There’s an increasing number of games that are made by developers as part of their own process of self reflection. For some this comes as a catharsis, a want to unburden themselves through their artistic expression. For others it is to mourn and pay tribute to those that have passed. I haven’t yet however come across a game which explored the actual process of self reflection itself which is what When The Darkness comes is to its creator. As a concept I find it thoroughly fascinating, even if the resulting execution makes for a so-so experience due to its bargain basement creation and lack of compelling narrative.
When The Darkness comes starts out in a similar vein to The Stanley Parable, with the game’s creator speaking to you about the game and how it’s basically over and you should leave. It then proceeds to dive into a series of vignettes, each of them exploring a different concept with each one becoming more abstract than the last. Depending on the choices you’ve made you’ll see different levels, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of the developer’s self exploration process such as: trying to understand the concept of meaning, how hard it is to escape past trauma and getting lost in your own thoughts without a path to find your way back.
The bog standard Unity visual flair is strong in this one although the developer did go to the effort to ensure that each level had its own visual concept that embodied their vision of the concept they wanted to explore. Some of them are quite interesting, like the one where you have to follow a path that you can only really make out if you’re walking right on the edge of it or when you have to leap from tower to tower and they only illuminate after you land on one. So whilst it’s not going to win any awards for eye candy it certainly gets points for its strong visual concepts that play directly into the game’s storytelling.
The game makes a point of telling you it has no meaning, both in how it advertises itself and numerous times over in the game proper, as well as saying it’s not something that anyone should play. Of course that’s all total bollocks as I’ve played games that truly had no meaning and ones that were never meant to be played and they are completely different beasts than something like this. I say this because I feel like it’s an overdone idea now and it feels disingenuous to the player to blurt such nonsense when it’s obvious that’s not the case. Critically it doesn’t add anything to the game’s experience either I feel as it seems like many of the things shown here are inspired by real life events that the developer has lived through. With that in mind it’s quite laughable to say that this game has no meaning as all the things it put forwards shows it does.
There’s a small narrative that ties parts of the game together although honestly it’s pretty loose and doesn’t do much to bind it all together. Given that this is mostly just an exploration of different concepts that’s not too much of an issue but I do feel like the whole experience would be a lot stronger for it. For me games always feel elevated when they’re put together as a cohesive whole and when they’re just a jumble of parts it’s just not as compelling. For what it’s worth though the story elements that are in the game are done reasonably well, they just fail to tie everything together like you’d expect. With that in mind I’d say that the developer definitely has the skills to do it, they choose not to invest their effort in it this time around. Instead they focused on each vignette individually rather than the whole.
When the Darkness Comes is an interesting exploration of different concepts through various game mechanics and visual styles. Its greatest downfall is the lack of an overarching narrative that could’ve tied the experience together better and no, the idea that the game has no meaning isn’t enough. Given that it’s free and short if you’ve never played this kind of high concept game before I definitely think it’s worth exploring. It may not be one of the highest scoring games I’ll play this year but it’s at least an interesting one and it’s certainly whet my appetite for what they may be working on next.
When the Darkness Comes is available on PC right now and is free to play. Total play time was 47 minutes with 34% of the achievements unlocked.
The use of full motion video in games used to be a kludge; done to inject a semblance of realism into an otherwise unrealistic world. Even with brand name actors they still had the penchant to be campy and overacted, but that ended up being part of their charm. The late 90s to early 2000s saw FMVs fall out of favour, replaced instead with cinematic renderings or in-game cut-scenes. Recently however the FMV has been making something of a comeback with titles like Quantum Break upping the ante when it comes to mixed-media productions. However what I haven’t seen up until now is a movie production that incorporates game elements and that’s where Late Shift, from CtrlMovie, comes in. At its heart Late Shift is very much a film production but it also incorporates the idea of player’s choice, putting you in charge of how the movie plays out.
Late Shift puts you in control of Matt, a young student who’s taken a job as a parking attendant for high end cars. The night begins like any other with Matt taking his place at the front booth and settling down to while away the hours until his shift is over. From here where the story goes is up to you and you’ll be faced with numerous decisions over the course of the film, each of which can have a drastic impact on how the plot plays out. Late Shift features some 180 decision points, 7 different endings, 14 chapters combining into a total of about 4 hours of film. Suffice to say it’s an impressive gambit and one that I didn’t think would grab me as much as it did.
The film made its debut on iOS and in select cinemas last year, only coming to Steam just recently. Reading up on the cinema release shows that they used an audience majority vote to dictate the choices, using the audience’s smart phones to cast the votes. Indeed it seems that CtrlMovie’s whole focus is on developing technology to support more movies like this with Late Shift demonstrating on the bare essentials of what they are currently capable of. In all honesty I’m excited to see where this kind of tech could lead as I’m a big fan of narrative focused games and, whilst I’ve said I like interactive movies before, this is probably the first title to be 100% true to that idea.
Mechanically Late Shift is very simple: at various points throughout the movie’s run time you’ll be presented with a bunch of options. Depending on which one you choose certain things will happen and the course of the story may change. I’d estimate that about half the chapters are “mandatory” in the sense that there’s really no way to escape them but even in them there’s a bunch of decisions that change how that particular chapter plays out. There’s also the option of not making a decision at all (if you allow the timer to play out) but from what I can tell that by default chooses the leftmost option. Once its all said and done you’ll be presented with a screen that shows you how many decisions you made, the number of chapters you saw and the endings that you unlocked. It would’ve been nice to see the global statistics for choices at this point but they weren’t included (and I can partly understand why, they don’t want to spoil the other endings).
I was initially on the fence about whether or not Late Shift would be worth it but after playing it through once myself I was sold on it. My wife also enjoys these kinds of interactive stories (she played Until Dawn no less than 4 times over) so we sat down to play it through again together, this time with her in the driver’s seat. It was interesting to see the choices which, on the surface, would seem to not matter actually influencing some aspects of the story quite heavily. Additionally her ending played out completely differently to mine, showcasing some decision points which, in my play through, meant nothing but for her meant a lot more. Interestingly her play through also highlighted that there is a “path of least resistance” as the game will put up a lot more roadblocks to some decisions than others.
The tech that drives this is relatively simple however there are a few rough edges that could be smoothed out a bit. CtrlMovie boasts “seamless playback” on their website but it’s anything but with decision points, the interface freezing up for a half second or so as it loads the next bit of video. Additionally, and this might have been due to us using Steam in-home streaming for the second playthrough, the click recognition on the decisions can be a little finicky at times. Both of these things aren’t huge distractions from the overall experience though and are things that can be easily fixed with a few minor patches.
Late Shift’s story is a crime thriller and its strength comes from the interactivity. If it was presented just as is I don’t think it’d be anywhere near as engaging as it is otherwise. There are a few weird plot holes that exist due to the interactive nature, mostly things that may/may not have relevance to your particular story thread. I’ll stop short of saying it’s a must see for everyone but if you’re a lover of narrative-first games, walking simulators and the like then Late Shift is definitely up your alley.
Late Shift shows that the ideas of player choice can translate well into the land of cinema. It’s definitely a 1.0 product although that being said the rough edges and handful of choice-driven plot holes are a small price to pay for the overall quality of the end product. I really can’t say much more without diving into spoiler territory but suffice to say Late Shift was an unexpected gem, one I’m sure will get a few more playthroughs in the future.
Late Shift is available on iOS and PC right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.