Supermassive Games has been creating quite a name for themselves on PlayStation platforms, especially in the horror genre with games like Until Dawn and The Inpatient. Their next project has far grander ideas, though. This series of horror titles known as The Dark Pictures Anthology will be multi-platform, meaning it will also be coming to Xbox One. At EGX 2018, we managed to sit down with game director Tom Heaton to chat about their upcoming project, and especially the first game in the series, The Dark Pictures - Man Of Medan.
Supermassive has initially teamed up with publisher Bandai Namco to create three titles in the anthology. In the current gaming climate, landing a three game deal is almost unheard of and very unusual. How did that come about?
We have been wanting to make the anthology for a long time, so we started making it. We talked to a lot of people and we got a lot of interest. Bandai loved it and the synergy was there, so we went with it and it's currently published between Supermassive Games and Bandai Namco.The Dark Pictures - Man Of Medan is the first title in the anthology and focuses on four American youths searching for a World War II wreck. In 1947, the ghost ship of the SS Ourang Medan was found with all of its crew dead on board. Legend states that the crew had been scared to death. How much is Man of Medan based on this legend?
There's four Americans on the holiday of a lifetime in the South Pacific searching for this wreck that one of them has done some work on. Their captain is with them and things go wrong as they do in horror games and horror films. They get caught in a storm, they run into some locals, and they have an argument with them. They end up on this huge World War II era freighter. They don't know what it is.During our time with Man of Medan, there was a constant uneasy feeling as we made our way around the ship, punctuated with the odd jump scare for good measure. How scary are you aiming for the games to be?
The Ourang Medan is an inspiration for that and we've certainly acquainted ourselves with the myth, but it's really our story from that point on. Part of the reason is the myth is very vague and you don't really know much about it. There's lots of different accounts, so we've just run with it.
It's quite difficult to get people to "scared" — you have to have them for quite a long time, like a film. A scary film is scary the whole time. It builds and builds and creates an atmosphere. Making a game like this is about building long term uneasy tension and it takes a little bit of time. We have to hold players in that place and let them anticipate what's going to go wrong. It will be pretty scary. These things are always at their scariest playing on your own in a dark room.
It looks ominous
At this point, it's better to pause a while and demonstrate exactly what players can expect from the first title in the anthology. The game will include five playable characters, the four American youths and the ship's captain, Fliss, the character who was playable in the floor demo at the show. Each of these characters can live or die, and player decisions will shape the fates of those characters throughout the title. They might have small effects where a character would react slightly differently to you, or it could be far more major such as a matter of life or death, and not all of these consequences are immediate. This was something that became obvious while watching other people play through the same demo.
In the video below, Tom took to the stage to give a guided playthrough of the floor demo, which is found approximately a third of the way through the game. We both found secrets throughout the demo, which can be put together by players to create a fuller picture of what's going on. We both managed to find a weapon, something that came in handy later on, although his experience with the game's QTEs was more successful and led to a quicker outcome. However, Tom started the demo with an additional character. Brad, who accompanied Fliss throughout the demo, wasn't present at the start of my playthrough, although he joined me later. Depending on player actions up until this point, for others he might not even be present at all. My conversations choices with Brad were different, but ultimately in this short space of time, the outcome for Fliss and Brad was the same.
Each of the games in the anthology aims to be around four hours playtime, although those who wish to replay the game and look for alternative outcomes will, of course, be looking at longer. For now, we have 10 minutes of gameplay footage. The gameplay begins at 15:38 if you want to see it for yourself.
Moving on to the other titles, Supermassive has stated they wanted to explore the many subgenres of horror that exist and this is one of the reasons for developing a horror anthology. Do you already have the settings of the stories mapped out for the other games, and if you do, how different will they be to Man of Medan?
We've got three games in development; we've got Man of Medan and two others. They're at various different stages of development and they are very different.Will the three games share a universe?
They're completely different stories with completely different characters in them. There may be some elements across the universe, like tiny subtle things, but we're still talking about how we'll do it. A player should be able to come in and play any game. They don't need to have played previous games or know anything about them. They can start afresh, and if they like it, there's other stuff already there for them to go and play.Will they have similar real-life inspirations, like Man of Medan has some base in the Ourang Medan legend?
When we're trying to work out what our next game is going to be, we're looking to explore a subgenre of horror. We sat down and worked out there were 39 different subgenres, such as slasher, ghost ship, haunted house. The other thing we look for is something from the real world. It might not be a myth — it might be a bit of folklore. It might be something that really happened in the world and it might only be a tiny little thing that just gives us something to latch onto. Usually there'll be some truths around that and it gives the person playing something they can go and look at online, that they can find more stuff about, but a little bit of it has already got into their brain and they know about it and that helps us create the whole story.How will the gameplay differ between the three games?
They'll be recognisable as being part of the same anthology. The gameplay you see in the Man of Medan demo will be familiar. I expect a player to come along and understand what the controls were and have an idea of how the game is going to work.
Every story is different. We start with the stories and the player has to work with the story. The gameplay has to cover 50% of this because the player's involvement, what the player does, is really paramount. To make the story work, we'll find we need this bit of gameplay and then we go and develop that bit of gameplay.
Until Dawn taught Supermassive the importance of relationships for the player
What did you learn from working on Until Dawn that's going to help with developing The Dark Pictures Anthology?
We learnt loads of things. Everything we did on Until Dawn was a learning experience to some extent. One of the things that surprised us after the game was released was how much community engagement there was with the characters and how much the relationships between the characters mattered to them. We'd anticipated some of that and we'd created deliberate versions of those, but people really got into it. They created fan art. They created fan fiction. They got very upset about some events that happened that they wanted alternate events to happen and they just really got into the relationships.Should we expect any easter eggs or crossovers in the anthology from previous titles like Until Dawn, or perhaps even between the individual games themselves?
It wasn't the intended relationships. We thought it would just be about the romantic relationships but they got into the friendships, so that's the thing that became really important to us at the start of Man of Medan. We thought very hard about the relationships. We thought hard about how we could reflect those relationships back to the player so they could understand those relationships better and how we could reward the players that wanted to explore those relationships.
When you make choices, there are lots of things that might guide a choice, but sometimes people are guided by relationships and about how the other character feels, and we do that. There are some scenes where you'll unlock little bonus scenes that are at the top of that relationship.
We will put interesting things in there for people to find and explore and we think it will be a world worth exploring and teasing out the details of. You are welcome to look for them.What would you say to Xbox players who might have missed out on Until Dawn because they didn't have a PlayStation 4? What can they look forward to with this anthology that they might not have experienced before?
We are delighted to be bringing this to Xbox. It's really nice to go cross platform. A lot of people really wanted to play Until Dawn and they couldn't because of platform exclusivity.
What we are bringing is intense cinematic horror. It's a very narrative driven game where your choices really matter and there's a very, very high level of branching. It'll be like a film you can play and I hope they like it. I'll just say enjoy the ride, and come along and play.
Many thanks to Tom for taking the time to answer our questions. If you'd like to see more of The Dark Pictures - Man Of Medan, you can find all of the latest news, videos and screenshots at the game's hub. The first title in the anthology will be released next year. Supermassive aims to release two anthology titles per year, so the others shouldn't be too far behind.