GorePlay: Going Underground with HOUSE OF ASHES Developer Supermassive Games

By Dan Whitehead · @DanWritehead · October 7, 2021, 12:33 PM EDT
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Back in 2015, nobody would have thought of British game developer Supermassive Games as a standard-bearer for interactive horror. The company was best known for producing additional downloadable content for Sony's cheery LittleBigPlanet series, the children's motion control game Start the Party, and games based on youth-skewing BBC licenses such as Doctor Who and Walking with Dinosaurs.

But behind the scenes, the company was carving away at Until Dawn. This narrative-driven interactive slasher movie went through multiple iterations, including an early concept in which it would have been motion-controlled, before finding its final form as a branching adventure with eight playable main characters, all of which could die horribly during one grisly night in a snowbound lodge.

The game had serious genre bona fides, with indie horror legend Larry Fessenden (Jakob's Wife) helping to pen the script and motion-captured stars including Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek and Peter Stormare bringing the tale to life (and death). Until Dawn was a hit, and led to a VR sequel and standalone prequel.

Now Supermassive is two games deep into the Dark Pictures Anthology, a series of eight interactive horror experiences being released annually. Nautical mystery, Man of Medan kicked things off in 2019, last year gave us the witchcraft folk horror of Little Hope and now we're only weeks away from House of Ashes. In this third entry, U.S. and Iraqi soldiers end up trapped in a buried temple during the 2003 Iraq war, facing a horde of mythical creatures from centuries past.

In this interview, game director (and lifelong FANGORIA fan) Will Doyle talks us through the development of Supermassive's unique take on interactive storytelling, why they wired gamers up to heart monitors, and the studio's approach to horror in gaming.

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Going from LittleBigPlanet to Until Dawn was quite a stylistic leap – was horror something Supermassive had always wanted to do?

We always wanted to tell stories, you know, as a studio from very early days we had ambitions to tell strong narratives. We were looking around the various different stories we could tell. Until Dawn took a long path to get to where it did, but we've got a load of fans of horror here, and it kind of fell in our laps and was something that we really loved, and it kind of paved the way for us. Obviously, it was very successful and showed us that we had something special on our hands. And so, with the Dark Pictures Anthology, we're exploring that space further. And that's what we're interested in, looking at new expressions of that kind of narrative and how we can take it in different ways.

Do you think the pace and rhythms of horror lend themselves to branching narratives more than other genres?

We have this fun thing we do in our games where all the characters that you control can live, and all of them can die. Unlike a lot of horror games, in our stories, when your character dies, the story just keeps on going like that character is just eliminated, and you carry on. The feeling of danger that gives you, I think, is really good for horror. There's something about horror that once you've experienced a horrific moment once, it loses its power a little bit every time. So in a conventional horror, again, if you have a level where you're trying to fight a monster after it's killed you a few times, you kind of know what to expect, and it turns into more of a game experience. In our stories, you know that you're not going to go back, that this is the only chance you're gonna have.

And although you can play again and you can experience it again, our games are very branchy. We let you go down different directions and see different threats, you know, different paths. There's a moment in Until Dawn which always resonates for me, which has one of the characters walking down a passageway and they hear the voice of somebody calling them, who they think is dead. And the player is given the choice to investigate that voice or carry on going. If they investigate it, the voice lets you hear it again, and it's really creepy. And you have two or three chances to carry on going until finally you lift up this thing and you die, you know, straight away you get killed by the ghost that was calling out. And it's an example of one of those moments in horror movies where, you know, people do stuff in a horror film, and the audience is screaming, 'Oh, why would you do that?' But when you're put in that position, you know, it's fun to see what is down there. What is going to get me at the end of this? So, yeah, playable horror is fantastic. There's so many different opportunities for us.

So where did the idea of putting the player in control of all the characters come from?

In Until Dawn, what we were really trying to do back then, and we are still doing this in the Dark Pictures, we were looking at the different tropes of horror. Each of those different characters represented a different sort of slasher movie tropey type character. And because we want it to represent all of that, we thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool to control them all?' And then that leads to something else, which is really interesting. What the player is in Until Dawn is very different. Are you controlling the characters, or are you the director? That kind of a shift in what play and control means is really interesting.

