It’s an exciting time for narrative-driven games, with more and more studios set up with one specific goal in mind: tell stories. An extension of the triple-A fatigue syndrome we’ve discussed at length in these pages, some developers are just tired of creating pointless shooters and soulless adventures. Creating a world and populating it with meaningful narrative is what they want. And if the success of God of War shows us one thing, it’s what the audience wants too.
That also means that developers whose specialty has always been narrative-driven titles are in a privileged position at the moment as the market is now more ready than ever for the stories they have to tell.
Supermassive is one of them – and the studio very much intends to seize this extraordinary momentum with its bold narrative ambitions. The Dark Pictures Anthology is set to be one of the most fascinating narrative experiences in a long time, with each entry exploring a subgenre of horror – think American Horror Story meets Black Mirror. Starting with Man of Medan, releasing on August 30th, each entry in the anthology will be an individual story, a unique game.
The Guildford-based studio started working on The Dark Pictures Anthology one year after Until Dawn.
Praised for its world building and branching narrative, the 2015 hit is very much at the forefront of our discussion with Supermassive’s CEO Pete Samuels, who is also series director and executive producer of The Dark Pictures Anthology.
He starts by explaining that after the success of Until Dawn, Supermassive was keen to try VR and see what could be learnt from this emerging platform. With the studio having always been in an exclusivity partnership with PlayStation, it made sense for the team to explore PSVR, with some great successes such as Until Dawn’s VR spin-off Rush of Blood. But during all that time, Supermassive was working on what Samuels calls “this great dream”: an anthology of horror stories – and a multiplatform one too.
“We took a lot of learnings from Until Dawn. Not just in how we developed it – we always felt we could do better no matter what the reception was,” Samuels says. “The reception was great, but we thought we could take those learnings and do many more games rather than just one in three or four years.”
Until Dawn’s strengths (and flaws) shaped The Dark Pictures from the very beginning, starting with the importance of having a game that can be streamed and replayed. Samuels mentions the incredible way “people gathered around [Until Dawn] as a community” and even years later you can feel the pride in his voice.
“There’s something like a billion views on YouTube of Until Dawn videos which is phenomenal! My sense is that many more people enjoyed it than actually bought it and played it which I have no issue with,” he laughs.
“It’s great that we can get that kind of followers and that kind of buzz. So we were keen to keep that at the forefront of our minds as we were creating the concepts for The Dark Pictures and developing those games and their features,” he continues.
Concerning replayability, a shatterproof story with many (many) different outcomes is what a studio needs to inspire players to go back to it – that was the greatest strength of Until Dawn after all, Samuels reckons, adding that one of the most important lessons he learnt from the title is “how much people got into the story.”
“Man of Medan is by far the most branching game narrative that we’ve ever attempted.”
He continues: “It was important to make sure that before we even go into production [for The Dark Pictures] we are very confident in the stories that we’re going to tell and that we have confidence that they’re going to resonate and people are going to enjoy the characters, that we have interesting relationships that people can mould. So there’s a lot more of that in Man of Medan.
“The amount of times that people replayed Until Dawn was astonishing. For many games the completion rates are surprisingly low and with Until Dawn, we were told at the time it released that it [had] the highest completion rate of any game on Sony’s platform, which was absolutely fabulous. And then we got reports of people who were on the 13th, 14th or 15th playthrough, which is phenomenal! So we put a lot of time, effort and thought into how to make [The Dark Pictures] more replayable – slightly shorter, running at four and a half hours rather than Until Dawn’s eight or nine hours, but massively more branching. Man of Medan is by far the most branching game narrative that we’ve ever attempted.”
HOME INVASION AT SEA
To bring Man of Medan’s complex narrative branching to life, Supermassive built a tool to sift the wheat from the chaff in its story.
“One of the other learnings from Until Dawn was how much we threw away,” Samuels exclaims. “In some respects it’s like a film-making process – it’s definitely game development and driven by technology and interactivity but a lot of our quality comes in the edit. Our content is expensive, so every bit that we don’t use is money that we could have spent on making what ultimately goes out.
