“The whole reason I’m doing this is because I thought: life is short. This is the right time to do it.”
You may not have heard of Caroline Marchal, but she’s been a creative force in narrative video games for nearly two decades, working on titles like narrative classic Fahrenheit, VR shooter Blood & Truth, psychological thriller Hidden Agenda. She was also the lead gameplay designer on Quantic Dream narrative titles Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls.
Narrative games put storytelling and centre over mechanical complexity, and while the genre wears thin on the ground when titles like Fahrenheit released, it’s now thriving. Marchal and the other narrative designers have succeeded in making real changes to the world of gaming, demonstrating how stories in games can and should be free to explore more mature themes. Even mainstays like FIFA and Call Of Duty are now incorporating branching narratives.
More recently, over the past few years, Marchal has been working away on her upcoming narrative game As Dusk Falls (out July 19). It’s the game she had always wanted to make – and she founded her studio Interior Night in 2017 to do just that.
“I was leaving Sony, where I worked at the time. I was in my mid-30s, pregnant with my second child and I thought, ‘Okay, there’s a concept for a game I really believe in. It’s going to open up audiences, it’s going to be different, and I strongly care about it’,” Marchal, who is the CEO and creative director of Interior Night, tells NME.
“For me, it was now or never,” she continues. “If it didn’t work I’d find something else to do, but I wanted to tell stories the way I can tell stories now at Interior Night, and I wanted to spend my time working with people I really respect and love.”
Marchal had a heap of colleagues she wanted to work with, but didn’t want to ask them to make the jump into the unknown until she’d landed a deal. She spent a year pitching with little success, until she talked to Microsoft.
“There are a lot of people that don’t necessarily game but they enjoy watching mature TV shows on HBO or Netflix in the evening. Those are the people I want to bring into games”
“It wasn’t [supposed to be] a pitch!” Marchal laughs. “I was put in touch with [Microsoft’s] first-party team and they said ‘As Dusk Falls probably isn’t right for us because you’ve already started it, but we want to get to know you as a studio’. I went and did a presentation talking about the studio [instead], and the team I wanted to work with. At the end, they asked me how much [the game] was and I realised: ‘Oh this was the pitch’.”
Marchal describes “jumping from the Sony ship into her own ship” while heavily pregnant as “reckless, but a whole lot of fun”. Still, she had confidence that thanks to her previous work on narrative games, people would pay attention to her next concept.
And the concept in question? As Dusk Falls: an idea Marchal says stems from the desire to open up the type of stories that gamers play in order to appeal to a broader and more mainstream audience.
“There are a lot of people that don’t necessarily game but they enjoy watching mature TV shows on HBO or Netflix in the evening,” explains Marchal. “Those are the people I want to bring into games, because I just think interactive stories are this amazing thing.
“When you make decisions on behalf of the characters, you learn a bit about yourself. These decisions that really resonate with you for a long time, and stay with you. When the story is really well put together you create really strong compelling moments. When it works, it’s even better than watching a great show because you’re leaning in, you’re playing, and part of you is taking part in the story. You relate to characters in a way you can’t without interactive media.”
“This genre always brings with it a layer of reflection as you put a little of yourself into every choice, whether you want to or not,” continues Marchal. “Whether you’re conscious or not, you’ll be making a choice that’s different. You think a decision is obvious? That’s your own opinions and bias influencing you.”
At it’s heart, As Dusk Falls is a crime drama, explains Marchal. The creative director is a huge fan of cult TV shows such as True Detective, The Americans and The Wire, and claims they inspired her more than other video games – something players will be able to see play out within As Dusk Falls.
“It’s like Fargo or Dog Day Afternoon,” Marchal says. “You’re in this crime story with intense decisions, but there’s also smaller stakes moments about the relationships you have with people.
“It’s a story about two families, interwoven. The game starts with a hostage situation in a motel with the two families colliding, and it’s a kind of pressure cooker.” From here, we’ll see more about the characters as they spiral away from this pivotal event. It’s the sort of thing that has been done so well on TV with Fargo.
“In TV, you’ve got these long-form character arcs. You spend a lot of time with the characters, and by the end of the season you feel like you’ve achieved something. You know them really well, and you’ve gone on a journey with them.”
Marchal compares the process of creating a narrative game to screenwriting. “As Dusk Falls has the same type of approach and structure,” she says. “The story is structured like this: at the end of each chapter there’s a cliffhanger or a hook. At the end of the game, you’ve seen the arc of the characters unfold.
“The difference [a game has] with a show, though, is that you decide where the characters go in terms of their arcs and how they progress and change. It’s quite powerful. It means that you have tailored your journey.”
“Metal Gear Solid blew my mind! I thought, ‘Oh this is art’”
The studio even takes some inspiration from how TV shows are made. “The way we work, we’ve got a team of dedicated full-time writers,” Marchal describes. “We do a writers’ room every time we’ve got a block of three chapters to break down. We stay together for two weeks in a room, just like TV writers do. And we go away, write outlines and iterate.
“I’m a bit like a showrunner. I don’t write, because I’m not a writer; I’m a designer. I break down the story with them and tell them what kind of set up would be interesting, and pay a lot of attention to character development and narrative design.”
So, if you’ve seen the recent trailers for As Dusk Falls – built in the Unity engine – and feel like you’re being prepared for a HBO television event of the year, the similarities between the two media are intentional.
