GameCentral speaks to the creators of Until Dawn and Man Of Medan about their new game and the secrets of video game horror.
2020 was set to be a peculiar year for video games long before the coronavirus hit but now it’s got positively bizarre. Not only are very few new games being released at the moment but, for obvious reasons, preview events have also stopped. There’s no E3 or Gamescom planned this year, at least not in terms of physical events, and so hands-on previews have become impossible. But life, and video games PR, always finds a way.
We haven’t played the latest Dark Pictures game ourselves, or even seen it running on a console or PC, but we have watched a keynote speech about it, from executive producer Pete Samuels, and seen a good 20 minutes or so of in-game footage. We also got the chance to speak to Samuels online, having already had enjoyable interviews with him before for previous game Man Of Medan.
The Dark Pictures Anthology is, as the name suggests, a series of horror-themed games with a completely different cast and premise each time. The only connecting element is the ‘Curator’ who narrates your progress between chapters, and while Man Of Medan dealt with an urban legend about a ghost ship in the South Pacific the backdrop to follow-up Little Hope is the Salem witch trails of the 17th century.
Exactly what is going on in Little Hope (the name of the game but also a fictional village in New England) is being kept purposefully unclear. We got to watch the prologue being played in its entirety but there wasn’t any obvious sign of witchcraft, but instead a creepy little girl who’s talking to some sort of supernatural entity, and who inadvertently (we think) ends up burning her family house down and getting all her siblings, except one brother, killed.
To be honest, watching someone play a game like Little Hope, where the exact level of interactivity is unclear, isn’t ideal for a preview but given the current situation there’s nothing else publisher Bandai Namco could do. But if you’re familiar with Man Of Medan, or spiritual predecessor Until Dawn – which was also by British developer Supermassive Games – then you’ll know that while Little Hope is a horror game it has more in common mechanically with a Telltale style adventure than Resident Evil.
We also got to see a second gameplay sequence set some years later, where the surviving brother is on a field trip near Little Hope, where he and his companions start to come across evidence of witchcraft – including a stick figure that looks straight out of The Blair Witch Project. But some of the game also takes place in the past, or at least that’s the implication, with the main character meeting a 17th century doppelgänger. Whether that means reincarnation is also involved we don’t know, but the set-up all seems a lot less straightforward and interesting than Man Of Medan’s disappointing ghost story.
Not that Man Of Medan wasn’t an interesting game, but while the characters and plot were often less than engaging the format itself has a great deal of potential. Supermassive’s graphics and facial animation are amongst the best in the business and the ability to play the game with another player online, with both of you taking decisions for a different character, is great. The problem is that Man Of Medan never leveraged any of this technology to its full potential and so the big question is whether Little Hope will do better.
Samuels obviously thought so, when we spoke to him, and the fact that he’s taken on board criticisms of the first game is very encouraging. There’s no set release date yet for Little Hope, beyond sometime this summer, but we very much hope to be scared silly by it later in the year.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: Supermassive Games
Release Date: Summer 2020
GC: I’m always encouraged when a developer acknowledges a previous game was not universally loved, especially when it has such obvious potential as yours, and there was plenty of that in your keynote speech. What would you say were the most reasonable complaints levelled against Man Of Medan?
PS: Well, firstly they’re all reasonable, aren’t they? They’re all somebody’s opinion.
GC: I dunno, a lot of times we just make up reviews. [laughs]
PS: [laughs] I think that’s just you, David. [laughs] No. So it’s all reasonable. I think one of the things we have to do is… ’cause there’s some things that people really love and other things people don’t. And the dilemma is what do you do with them? If there’s things that people haven’t commented on in a positive way, and some people have commented on it in a negative way, then we can take that as, ‘Okay, they’re not things that are loved, so we’re okay to change them’. And that’s how we approach it. And I hate to make it sound, initially, like quite a dull analytical numbers exercise, but that’s kind of what it is.
In the first stages it’s, ‘Okay, what are the things that didn’t receive positive comments but did receive some negative comments, ’cause let’s start with them’. And then there’s some things that received positive comments and received some negative comments. So they’re things that we need to protect, but look at what we can change without damaging it. It’s a process we’ve kind of got used to and we did exactly the same with Man Of Medan.
I mean, I won’t say it doesn’t hurt to read negative feedback, of course it does for anybody, but you’ve got to get over it pretty quickly when you’re in the throes of an anthology and you’ve got another game to deliver and you want it to be better than the first one.