“So we’ve built a tool whereby we can play our entire game and all its branches and feel the mood and playtest it with people to see if they follow the story and the characters, way before we go into production. And even before we’ve had the script written, we used that to write the screenplay. And that’s all played in 2D with a gamepad.
“A group of us sit in a big room in the studio and we play through it and make sure that the characters are coming across in 2D the way that you want them to. Because we’ve learnt that if it doesn’t work in 2D, no matter how much money you throw out there it ain’t going to work in 3D! So we have to get it right at that stage. So when we go into production we have much more confidence in the story we’re telling and the characters we’re portraying, and the pacing is what we wanted.”
“If it doesn’t work in 2D, no matter how much money you throw out there it ain’t going to work in 3D!”
While the concept and its content pretty much stayed the same throughout development, the pacing did take a while to nail, Samuels continues.
“Four years ago on paper, they were actually going to be much shorter games,” he says. “They were going to be one and a half to two hours and they were going to be more frequent – four games a year. So that evolved to less frequently, as we’re looking to do two games every year, but a more significant size for the map. I think we just found that two hours wasn’t long enough for us in this medium to tell stories with the depth that we wanted and to have enough characters that you could get to relate to, understand and empathise with.
“So it was during some early tests with our tool that we realised they were all a bit rushed and a bit shallow if we tried to do them in two hours – and depth is important. So that’s probably the biggest evolution. But much has stayed the same, with our aim to reflect different subgenres of horror.”
The first genre to be explored is actually two genres in one, with Man of Medan set to start with a “very paranormal tone and feel, and then move into something that people will recognise as more of a home invasion genre,” Samuels says, before joking that it’s more a “home invasion at sea” really, as the game is set on a boat, with parts of the story inspired by the very real (and ill fated) SS Ourang Medan (we’ll let you google it as there’s much debate around the so-called ghost ship).
But apart from this, Samuels won’t give us more details about Man of Medan’s horror influences.
“It moves into something else which I won’t discuss cause I’d rather people found out for themselves. I think one of the things about Until Dawn that worked well was the element of surprise; with what it was really about hidden prior to release. Some people loved that. A few people didn’t. You can’t please everybody,” he grins.
“But largely the surprise was very well received – and how that stood solidly in that narrative. We’re very careful not to just go off on a tangent and suddenly turn it into something else for no apparent reason. As with Until Dawn, one thing that we aim for is that when people play it through for a second time they actually see things that they feel they should have realised the first time they played it through, but didn’t.
“We’re very adamant that we never lie to the player, we are careful with misdirection and there are no huge coincidences. We are very strict on ourselves and our stories about that – everything needs to have a reason and be justified. And if any of us think that something happens that’s too much of a coincidence – even like two people arriving at the same place at the same time – we’ll challenge that. So why has that person arrived exactly at the same time as you? Unless there’s a justification for it, they arrive at a certain time of the day, they don’t arrive at the same time as you. So we try to keep a lot of truth in what we do in the narrative.”
THE REAL FEAR
Having a truthful narrative is a rule that Supermassive intends to apply to every Dark Pictures’ entry going forward – and there’s a lot of them. The second game is “well into production” Samuels tells us. The third is coming to the end of its design and about to go into production. The fourth is about to go into design, as is the fifth. The team has concepts for the sixth, seventh and eight entries. It may seem like a lot at once but for Supermassive it’s crucial to see the big picture.
“The sequence of the stories that we tell is important not because they’re linked but because we want to surprise people every time,” Samuels says. “We want each one to feel fresh: in the atmosphere, in the characters, in the subgenres that we’re dealing with and what the threat of horror is. So that’s important.
“There is a character that you have seen in the trailers called The Curator that bridges them together and gives a commentary. His is the arc that develops across the anthology. They are in the same universe so there are links between some of them. One thing we’re doing is putting little hints in each game about what the next ones might be about. So it’s important for us to have that plan laid out so that we can do that. People who play Man of Medan will discover things that initially may seem almost irrelevant but then in later games they’ll see that they’re very deliberately there to give a hint as to some of the stories that are to come.”
Despite this very interesting foreshadowing in each title, Samuels is keen to remind that all the Dark Pictures games are individual entries though.