Marchal got into games almost by accident. Describing herself as “not much of a gamer until she was 18”, Marchal had played some Tetris growing up, but only began to properly connect with games when she played Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation.
“They blew my mind!” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not just about running and jumping and collecting coins. There’s proper stories and exploration, and all of this creativity.”
“With Tomb Raider, I loved the idea of this woman exploring, you know?” she continues. “I wasn’t so big on the shooting – I prefer first-person shooters – but the puzzle solving and exploring felt really cool to me.”
But it was Metal Gear Solid that told Marchal she really wanted to be involved in the industry herself. “Metal Gear Solid blew my mind! I thought ‘Oh this is art’. When you fight [the game’s legendary boss] Psycho Mantis, I thought that it was proper genius because it’s meta, it’s wonderful,” she says, referencing a fourth-wall-smashing portion of the battle during which a player must swap controller slots. “At the time I was interested in immersive art and contemporary art installations, and I thought Metal Gear Solid was just merging tech and art in such a brilliant way.”
While Marchal’s mind was set on games, however, she didn’t initially know how to get involved. Marchal was studying politics and communication in Paris, followed by multimedia at Beaux Art de Paris.
“I played [1999 David Bowie-starring adventure mystery] The Nomad Soul, and I saw that the studio, Quantic Dream, was French. I went and knocked on the door after I finished my studies, they let me in, and I learned the job while working. I had no idea what a game designer was. I just made a game with them. The first game was Fahrenheit.”
“I like playing games from other genres, but I can’t ever imagine making them”
Marchal would stay with Quantic Dream for a decade, working on two more games with the studio. This kicked off a lifelong obsession. “Narrative gives me joy!” explains Marchal with a smile. “I wouldn’t swap to any other genre. I like playing games from other genres, but I can’t ever imagine making them.”
“I get a real sense of accomplishment from making a narrative game,” she says. “It’s a hard genre because it comes together very, very late. It’s true for most genres, but this one specifically because you never get the emotional connection fully until the music is there, it looks great, and the pacing is there. Then there’s the depth of experience it gives you, I really love that.”
She also loved the number of new gamers who were attracted to her genre of choice, drawn in by the rich storytelling. “We had people sending in emails to Quantic Dream saying ‘this changed my life’, ‘this reminded me of the time my parents got divorced’, or ‘my girlfriend played this game. It’s the first time she switched the console on by herself’. I think that’s really powerful.”
“Those tough decisions and self reflection is really what keeps me here,” adds Marchal with a grin. “Your audience is anyone who understands stories. And everyone understands stories.”
Video game stories were often much simpler affairs. While Mario’s distinctive overalls and high-pitched “Wahoo!” may stick in the mind, his quest to rescue a princess from a castle was less engaging. That’s now changing.
“A lot more attention has been made towards characters in the past few years,” explains Marchal. “Now, even big AAA games tackle more mature themes. We’re seeing massive progress in the storylines and the attention to character. Look at God Of War, with Kratos being more human and looking after his son. It’s so much more interesting than what you would have had 10 years ago.”
“Your audience is anyone who understands stories. And everyone understands stories”
Now one of the top designers in the field, Marchal always refers back to her decade learning the ropes with Quantic Dream. “The key thing for me was that I was lucky to work on new properties every time, but the important things that’s stayed with me is the idea of uncompromising quality and having a strong vision from day one. In this business, people give you all sorts of feedback. And as long as you have a bold vision, you know what you should take from the feedback.”
For Marchal, possessing a strong creative vision is now a core tenet for her career. She holds the dual roles of CEO and creative director at Interior Night because they allow her to pursue her vision for the studio and the game in parallel. She describes the challenge as “absolutely cool”, adding: “Because it’s my game, it’s my vision and I’m the one to say no, push back, or agree with something. Especially with feedback. It’s very empowering for me. That’s why I’m CEO and creative director. I can drive where the company is going and decide on the type of deals we want to make, and the type of partners we want to work with. I can define what games we’re going to be working on. For me it’s like jumping between two driving seats, but I love them both.”
Now, nearly eight years after starting work on As Dusk Falls, the game is finally about to be released. Asking Marchal about what success looks like, she says that, for her, the game is already a success. “I’m proud of how we assembled really talented people to form a lean team that’s here for the love of the genre, and I’m going to keep having fun working with them. That’s what success looks like for the company.”
“It hits everything that we set out to hit at the beginning,” she adds. “It’s a mature, compelling narrative story that I hope stays with people that play it for a long time. I hope it will find an audience and that people understand where it’s coming from. I hope that they will respond to it emotionally. For me it’s already a success, because I’m proud.”
Marchal also admits that after years of painstaking work, she can’t touch the game anymore. “I have to refrain from playing it because I don’t want to be obsessing over micro-details that no-one will see anyway. I think it’s done…” she trails off, before firmly stating: “It’s done.”
And as for the future, she isn’t sure what’s next. “I don’t know what I want to make next, but I know I want to keep creating. This game is older than my son. My daughter has always known me to be working on this game.” That said, she’s still sure of one fact. “I’m still passionate about the genre we’re in and the audience that we’re trying to reach. I don’t know what I’ll be creating in three years, but I know I’ll still be creating.”
As Dusk Falls releases for the Xbox Series, Xbox One and Steam on July 19