I think the main things were… one was QTEs being unfair and also appearing to be dominant to the outcome, rather than the choices you made. So that’s something we’ve looked to address. But again, some people really like the fact that they’ve got to sit with bated breath and it’s part of the tension, part of the horror experience. And some people hate the fact that these things came out of nowhere and somebody died. And they’re both very valid points of view! [laughs]
So rather than just make QTEs easier, which would have been the easy thing to do, we’ve worked on something else, which is a warning that tells you, ‘Okay, you need to pay attention now’ and then we throw it at you. So at least it’s not taking you by surprise. And then we thought, the other thing we should build into that is let’s do something with the icon that tells you what’s going to happen if you succeed. If you manage to press ‘A’ or ‘triangle’ or whatever in time what’s your character going to do? Rather than just hit a button and then see what happens.
So we’ve built some iconography around that, that will give you an indication whether success means you’re character’s going to jump or duck or throw something or whatever. So that was one of the things, and the other was cameras.
GC: I’m surprised by that as you emphasised cameras in the keynote, but I never had any problem with them in Man Of Medan. But then I enjoyed the fact that the fixed cameras were reminiscent of old school Resident Evil.
PS: That’s the thing, ’cause some people love those fixed cameras and obviously they serve a purpose. It’s cinematic and because it’s horror it means that you see what we want you to see. So you can worry about what you can’t see, what we’re deliberately not showing you.
GC: It also emphasises that this is a different kind of game, it’s not a generic third person action game.
PS: Absolutely, absolutely. So we definitely weren’t going to throw that away. What we wanted to do was recognise that there are certain times in the game where actually a different type of camera might work better.
GC: This is a problem for many story-based video games but for me another issue was that a lot of important story moments were completely out of your control. Like the bit where Conrad is purposefully antagonising the pirates… I wouldn’t have done that if I had the option. And I found myself saying, ‘But I thought I was Conrad? Am I in control of this story or not?’
PS: Okay. No, I understand. I understand the perspective there.
GC: I would love to see a game that let you make a sensible decision and then it ended after 20 minutes and nothing happened. Batman: Arkham City flirted with that idea with the Catwoman section.
GC: It would show that all these decisions really do matter, and then next time you’d just make the more interesting decision and see the rest of the game.
PS: That’s interesting. I think there’s a couple of things to say on that. And firstly I’d say, I absolutely understand that perspective and you’re not on your own in feeling that way.
Without making any excuses at all, I think there are things under the hood that we have kept maybe too hidden in that respect. In a lot of instances the AI character, the character that’s not being controlled by you, has two different behaviours that they can exhibit. And the one that they will exhibit will depend on what you did previously when you played them.
How did you form their character? What kind of things did you do? So you develop their traits so that when they get in a situation, you’ve made them the way they are. Now, I’m not saying that directly applies to the situation you’re talking about. I couldn’t tell you without looking at the game, but that’s a possibility.
And the other is that making it two-player… so all of the time in all of the story, we have to be very conscious of the fact that there could be another player playing at the same time in control of another character. Now that character, in that situation, may have been Conrad. But because nobody’s playing an AI has to play him. And then that comes back to my first point. And that’s why AI is driven by the traits system, under the hood. So they’re the things that cause it as well.
But we’ll say that if there’s a perception that all that doesn’t seem right and doesn’t seem like you’re controlling it then obviously that’s something we’ll want to look at.
GC: The final issue is that I didn’t really like any of the characters. I liked the captain the most, but only because she didn’t like the others either. I wonder whether that’s an issue you accept and whether that’s something that you’ve changed your approach on for the new game?
PS: It’s some feedback that we had from others as well.
GC: You made it difficult for yourself really. Because two of them were spoilt rich kids, which is not an easy sell at the best of times.
PS: Yeah and we have taken that on board in how we are evaluating our stories and our characters. I think what’s important is it’s not important that their character is absolutely likeable by everybody. I mean, Emily, for me, was the star of the show in Until Dawn and she’s the one that that people love to hate. But at least they love to hate her.
GC: Yeah, yeah.
PS: I think it’s important that the characters have depth and they’re not one-dimensional, cheesy, likeable characters. But I accept that there should be something obvious that is likeable about them, even if everything else isn’t. So that’s something that we have focused on to try and get better at, in light of the feedback from Man Of Medan.
