies, because I just find them super innovative. And, also, in terms of time constraints. I’m a mum, I don’t play games that last 200 hours – I just don’t have that time.
Why narrative? It’s because, again, I’m really passionate… by how universal those can be and how deep the experience is when the narrative is well crafted and interactive. It’s just, for me, it’s just another dimension, compared to TV or film or any other medium. It’s always a genre I’ve worked on and I don’t think I wanna do anything else.
GC: Although I’ve enjoyed many of them, I’m often very sceptical of narrative driven games in the sense that I always ask the question of did this need to be a game? Is there any reason this isn’t just a movie?
GC: Something like the The Last Of Us, that’s a very linear experience, where you can’t influence the story and the gameplay is not the main draw… in many ways it’s less interactive than something like Life Is Strange where you’re having a direct effect on the story.
GC: So I’m curious as to whether you’re asking the same questions as you’re making your games. Because I get the impression that, unlike a lot of developers, you’re not a frustrated filmmaker. You wouldn’t rather be making movies but games is as close as you could get.
CM: Absolutely not. I’m a game designer. I would never, ever wanna… you know, I’ve been in the industry 20+ years. I love video games. And what I find really fascinating is not only the fact that you can craft your own path within a narrative space but for me that’s really why I’m doing this, it’s all the insight it gives you.
We’ll see at the end of the chapter, when we play [the hands-on preview] we track all your individual choices, and every choice is weighted with a value next to it. And at the end you see… because we don’t consciously do things based on core, big principles. In real, mundane life, you don’t necessarily broach these big topics.
I think doing this as you experience an interactive story is just so unique and so insightful and deep that I remember choices from The Walking Dead years later, because it created an interesting discussion with my partner. Or we had emails from people playing Heavy Rain, saying, ‘I had to stop for 10 minutes before I could make that choice!’ I called a friend… and I’m like, ‘This is amazing! Great!’ Movies don’t give you that, interactive stories do.
GC: Yeah, definitely. And it strikes me that all this is very difficult to do because there are two – three really – big issues that many developers fail to address with these kinds of games. There’s a real dearth of likeable characters in these narrative games, like people you’d actually want to play as for 10 hours. And secondly these games are often still full of big decisions that the game makes for you, which ruins the illusion of control. Thirdly, there’s the fact that video games so rarely cover any of the same sort of subject matter that any other medium would: most obviously love and relationships.
CM: Yeah, absolutely.
GC: Sorry, I know that’s a lot to discuss but are these the sort of things you think about too, when creating the game?
CM: Absolutely! So first, the characters you mentioned, the likability, for me is… you know, we’ve had a lot of silent brooding, protagonists.
GC: That sound like Clint Eastwood.
CM: Yes, all that! I love Clint Eastwood, he’s amazing!
GC: I like him too, but I don’t want every single male character to sound like a bad impression of him.
CM: [laughs] Exactly! And that’s why I think in TV, you see the best characters at the moment. The biggest storylines, the most interesting characters, it’s amazing. It all started for me with Oz. The first time I saw that show, I was blown away, ’cause it was long form, it was great. But yes, so more characters that are… I prefer to say relatable than likable, because there’s no judgment.
Relatable, for me, means that you’ll at least experience empathy, if you think they’re relatable. They might do bad things, they might make good choices. They might have something in their past that they’re not proud of. You know, we are all like that. No one’s perfect. We really crafted all these characters, these two families, with this in mind. That they’d be like people you might have met, people you know of, people that are believable and relatable.
And then the themes, I completely agree, you know. Love, loss, resilience, like what happens? You’ve got a trauma in your past, how’d you get over it? There’s no easy answer. Losing your job, depression, suicide, all these are topics… family violence. All these topics are in the game and they’re not there just to be like, ‘Oh look, we’re doing it!’ It’s just because they’re part of the fabric of life in general.
GC: Yeah. I mean, your game has a serious heterosexual romantic relationship in it and, bizarrely, that’s very unusual.
CM: [laughs] We really wrote the story and designed it with a mature audience in mind. Like for me, the best age to enjoy these stories, probably like past your twenties… and if you’re parents even better. Of course you’re playing Vince, but you’re also playing a younger character, that you’ve seen, Jay’s the younger brother. But we’ve got old people in the cast, you’ve got the grandpa, the daughter who’s six-years-old – there’s this wide array of characters you come across and their real-life struggles.
