We often hear that it’s even a miracle game, but that’s a statement I understand much better after talking with the developers of As Dusk Falls, one of my favorite games of the last year. “The script is the equivalent of twelve movies,” Caroline Marchal, CEO and Creative Director of Interior/Night, tells me. “Twelve hundred pages of script. It’s big, it’s very big.” As the team developed this script through countless drafts, they frequented writers’ rooms for three years for As Dusk Falls, but with frequent plot changes, backyard trailer shoots, and the sheer difficulty of reaching the finish line, Marchal and studio head Charu Desodt reflect on how ambitious that was for the studio’s first game.
The story plot started by nailing the big tent choices, the ones that really make you sweat. Those moments could be choosing whether certain characters live or die, for example, and sometimes disagreements within the Interior/Night team would help them choose the best options. Desodt jokes that these decisions sparked big arguments. “Caroline killed off my favorite character, and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I can work on this anymore,'” she laughed.
One particular argument that stands out in their brief came near the end of Episode 2, where Dale takes Vince outside during the confrontation with the police. Depending on your actions, Dale and motel owner Joyce can be shot. For Marchal, such strong reactions to these explosive moments helped her decide to include them. “I was hesitant at first,” she says. “That means you lose two characters at once, but then I saw Charu’s reaction.”
By the time all the right pieces were in place, Marchal recalls feeling like he had “done the game over five times” at that point, even though that wasn’t true in practice. This is partly due to the visual style of As Dusk Falls, which uses painted watercolor stills to represent each scene, rather than capturing live performances. This made it easier to modify and refine dialogue on the fly, for example, but Marchal also noted that these changes continued throughout development. “We thought in the beta we would be much more stable than we were in terms of story structure, but we’ve made some big changes, big changes.”
The pair share that it’s hard to make all these changes early on, when things are still wobbly. As things got more refined, like adding music or completing visuals, it also uncovered more aspects that potentially needed to change. Some early user tests even had dialogue performed by the team rather than professional actors, making it harder to form an opinion on the final version. “I was Sharon, and it was the worst comedy ever,” Desodt says. “No one was going to believe that.”
As the script began to take shape, other members of the team were able to get to work. This meant shooting film clips, before adding sets, characters, lightning and sound, for example. Marchal shares, however, that their ambitions would sometimes push the technology to its limits.
“You see in a chapter for example, there is no loading screen”, explains Marchal. “It was very intentional, it was also a requirement. But the code team sometimes hated us because we were like, ‘Zoe is in the bathroom right now, so we’re going to put a flashback of her 20 years ago in the motel.'”
Marchal imitates the reactions of his colleagues. “‘Are you crazy?! We can’t do this, we can’t load the two environments together for two seconds for a flashback!'” Eventually, however, they found a solution. “For the flashbacks, we said there was no way to load those two environments at the same time, with all the visual effects and the fire and everything, so we’re going to do a video of that specific section… Yeah, the story pushed the technical limits sometimes to its breaking point.”
Marchal continues to say that this constant iteration step was often the hardest part of development. “It’s that phase that I really don’t like, when the game looks shitty for a long time. It’s barely playable, it crashes and everyone was tearing their hair out. The grind of ‘It’s been shit, shit, shit, shit, shit for a very long time’, like over a year, but you have to have faith. We’ve been through this cycle with other games before, you know it’s okay out, but for the team it’s not great. ‘Oh God, this is so bad, why are we even doing this? Is this going to work out at some point?'” Having been through this cycle now, however, Marchal feels more optimistic about the future. Was that really bad?'”
The couple also agree that, unsurprisingly, the pandemic has been a tough time for the studio. “Making sure you’re working with the right people, that they’re feeling good, that they’re feeling good, has been a challenge during the pandemic,” says Marchal. “People aren’t with you in the same space, you don’t really know what’s going on in their lives. They’re on Zoom but sometimes not on camera, you don’t know how they’re doing.”
Desodt continues: “Suddenly, you know, we were trying to anticipate what was going to happen. It was like, ‘Oh, we’re coming back in two weeks, right?’ and then we didn’t.”
“It’s like being in the trenches and crawling,” adds Marchal.
At one point, they even resorted to filming part of the game in Desodt’s garden. “We shot Zoé in your garden, it’s true”, recalls Marchal. “They weren’t allowed into your house, even for a toilet break.”
“There was a side to access the garden, through the side door,” says Desodt. “They were having a party in my garden. I was really worried. They put on some music, the three of them were really happy to see each other, and I said to myself: ‘The neighbors are going to call, the police are going to come, we have to be very serious, this is emergency work we are doing.’ Very few people were allowed to meet at that time.”
Reflecting on all of these challenges, Desodt reflects on what they set themselves up for. “New studio, original story, it’s our own IP… it’s huge, as you say, 1200 pages of script, when you tell that to an actor, it’s a huge script!” she laughs. “To have it all stacked up as your first game is quite an achievement. But we did it.”
Their ambition seems to have paid off, with As Dusk Falls winning the Game For Impact award at last year’s The Game Awards, and more recently nominated for a BAFTA. Unsurprisingly, the pair therefore seem more than happy with their overall reception. “I love it. Did we get someone to do Jay’s face in toast or something?” said Desodt laughing. “I’m sure there was a tweet like that.”
“I think when you create something, you don’t always think about the reaction of the person playing it,” she continues. “It was really, really nice to see. Caroline is also really good at sharing those messages. People say, ‘I absolutely loved it’ or ‘I cried at that moment’ or ‘Thank you for making this game!'”
Marchal shares this sentiment, while looking briefly to the future. “I would say we want to have an even bigger impact. I think it’s great as a first game, [we’re] super proud of that. It’s hard to let go too, because we’ve been working on it for so many years, and suddenly… Every day we were booting up the game, playing the game or watching the game, recordings and everything. So you don’t have to, it’s strange. Like letting go of a child. It’s strange.”
“We know how hard it is to make games,” Marchal continues, before adding jokingly, “I think it’s harder than making a rocket ship. For every studio or team that releases something, you know, I think the first accomplishment is that you’ve done it… You can’t make three games a year. You have to choose what you work on and really believe in the whole team because you can spend several years on the same thing. So that has to count, it has to be awesome.”