I’m a big fan of narrative games. It doesn’t matter to me if there’s little skill involved in the play, or if the interactivity is limited to walking, looking at stuff and basic dialog trees. So long as the story is strong, the characters are well drawn, and the world is attractive, I’m interested.
But as narrative games are attracting wider acceptance, as they take their place alongside other accepted genres, there’s bound to be an influx of games that go through the motions without quite exercising the artistic credibility of games like Gone Home, Virginia and Firewatch.
This week I played Till the Dawn, Waiting, which comes out on Steam today. It’s a valiant, earnest attempt to tell a story of betrayal. But while it relies heavily on familiar narrative game tricks and tropes, it fails to rise to its subject matter.
This short game from Indian developer UnderDogs centers on a dog who has been abandoned in the desert by its owner. It’s an appealing premise for a good story. Dogs are innocents who show us enormous loyalty, but who are often let down by our all-too human selfishness. Many of the narrative games we’ve seen in the past few years have focused on innocence and familial relationships, from Blackwood Crossing’s coming of age tale, to What Remains of Edith Finch.
The dog sits in the desert, tied to a tree, and thinks sad thoughts. It engages in conversations with passing creatures, like a bee and a buzzard. These are basic dialog options, but the choices I make really hardly impact the story. There are alternative endings, but they all come down to a single choice I make late in the game.
The dog’s loyalty to its cruel master, even in the face of mounting evidence that it’s been deceived, feels touching at first. But the pathos is played out too long. I find myself thinking that the dog is a bit of a dope, a view shared by the creatures with whom it shares its thoughts.
There are moments when the dog veers off into quasi-meditative philosophies, but these jar with its overall personality, and don’t feel like part of an evolving understanding of its situation. It doesn’t help that the syntax in the game’s writing needs sharpening, often landing like a bad translation.
Visually, Till the Dawn, Waiting has a sparse That Dragon, Cancer vibe. (It’s also another one of those rare games with a comma in its title). But while That Dragon, Cancer transported us to worlds of emotion and imagination, Till the Dawn, Waiting is largely static, confining itself mostly to the same location.
As the days drag on, the dog begins to deteriorate physically. But we are given little of this tension in visual representation, which makes the dog seem like an abstract, rather than a living entity.
Occasionally, the dog drifts off into a first-person exploration dream sequence in which it searches empty corridors trying to locate its masters voice. There are a few photo-memories to tug at our heartstrings. Again, these are tricks I’ve seen before, in games like The Fidelio Incident and Life is Strange.
In the main, Till the Dawn, Waiting fails to reach any kind of emotional crescendo. If anything, it’s like a collection of narrative game cliches that developers are well advised to avoid or subvert, right down to the sad twinkly piano soundtrack, and the long lingering distance shots of the protagonist’s back, against a big, sharp sky.
It’s good to see new developers grapple with the challenges of story-based game design. But, as with all fiction, such games need to travel unexplored country, beyond the well-worn lanes of the established genre.