Chapter 1: Choices are the gameplay
When As Dusk Falls debuted in July, it culminated eight years of conceptualization and introduced an independent studio. It also showed off a video game in which hundreds of people can play together across platforms – and through their collective choices, create different outcomes for the characters in an interactive crime drama that spans three decades.
This is the first game from the INTERIOR/NIGHT studio, headed by Caroline Marchal, its CEO and creative director.
“I’m very proud that this is our first game as a studio,” says Marchal, who acts as the showrunner for this specific game. “It’s not often you can make a first impression, and I wanted ours to be bold.”
The story focuses on two families who collide in 1998 during a robbery-gone-wrong in small town Arizona. Characters go back and forth in time from that pivotal moment over six chapters, each chapter about the length of an hour-long TV episode.
And since choices are the gameplay, there’s no need to get up to speed on controller skills. Players can use mobile smartphones and tablets as their controllers – especially since it’s much more likely a household will have several of those devices vs. several controllers. Even Marchal prefers to play with her phone. Charu Desodt, the studio’s production director, has played with her entire family, including two teens, a husband who’s played thousands of hours of video games and her mom, who had previously never played a video game.
Marchal, who’s been working in the gaming industry for more than 20 years, says she’s enjoyed seeing streamers’ sessions with their communities and how engaged the chat has been.
“It’s been fantastic to watch streams with hundreds of people voting for a choice. It’s a joy to see the pace at which votes pop in the chat and to see communities debate every decision at neck breaking speed – especially when the streamer and the chat disagree on the path to take,” Marchal says.
Adds Desodt, who also helps run the business, “One of my favorite things is to watch the real-life reactions as they come across the twists and turns in the story.”
As Dusk Falls is available on Xbox Series X, Xbox One, PC and Twitch. (Xbox Game Studios published the game and provided resources to the studio, such as marketing, localization, testing and user research support.)
Players weren’t the only ones making choices that led to different outcomes in the game. There were many choices made in real life that led up to this release.
Chapter 2: Choosing the right team
Back in 2014, Marchal had an idea for a new video game.
Already a veteran of interactive play as the former lead game designer for Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, she had an idea for a game that would incorporate her love for crime series – a genre she enjoys watching on TV. She liked that this kind of drama grounded the game in a mature and compelling reality.
“You can relate to the characters and what they go through, real life questions and struggles,” she says.
And for designers like her, that format delivers many different types of choices – from high stakes (life or death) to the smallest moments in a relationship, like staying with your wife to talk or taking the dog for a walk.
She kept the idea in the back of her mind, waiting to find the right partners and team to make it happen.
Desodt met up with Marchal at a café in the summer of 2017 during a lunch break, and the idea of an experience that gamers and non-gamers could play together quickly resonated with her.
“It’s really an interactive story with the power of a video game behind it. So it seems extremely simple to play, but it’s a very, very complicated game to make,” says Desodt, who came from the finance world but had pivoted to engineering and programming, developing console and mobile games for Microsoft and start-up independents. She helped Marchal create the game and the studio from scratch starting in January 2018.
Desodt says she’s always tried to work on innovative games.
“Something that’s very important to me is making something that is genre-defining and doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. You need a certain amount of boldness and courage to go out after new audiences,” she says.
Among the weighty issues the game explores: suicide, dementia and death.
“It’s a relatable story with flawed characters who are going through these pressure cooker moments. But they also have to navigate the rest of their lives and relationships within their families,” Desodt says. “They come across the same issues we experience.”
Over the years, the original ideas stayed intact, as a lot of the game’s design remained surprisingly stable through its development: focusing on lean interactions, making it multiplayer, a Twitch mode, no game over. All these anchors were there from the start, as well as knowing there’d be two families thrown into a tense situation.
From pre-production to post-production, the studio grew from six people to 50, but they also worked with another 50 external partners on features such as music and 3D assets. While most of the studio’s core team is based in the U.K., their staff and partners are spread out all over the world and they, like so many other professionals, worked remotely during the first two years of the pandemic.
“Working in a video game studio really appeals to me because suddenly it wasn’t all finance people or engineers I’d be interacting with,” says Desodt. “It’d be graphic designers, artists, marketing people and more – a huge variety of people I would never have met in any other industry. As soon as I joined, I’ve never looked back. I feel like I’ve found my place.”
The team also showed up in the game in cameos, such as a tech director’s dog as the family dog Zeus and members of the dev team filling in as extras.
