Saturday, September 23, 2023

Review ‘As Dusk Falls’: a slow soap opera in a small town

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Shreya Christina
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As Dusk Falls is an ambitious narrative adventure game that fails to carry out its greatest ideas, causing suspense to bleed along the way. It attempts to tell a mature, action-packed story of family and loss, but repeated missteps in logic and emotion rob the story of its power. From the mechanics to the branching story itself, When dusk falls sets clear goals and then fails to meet them, resulting in a choppy Southwestern soap opera laced with slow, quick-time events.

It feels like this game was made just for me to review it. I am a resident of Arizona and the high desert regions where most When dusk falls takes place his home for me; I grew up hiking the mountain trails just outside Flagstaff, camping among the creosote bushes and pines and partying on the edges of the valley, surrounded by saguaros and dust. I know how the scenery shifts along I-17 from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon, the mountains swallowing flat dry land and spewing out smooth red rocks and sheer black cliffs.

I love my hometown and I was excited to see it portrayed in a video game, especially from a new UK studio led by Caroline Marchal, the lead designer of Heavy rain and Beyond two souls. As for the institution, When dusk falls gets it mostly right. I’m not going to go into too much detail here – the scenery shifts unrealistically from the northern to the southern desert and all the exit signs are European – as the environment does its job of grounding the characters in an isolated city.


What is actually shocking is the dialect in When dusk falls, which relies heavily on stereotypical rural words like “ma” for mama, “pa” for papa, and “pappy” for grandpa. These terms are not the norm in Arizona, even in small desert towns, and they come across as a cheap attempt to infuse the characters with generic “backcountry” characteristics.

I could forget the clichéd turns of phrase if they weren’t symptomatic of the game as a whole. When dusk falls tries to tell a realistic story about adult topics like death, suicide, and generational trauma, but it puts a Hollywood filter over all of its scenes, complete with small-town caricatures, blubbering deathbed monologues, and sociopathic responses to murder. When dusk falls fails to let the dramatic moments breathe, stifling the tension from the game as a whole.

When dusk falls starts in 1998 and has a wide cast of characters, although the main story centers on two families – one from small town Arizona and the other on a drive from Sacramento to St. Louis. The local family consists of three brothers on the brink of adulthood, plus Mom and Dad. The traveling family consists of a father and mother in their early 30s, their daughter, about 10, and her grandfather. For most of the game, you play as the youngest local and the father of the traveling family.

When dusk falls


The paths of these families cross at a motel in the middle of the desert, where the brothers come to a standstill with the sheriff, taking everyone in the lobby hostage at gunpoint. As the standoff unfolds, players control the father of the traveling family and decide what to say and do in response to the brothers’ orders. The game alternates between past and present for both families, showing how they ended up in such a desperate situation, and the choices made by players determine how the story unfolds.

Though the story stretches past the motel, there are countless examples of lost tension in the hostage scenes alone. Details will vary depending on the choices each player makes, but in my time with the game, two major characters were shot and killed at the motel in front of all the hostages. These characters had strong, loving ties to the rest of the group, but their deaths were barely acknowledged. Instead, characters who should have been consumed with grief — or, like, each emotion – soon had conversations about their travel plans and career moves, with barely a word for the dearly departed.

When dusk falls


In When dusk falls, it feels like once a character dies, they have served their purpose; the moment someone steps off the screen, they are forgotten. This is a trap of interactive storytelling — even hits like Until sunrise have awkward pauses or nonsensical dialogue when the writers have not properly considered all the player’s decisions. Still, these anomalies should have been addressed as a game that relies on story-driven progression. It is also worth noting that When dusk falls can be played with friends online and locally, although I’ve only tried it in single player.

The motel is a muddle of dramatic but illogical events: the father leaves the hostage situation several times and always runs back to his captors, explaining a phrase like “but my family is in there”. Characters disappear and suddenly reappear when it’s time for a big story – and this includes the entire sheriff team. A woman is allowed to walk into the motel in the middle of an active, already deadly standoff. And don’t get me started on Dad’s two-way beeper, which doesn’t have a keyboard but somehow still functions like a modern text app.

When dusk falls expands beyond 1990s Arizona, travels across the country and 14 years into the future. Most of the drama in the game feels forced and undeserved, and what’s left plays out like a soap opera, living on superficial emotion and oddly timed monologues.

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