I think the way people usually approach it is the first time around you try and go for it, keep everyone alive. And then the second time around, you go, well, what happens if I kill everyone? You're actually trying to find out the ways of seeing those characters dying. And that's weird, not many games let you do that. Not many games you approach from the point of view of 'I'm going to lose at every step.' Yet, it's still enjoyable because we ensure that the game doesn't end after ten minutes.

You want the player to push against the game and you're kind of giving them the freedom to experiment knowing that it's not going to be game over, start again.

Absolutely. Yeah, it's definitely freeing for the player, but there are also the opportunities to see other things that you may have missed. If Eric dies in your story at the beginning of the game, or what would happen if they're alive later, and we try to make them more than just a face in the background, there's always something that they have an opportunity to do related to the story, which changes things. It's fun.

My favorite memory of playing Until Dawn was, I think most of them were still alive and it was right at the end of the story. That kind of moment where you think, oh, it's okay, we've done it, we're safe, but then one of the characters got killed. And I loved it because that is exactly the kind of last act twist you would get in a horror movie, but I made it happen through my own clumsiness. It was wonderful.

That's one of the fun things we have when making these games, taking stuff from horror movies. That shock twist at the end, you know, it's looking at what the horror movies do that we could replicate in a game. And the wonderful thing about Dark Pictures is that because we're doing short-form horror games, it gives us the opportunity to examine different templates, to examine different kinds of ways that horror movies work, and give it a go for our next game. If we did everything the same every time, people would start to notice that, so we try and shake up the formula.

Do you have any kind of horror inspirations that you find yourself returning to?

I think because each of the Dark Pictures games is looking at a different genre, it changes. I don't think we have like one person we always go back to because the subject matter is changing, but that's really cool because it means that when we identify a genre we want to write about, we have a whole lot of research, we go out, we look into movies in that genre. So for House of Ashes, we have movies like The Descent and Aliens, Predator, and things like that.

We look at those movies very, very carefully and think about what it is that makes these ones tick, you know, and what is it that we can do in a game to give that vibe? Obviously, the way that we make games, it's not just making a movie. It has a whole lot of different considerations. It's quite a complex process to get across. So, you know, how do we get that scare when I'm controlling a character and walking around?

What was the origin of the Dark Pictures concept? Was an anthology something you'd always had in mind when you were making Until Dawn?

It was after Until Dawn came out. We've looked around us as a studio, we tried different things. We tried VR, we tried Hidden Agenda, we're looking at different expressions of that storytelling style we were playing around with. But horror was always strong for us. And I think we looked at the way that Until Dawn was received, and one of the things that was really great for us was all the streamers that kind of took hold of that game and really, really made it a kind of group experience. So they'd see the messages, everyone that's watching them, you know, saying when choices come up, do this, do that, and they ask their audience which one to do.

And that really made us think there's something here to do with multiplayer that's really interesting. Narrative games are very, very rarely multiplayer because of the complexities involved in that. And that was a challenge for us that we, as a studio that wants to excel in this, we thought, well, how can we help you do this? How can we make a multiplayer experience? So we ended up with a couple of multiplayer modes where we have we have Movie Night Mode, which is kind of tapping into that sort of streamer thing where it's like, you can sit there in the same room with a bunch of your friends, all sitting around, passing the controller between you, but then also Shared Story, which is the really interesting thing where you're connecting with a friend online, and you're experiencing different parts of the story. So while they're searching the cellar, you might be up in there in the attic, you know?

And then it was also the studies of horror that we looked into; there's obviously lots of books and sites out there that talk about genres and eras. And we just went through a whole load of that, and we kind of made our own list of over thirty different genres and subgenres we thought we could tap into, just coming up with ideas, and we ended up with loads of them. So the Dark Pictures Anthology, at the moment, we're shooting for eight games. And if people like them, we've got loads more to come.

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How much does development overlap on a series like this? Can you take things you've learned on the previous one and apply them to the next one?