Chapter 3: “It’s like going rafting together”
Marchal says the inspiration behind multi-player came from watching people on Twitch collaborating to make things happen in Pokémon.
“I thought, ‘That’s a collegial experience I would want to see apply to a story.’ What is the narrative equivalent of that? It’s like going rafting together.”
For Marchal, it felt like a new experience that was much more compelling than watching a movie together, thanks to the extra layer of making decisions together, influencing the story and shaping the characters’ arcs.
As Dusk Falls goes further than other interactive games in that it allows people to play at the same time, in the same place or online, through Twitch or the Xbox Cloud Gaming.
“To navigate the story, you don’t need to be good at games. You just need your life experience,” Marchal says.
“From the very beginning of the concept of the game, it’s always been about taking the game to the players,” Desodt says. “We wanted to give them as many ways to play as possible. And multiplayer was a pillar of doing these interactive stories.”
Chapter 4: Overcoming challenges with details
The story grew and grew until it filled 1200 pages – the equivalent of 12 hours of filming.
The team took quite a while to figure out the right visual style, which blends real-life actors’ performances and graphic novel 2D artwork to produce what they call a motion graphic novel. After filming the actors, the team extracted their images and hand-painted them.
The nuances and subtleties in those expressions were important to Marchal and her team since the story is so character driven – and meant to appeal to TV watchers who may not consider themselves gamers (yet).
“As humans we immediately pick up on those fleeting micro-emotions across someone’s face,” Desodt says. “We instinctively know how they’re feeling and what they’re reacting to, so we needed actors to portray that both in their voices and performances.”
Writing such an elaborate story with so many possible outcomes was a significant challenge, Marchal says. They had to make sure the story hit all the right beats with the audience, and that players would relate to the big cast, which went beyond the two main families to more than a dozen secondary characters. Authenticity was essential.
Chapter 5: Choosing the main characters
One of the biggest decisions the studio made involved choosing the story’s main narrators: Vince, Zoe and Jay. Players make choices from the perspectives of these three characters (Vince and Zoe are father and daughter, while Jay is the youngest brother in the other family.)
“We were interested to explore the story from the every man and woman point of view. Vince, Zoe and Jay are not heroes. They don’t have out-of–the-ordinary skills or strength. They try to make their way through life, work through their own flaws and traumas and hopefully come out of the other side self-affirmed,” Marchal says. “Zoe is especially interesting to me as she’s only a child when the story starts and by the time it ends she’s a young woman trying to overcome her past and own her future. It’s not often that you get to follow a character for such a long period of their life.”
Each player goes through a personal, distinct journey with the array of branching narratives. What would be true and best for one character might slightly differ from someone else’s interpretation.
“It’s a game that illustrates the ebb and flow of life. Players decide on the fate of the characters and some of these consequences can be very unpredictable, similar to real life,” Desodt says. “We’ve made a story that’s extremely modular. You really get to craft your own narrative. And one of the best things is that there’s no right or wrong decision.”
And sometimes, the player reveals their values in the choices they make, earning them badges at the end of different sections. And whether playing with friends, family or strangers on a big stream, these choices may reveal things about a player’s own character and values.
“I discovered that Charu [Desodt] always wants to steal the money in the wallet during the burglary while I can’t get myself to do it, no matter how many times we play this part of the story,” jokes Marchal. “The more I play the more I tend to forgive all the characters for their actions. So I think the game is teaching me kindness and empathy, while it revealed that I am not necessarily as quick to make decisions as I thought I would be.”
Chapter 6: Change is constant
With so many different possibilities, it’s hard to find the path that will take players to rare endings, but recently Desodt observed one game concluding in an ending that only 1% of players so far had reached.
“The choices you make in the game can have a huge impact on the character and the storyline or they can be an accumulation of smaller impact that you’ve built up across the episodes,” Desodt says. “When I’m asked what’s the best ending, I ask back, how would you define the best ending? Is it when the maximum number of people survive, find happiness or make peace with their choices?”
She revealed there’s a subset that lives, while there’s one person that will die no matter what choices are made.
Given how many possible outcomes there are, it’s not hard to see why they named it As Dusk Falls – and why it exemplifies the journey every player takes.
“It’s this moment in the day when the sun’s gone, the stars are not up yet. You’re not sure what to do. There’s not much to guide you and it’s on the edge,” Marchal says. “Things are about to change.”
Top photo: Zoe Walker, Jay Holt and Vince Walker – the characters in the game whose choices are up to players to determine