“It’s important to us that people can play this at any time and not be disadvantaged,” he says. “So you don’t have to play the first game at all to get the same amount of enjoyment out of the second or the third. We’re very keen that if people join the anthology six months or 12 months after we start, and enjoy it, that they know that there are other games already out there that are part of that series, that aren’t spoiled by what they’ve played.”
The Dark Pictures Anthology sounds like a Herculean project that will keep Supermassive busy for years to come. That brought crunch back to the forefront of the studio’s worries, which Samuels says is “the challenge of developing an anthology,” with the studio also working on “two [other] significant projects,” he adds.
“I think that’s one thing that we recognised really early on, if we were going to be releasing significant games using the same team…” he impresses on us. “And that’s important: it’s a Dark Pictures team here. Different game directors for each game but transferring knowledge, experience and skills from game to game is important,” he pauses – and reassuringly we feel he’s been thinking long and hard about the potential problems here.
“We have a fear of constant crunch. But we recognised that quite early in the process. We didn’t want it to happen every three to six months.”
“We have a fear of constant crunch. But we recognised that quite early in the process, that there was the potential for that to happen if we didn’t manage things differently than we would on a four-year project, when crunch can only happen every four years.
“We didn’t want it to happen every three to six months. So we’ve completely redeveloped our planning systems and methodology to get more confidence in our plans and schedules. It’s always hard work. The guys always want it to be the best that they can make it and there is always something else they can think of to make it better. But that was probably one of the significant challenges and I think we’ve done a better than reasonably good job with that for the first one and it’s looking good for the future, in terms of how we manage.”
KEEP ON KEEPING ON
To give itself the resources to fulfil its ambitions (and further avoid any crunch), Supermassive will be scaling up in the next year, Samuels says: “We’re at 180 people in the studio in Guilford, with partners supporting us all over the world – and we need to grow both of those over the next 12 months. We’re constantly on the lookout for great talent across all disciplines and great talent is hard to find. Generally we’re looking for people who have a passion for creating games with a strong narrative, bleeding-edge graphics and our kind of in-house cinematic look and sound. We’re looking to hire across engineers, cinematic artists and lighting and camera, and technical artists, managers, sound designers…”
Cinematic is one of the keywords here as Samuels adds he’s “looking to bring more people in from film and TV” to strengthen Supermassive’s approach to development, which borrows a lot from movie tropes.
“In terms of storytelling, conveying emotion and surprising the player, that’s where the cinematic style I think really suits what we do,” he says. “We are actively hiring from film school and also experienced people with camera and CG lighting experience in film because we actually want to do that better.
“So if we want to get a specific emotion from a specific character across, then how we light that and how we position the camera is really important as is the audio that goes with it. Also, because it’s horror, it really helps to have control of what is on camera and what is off camera to get that feeling, like you would in a movie, of not being quite sure what else is in the room with you and so building that suspense.”
“Everybody loves a good story with great characters and interesting relationships and because that’s what we do I think we’re well positioned for a changing market that broadens the audience.”
The Dark Pictures Anthology is easily the most ambitious narrative project we’ve heard about in a long time and as the frontier between games, TV and film gets narrower and narrower every day, we can’t wait to see more of what Supermassive is cooking.
“Things change so quickly,” Samuels says as we conclude our chat, looking back at over ten years of Supermassive and dreaming about the next decade. “We did some good things in VR that we’re very proud of and that market hasn’t gone the way that we hoped but it hasn’t negatively affected us. In fact it’s only positively affected us. Rush of Blood is still in the PSN charts for VR and it released three years ago.
“I’m looking at the future as having a greater breadth of platforms. And probably each with their own unique advantages, both for consumers and for developers like us. Some genres of games are much more mainstream than they were five years ago certainly.
“Everybody loves a good story with great characters and interesting relationships and because that’s what we do I think we’re well positioned for a changing market that broadens the audience. So that’s what I see, certainly for as far forward as I can predict, which isn’t very far forward,” he laughs. “We think that the technology, the channels and the growing market is perfect for us and what we do. So we have no plans to change what we do, just evolve it and make it better.”