The new video game As dusk falls is a work that contains many promising elements. Almost like an extended episode of Fargo with a few added quick events, the narrative is built around cross-scenarios that are all influenced by various choices you make. There are times that made me think of The career, another game based on this summer’s pick, in the way it wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. It’s such a defining aspect of the experience that you can practically feel like it was meant to be a movie or a limited series. Perhaps it should have been because, despite its intriguing story, it lacks the emotional depth required to fully draw you into its story. At the heart of this is the art style that feels like it’s trying to emulate a graphic novel where the characters aren’t animated so much as they move frame by frame. From the start, everything feels strange and out of place because of how the characters’ stark expressions will suddenly change. While their hair or an item of clothing may occasionally move in the wind, each person remains painfully still. It all makes it look like these are characters who wandered off a loading screen and are now frozen in time, approximations of people who can do half-speed expressions.
That’s unfortunate because the game features some interesting narrative threads in its choose-your-own-adventure style story. It begins in a small town in Arizona in 1998 and centers on a family road trip that is swept away by a failed robbery. Divided into chapters that make up two books, it unfolds over decades as you trace the repercussions of everything that happened on that fateful day. There are a good number of interesting characters and storylines to keep you engaged. Indeed, there were moments towards the end in particular where you almost get caught up watching young characters grow old as they deal with the fallout from the violence of their past. The story itself is written well enough to take you through some of the tougher stages and keep you engaged, even if it still can’t fully immerse you. It’s a game you’ll want to jump into despite it, even if you can’t get rid of the feeling that you’re looking at basic concept art and not the full experience of a completed game. There are glimpses of promise, it never feels like it’s over.
In every scene that should leave an emotional mark, we don’t feel like it’s real people coming to life. As they move through a scene, the expressions they express seem stagnant. It’s like they’re still images that will occasionally change expressions, though most of the time they’re just staring at each other. It ends up feeling awkward and cold, even in the most emotional moments. Some of the background designs are quite interesting and set the scene quite well, though they keep getting lost in the flat expressions of the characters that make them look more like cardboard cutouts than real people. In a scene where a character is left behind by a speeding car, it almost looks like such a cutout has been left by the side of the road and forgotten. All of this undermines the greater impact of each individual scene and story. There’s no fluidity or life to any of the visuals, leaving each scene with a special sense of perspective. The camera will occasionally move or draw our attention to an aspect of the location as if there is an intentional direction happening here. Unfortunately, everything we actually see on screen lacks energy or emotion.
Thinking back to games that have done this kind of storytelling well, they all felt more real and lived-in than what happens in As dusk falls. Even though playing video games will never be the same as watching real people play in movies or on TV, there’s always something lost when the characters are just one-dimensional drawings moving in ways jerky through the scenes. While this certainly feels like an aesthetic and deliberate choice, it robs the actors of the ability to bring their characters to life, even if they are just reference points. While some vocal performances are helpful, there’s still the unmistakable sense that we’re being held at a distance from every scene. When the actors aren’t up to the task of delivering the dialogue convincingly, that’s when we’re in real trouble because the story is just several levels down. The confrontations have no sense of weight or gravity, ensuring that even the most tense sequences fall flat. The quieter character moments feel a little more natural, though it’s still like it’s all a cutscene that’s meant to build the real story that never comes. It’s as if everything is just a sketch of the complete picture, detached and incomplete.
It’s a shame to say it, but the limitations of this art style are fundamental to the whole experience. While sometimes a more minimalist approach to storytelling can be interesting, where less is more, that’s not the case here. No matter what works in the story, the rest of the game design makes it difficult to fully appreciate the strengths of what has the potential to be an intriguing game. It just proves that the world’s most compelling story is nothing without compelling performances and presentations to back it up. If it had that, the game and the story would be much more enjoyable to understand. As things stand, it’s hard to get involved. Everything that was attempted is completely disconnected from what appears in the final product. As there seems to be potential for more to come depending on the ending, more comprehensive character designs are needed to ensure we connect emotionally to the story and the characters that populate it. Without it, the experience feels like it’s always being held back from its full potential. Even in times when the story begins to pull you in, the flat visual style is something you never get used to, even if you want to.