Again, because we were just looking at TV in terms of storylines and TV is very bold. They do anything. Well, we’ll do the same thing and then try to appeal to these people who enjoy shows, but think, ‘Oh no, the games are too hard for me. It’s too challenging.’ And with the approach of making the design as lean as possible and going to them, then hopefully we can bring more of these people into games that they stop thinking that it’s not for them.
GC: One question that I’ve asked Dontnod before, is why isn’t your game set in France? I mean, I know why but can we ever get to a point where games are not just set in America and about American issues? Because gun violence is clearly already a part of your game, and perhaps other things that are almost uniquely American. I mean it is a shame, isn’t it?
CM: I think the US have had, and I think it’s changing, a very broad appeal with cinema. We picked Arizona, not necessarily because it’s in the US but more because of the landscape. It’s this desert, it’s like a neo-Western, you’ve got the motel in the middle of this vast landscape. It was one of the main reasons, the beauty of the sky, the big winds. We did a trip there four years ago, in March. It was just amazing.
So that was one of the main reasons but also, when you build your characters one of the family is interracial and you want the contrast with the family who lives in the small town. It felt like a great setting for this type of story for this neo-Western.
But that’s not to say all our games will be set in the US, I reassure you. [laughs] Really not. But for this one, it was the right place to start. Not so much because it’s the quintessential example of a neo-Western, it’s just perfect. These humans are in big nature, like civilisation that almost doesn’t count – it’s about their characters and how they collide.
GC: I almost don’t want to ask this question about the graphics…
GC: If you had an infinite budget, would those graphics still look like that? Because obviously at Quantic you worked with some very high-tech visuals and facial animation. If all things were equal, would you use that here too if you could?
CM: I’ll give you the short answer. Even if I had three times the budget, and we have a good budget, I would do it the same way again. It’s really a creative choice. Again, beyond gamers, very few people care about how many pixels are on screen. What really mattered for us was showing the nuanced performance, having a distinctive, evocative style that would really serve our story.
And I don’t feel… as you say, I’ve done performance capture before, I know all about it, it’s not a problem. And to an extent, it would’ve made our life easier. All the new tools, everything… we had to figure out what’s the best cinematography that works with this style because I think it’s really efficient at keeping the key emotional beats and then letting the players ingest those and take their time with it and fill the gaps with their imagination.
GC: The main problem, it seems to me, is what you do with monologues, because the longer you hold on a static image of someone’s face the stranger it starts to seem. Has that limited what you can do with shots and dialogue?
CM: We do have long-held shots. What we do is that we cross fade the frames of a character. When we play again, you’ll see that it’s not a shot then a frame. We hold shots for longer. They’re animated, as if it was like filming live action. And then the characters cross fade, they just change expressions and poses.
GC: I was interested when you were talking about using a controller and how awkward non-gamers find it, which is another thing I don’t think all developers appreciate. I’m now curious what you would do if you ever made a more action-based game? How would you address that almost intractable problem.
CM: I think just finding your bearings in 3D, it just takes time, honestly.
GC: You’ve obviously thought about this and realised it’s a problem.
CM: Yeah. Because I’ve seen that, in the past, like when we did playtest sessions with Beyond: Two Souls, it was very interesting. One could play Jodi and someone else could join in with their phone and play Aiden, the ghost. And we did a session of boyfriends and girlfriends and the boyfriends usually being the gamer and the girlfriend not. It was so interesting. Even the way different people hold their phones… it’s just a different world.
The thing I wanna make really clear is that it’s not dumbing down the experience, what we’re doing, because the complexity is in the story and understanding the characters and what’s going on. It’s not about moving around and moving the camera. That’s, like, the least skilful thing you could be doing with the context.
GC: And just finally, I’m afraid I must ask this but there have been a lot of stories about a toxic work environment at Quantic Dream. Is that one of the reasons you left?
CM: I spent 11 years at Quantic Dream and I made three games there. And after that I thought, ‘Okay, maybe now it’s time’ but I’ve learned so much at Quantic. It was a really good experience. So I left, eight years or more ago but mostly I remember great people and the importance that is given to the creative vision and the quality of the game. And it’s definitely something I’ve taken here.
GC: And you didn’t have any trouble with toxic workplace conditions?
CM: I really had… we worked hard, especially on Heavy Rain. It was a long development, five years, but I still have loads of good friends there.
GC: Do you think they’ll make a good Star Wars game?
CM: [laughs] I don’t know, you should ask David!
GC: We didn’t get on.
CM: [extend laughter]
GC: Thank you very much.
CM: Thank you. Thank you.
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