We're aiming for one a year and I've been working on House of Ashes for around about three years, so you can imagine that there are other games in development cause this one's just about to come out. And yes, it's kind of difficult. By the time one game comes out, we've already shot the next one. And lots of our games are very sort of front-heavy in the amount of work that we do, so it's difficult to make major changes to the next one, but the one after that we'll always go, okay, well, we can change quite a lot. We are looking at what the audiences are saying and trying to shift it. So for example, in House of Ashes, we've taken one of the interesting criticisms that we've heard about the series, which is some people say it's too easy, some people say it's too hard. So we've put in a difficulty mode for this game, and we've allowed that difficulty mode to be set per character or by player in Movie Night Mode, so even if you're sitting around together, you can say, well, I want an easier experience.

And can you use player data to help you do that? Could you see that maybe in the last game, lots of people seem to struggle with this part, so should we not do that again?

Yeah, totally. Hopefully, we catch most of that stuff before release, but yeah, telemetry allows us to see how people are playing and adapt.

What's your philosophy on making a game scary?

Initially, what we did was right at the beginning of The Dark Pictures, we called audiences in, and we plugged them into machines. We monitored their heart rates and skin sweat or whatever. So we were actually able to show you a section of the game and see when people's heart rates jumped up, how that worked, and so on. It changes depending on the genre is the really big thing that we've learned. So for me, fear in games and in movies, creating scary situations is about taking characters and putting them outside of their comfort zone. I think that's a really, really big thing. So it's taking somebody that thinks they're prepared for whatever situation they expect. And then they're put in a position where that doesn't work, you know, whatever, where they're out of their comfort zone, and they're challenged.

And then the performance of that actor is really, really important because then it shows you how they feel when they're out of that comfort zone. And also, I think as audiences, we project a lot, you know, when we're watching a movie, subconsciously we're imagining what would we be like if we were that person and how would we respond? So you're seeing this character kind of break up on screen and you're wondering at the same time would I do the same? You know? So that's kind of the sort of fundamentals of it. And then it's just like, how do you we, as a company, we've looked at fear and tried to break down horror movies into different types, so you've obviously got your jump scares, but then you've got suspense and dread and terror. And when we make our games, we almost have a spreadsheet for each level where we're going through going 'Okay, we're hitting all these different things. Is that good enough? Or are we missing some aspect of it?' On one side it's a sort of mechanical process. On the other side is a bit of gut instinct. It's knowing what just naturally feels scary and trying to create those moments.

The idea of characters being outside their comfort zone is particularly interesting given that House of Ashes features professional soldiers in combat, not civilians stumbling across the paranormal.

Yeah, that's one of the really, really interesting things about this game. We put the focus on people who are totally geared up, you know, they are effectively the Special Forces, but they're just not prepared for what they face here. And it's really interesting. When you get people that are extreme soldiers put up against something that outguns them in a way, they realize that they can't sledgehammer their way through this; there are too many of them. There's not one creature in House of Ashes; there's an entire nest of them, and they're fast killing machines, you know, so we have this really interesting thing with that, where the monsters are so faceless and inhuman, that turns the characters in the story towards each other. It brings up the humanity in the characters.

And so the story explores lots and lots of different, interesting themes among that team of soldiers. And in the end, you know, paints them to be much more human than they might initially seem to be. So, you know, you might get the impression that this guy is a classic gung-ho soldier, but when his world starts to break down around him, you realize, okay, this is a more human story. I think that's very, very interesting.

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The trailers and screenshots feature a very familiar sight for horror fans in the form of statues of Pazuzu, the demon famously used in The Exorcist. Did that association make you wary of including this myth, or was that part of the appeal?

It seemed ideal for us because of the historical aspect to it. When we were working on Little Hope, we were looking into demons and mythology, and whenever you start looking into demons, you kind of end up going to Mesopotamia, you know, that's sort of the heart of a lot of these myths. And we were looking through Sumerian myth and looking at the different sort of creatures that you get, and we hit upon the history of King Naramsin, who is supposed to have cursed his people by attacking this temple, belonging to the gods, and bringing down demons, famine and plague on his lands. It's an amazing piece of history.