GC: In terms of cinematic influences, you mentioned a lot of interesting stuff in the keynote. I could obviously see The VVitch and The Blair Witch Project but you were also talking about Hellraiser, which is a very different kind of horror movie compared to any of the others, and your previous games.
PS: When we talk about influences, there’s some things that influence the tone or the story, which is more about the witch and so on. But then there’s elements within the game. So there’s one particular element in the game where we’re representing some things that have come from Hell. Potentially. [laughs] And that’s kind of the [Clive] Barker influence. That’s where we went when we were designing those. These things need to be mentally and physically tortured and in pain. And that’s where we kind of went to Hellraiser and Cenobites from Hellbond Heart and so on. And that’s where that Barker influence came in, it was more about that kind of demonic grotesque.
And then the other one was It Follows, which I’ve raised many times when asked which horror films I like of recent years. And that’s because of the way that it deals with creating fear, that the thing is pursuing you always. Even though it’s not very quick and even though it’s usually not very close, you know it’s there and you know it’s coming and you know it’s relentless. So that was a big influence for how we’ve attempted to deal with creating the fear in Little Hope.
GC: Will this be scarier than Man Of Medan? You’ve obviously got jump scares in there and the cinematic ‘be scared now’ noise, but I didn’t see any indication that that was going to be more gore. Which seems a little odd if we’re comparing elements to movies like Hellraiser.
PS: Yeah, it is. But that’s what we set out to do. We take multiple influences and sub-genres and narrow it down and kind of pick and choose what we want for each aspect of the game. I think we’ve had conversations before about the importance of gore, in creating fear…
GC: I know, that’s why I don’t want to start on that again.
PS: [laughs] I think we still disagree on that issue. I think it’s not essential. It can be useful. It’s not essential in my view. And as we know, different types of horror, different horror directors will create fear in very different ways. And it’s not all about the jump scares. I completely agree. In fact, I would say that the purpose of jump scares isn’t to scare you, the purpose of jumps scares ought to be to release the tension that we’ve built up.
GC: Yeah, sure. Like anything, jump scares aren’t bad in moderation. The Exorcist has jump scares. It’s just if that’s all you’ve got that it becomes a problem.
PS: I agree, yes.
GC: I’m also curious as to whether Little Hope will have any subtext to it. Some horror films have a wider point they’re making and some don’t, and that’s fine, but the witch trials were something that actually happened so you’re immediately getting into more serious subject matter there.
PS: Yeah, I believe so. That has been the intention with this. One of the reasons that we’ve used that real historical reference is because of what drove the actions of those people at that time. And it was partly fear, but it was also greed and paranoia. And all those things thrown together created some horrific events. So they’re kind of the themes that we’re playing with in Little Hope.
GC: But in The VVitch, for example, it also gets into the idea of religious zealotry and the idea that these people weren’t worshiping a loving god, they were living in fear of a vengeful one. Do you touch on those issues at all?
PS: Yeah, I would say we touch on them.
GC: It would be very daring for a video game to do that.
PS: We do touch on it in that subplot. I wouldn’t say we’re explicit about it, but we also deal with the way that people used the threat of the vengeful god to their own ends. Which again was a lot of what the New England witch trials were about and what actually drove that behaviour.
GC: There’s also an underlying misogyny when it comes to the entire idea of witches, is that something you get into?
PS: Well… it wasn’t actually exclusively reserved for women. Men were killed as well.
GC: Were they called warlocks instead, or is that just Dungeons & Dragons?
PS: [laughs] I think that’s just Dungeons & Dragons. [laughs]
GC: OK, just as a last quick gameplay question. The online multiplayer was great in Man Of Medan but I was expecting the couch co-op party mode to be a lot quicker paced, with people swapping over control more often. Has that approach changed at all?
PS: Not consciously. I guess it depends how you want to play party games. I know we’ve got a lot of good comments and good feedback about the party mode, so we haven’t been in a rush to go in and change it. One of the things that is important to us is that what we do is almost as good to watch as it is to play. And I say almost because I want people to buy it and not just watch it on YouTube.
PS: And so that’s intended to be part of that party experience, in that it’s a group of people and most of the time you’re watching and then you take a turn and you play and everybody else watches. So no big changes there.
GC: OK, well that’s great. Thank you for your time.
PS: Always good to talk to you, David.
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