All the ideas are there, but Interior/Night's ambitious narrative is limited by poor technique.
While there are probably many who don't find "interactive stories" particularly exciting, since the genre actively, and deliberately, deprives games of the critical mechanical interaction that is thought to be essential for immersion, there have been successes on this front over the past decade.
Telltale in particular has had success with their interactive narratives, with The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands having large, broad fanbases that didn't miss more mechanical interaction, but actually enjoyed the fact that as a player you sat in the back seat, making crucial decisions that shaped the game's central plot, leaving control and positioning to well... fate. Even Supermassive must be said to have established itself as a studio with the same passionate following via games like Until Dawn and now The Quarry.
Xbox is betting that studio Interior/Night can find its way onto the same shelf via the game As Dusk Falls, a game that uses a visual style that's original to say the least, almost rendered via sequences of static watercolours, and has a slightly more grounded story, and I've played the first two chapters.
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May 1998, Route 66 in Arizona, Zoe, her father Vince, mother Michelle and grandfather Jim are passing through the state, seemingly to start a new chapter. They are about to collide with a pick-up truck, and end up having to go to the Two Rock Motel. From there, a robbery begins, a nexus for a host of characters that will shape them forever, and seemingly mark everyone involved for years to come.
That's the central premise of As Dusk Falls, and as such it doesn't fail. Nor do the individual acting performances, or the voice actors behind them step aside to such an extent as to distract from the narrative, and one might easily be tempted to think that when an interactive narrative tells an engaging story, that is, in a way, enough.
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But the problem with As Dusk Falls, based solely on the first two chapters, is that it's not. It's not enough just to tell an exciting story. First of all, the otherwise innovative visual style doesn't always work just right. Sure, these moving paintings result in scenes that have a glow, an artistic dimension that at times lends a different visual flavour than, say, The Walking Dead. But to be perfectly honest? It seems more like a way to save 3D modelling, physics engines and all other aspects associated with modern game design. Also, especially during conversations, it can almost break the illusion a bit where characters go from a wide smile to an angry grimace, and when you don't directly see the gradual transformation, it's unnatural to the eyes.
Furthermore, although some of the objects in a given scene use this painted/drawn style, such as characters, these are placed in a 3D rendered frame. This can create some truly uneven sequences, something as simple as a door opening, or a car being tossed off the road.
And while we're on the subject of technology, there's a rather crucial lack of responsiveness to the controls. You're probably thinking; "what controls?", but just like in the aforementioned inspirations, you make decisions by moving the analogue stick to one of the dialogue options on screen, and let's just say the trip there is unsatisfying, sluggish and imprecise - and not at all 60fps. It seriously takes half a second for the analog stick to register that you want to use it.
The technique is lacking, and the distinctive visual style often misses the mark. However, it's worth stating again that I've only played the first two chapters, or "books" if you will, and that the game is not yet out. The controls, in particular, may need to be tweaked and fine-tuned before July 19.
At the same time, it's worth pointing out that As Dusk Falls offers a rather innovative multiplayer feature, where up to eight players can make decisions together via a smartphone app. I didn't have a chance to test this out in the timeframe indicated, but it sounds like a pretty brilliant addition.
I'll be keeping a close eye on As Dusk Falls ahead of launch, because while the controls in particular, and perhaps in part the visual style, have left me with doubts about Interior/Night's ability to bring the game to fruition, the premise, storytelling and will behind it are worth your attention. Let's hope the game gets where it needs to go.