We were looking in that period of time for other reasons, but it just jumped out at us. We can tell a story about this, directly connected to Akkadian and Sumerian mythology, and Pazuzu straightaway jumps out there. So if we're creating an Akkadian temple dedicated to death, it would be wrong not to include these kinds of mythological creatures. And as a horror game, obviously, the tie-ins to horror movies were really, really cool. There are some secrets in there that I can't talk about, but Pazuzu is connected in some ways to the mythology we're creating.

We've glimpsed them in the trailer, but what can you tell us about the creatures that the characters will be facing?

They're predatory creatures that live underneath the ground. I can tell you that they're effectively blind and they hunt using their other senses. And there are lots of them. You'll find that these creatures have been down there for a long time and, in our story, have been emerging at different points through history. So the characters that end up getting put up against them are, in some senses, unlocking something that's laid dormant for a long, long time. I can't say much more than that.

And it's set in Iraq in 2003. So obviously, there's going to be a political dimension to this, and it's an area that is particularly sensitive. How have you kind of threaded that needle?

Sure. So, the reason we chose Iraq was because of the Akkadian history, but more than that, our story is about soldiers going up against this terrible threat. There's a bunch of American soldiers who fall down into this buried temple, but they fall down in the middle of a gunfight with Iraqi forces. And initially, that conflict carries on down into the earth, but when they realize what they're facing, the player is given the option, you know, do you want to side with your enemy and fight against these creatures? Or are you just going to look after yourself? That theme of, you know, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' is a theme throughout.

And interestingly for us, we find a lot of games and TV shows paint the other side of a conflict very simply and often very negatively. So we spent a lot of time trying to portray our Iraqi characters as humans, you know, and really do that well. The playable Iraqi character, this guy called Salim, is, we like to think, a very well-rounded character. And although he is definitely opposed at the start, he is a playable character, and the player has really interesting choices there.

We have to be very careful about how we handle things, and we employed a lot of sensitivity people to make sure we got it right. But we found that this character has really landed well. In the user testing that we've done, everybody has come out and said Salim is just such a cool character, so we're kind of reassured by that. We also spent a lot of time with a lot of our scenes shot in Arabic, so actors were obviously native Arabic speakers, and we had Arabic coaches on set. We're pretty confident we've handled it well.

You're aiming for eight games, and you're not even halfway through. It's a hell of a commitment. How locked in is the series? You said you came up with thirty ideas, so do you know what the eighth game will be already?

Yeah, due to the nature of games development, obviously, things change. Like you mentioned earlier, in order to remain agile and responsive to the series, we don't want to lock it down too much. I can tell you the first eight games will be specced out. And beyond that, we have a bunch of ideas. So we're obviously not putting too much work into those for the moment. It's really interesting 'cause we want to see how the people respond to our games. What do they want from it? You know, what the fans want and how can we make these games broader and more appealing to people while still keeping what Dark Pictures is. So we remain open the whole time as to where we take the series and how we handle it. But at the same time, we start with a load of really good ideas we want to tell. So it's kind of interesting to kind of go, well, if we took the series gameplay-wise in this direction, how would that fit with our ideas for game six as they are now? We have a lot of conversations like that.

Are there any like genres or tropes where you've said, we don't want to do that? Either it's played out, or someone else has already done it brilliantly, so you need to find something else. Like, for instance, zombies are everywhere now, so have you said 'no zombies'?

If you look at all the different genres of horror, there are some genres that aren't so popular anymore that we probably wouldn't look at those. Some of them are, you know, problematic in other ways as well. So there's some where we probably wouldn't touch that. But in general, what we try and do is…taking the idea of zombies, for example, if we were to do a zombies game, we would try and find a way to upturn that trope in some way and tell it in a new way. You know, smashing it together with some other genre in some other time period or whatever - medieval zombies could be quite fun - or we'd lean into it and go, let's do absolute classic Romero zombies. But how can we, within that story, tell something new, even though we're doing the absolute classic version? Can we give this a new twist or can we do the classics really, really well and do that justice and yet keep it fresh with a different story? I guess that's how we usually approach new concepts.

Thank you for your time and good luck with House of Ashes.

It's a pleasure. I've been into FANGORIA since I was a kid, so it's good to be in it myself!