Will Doyle is the Creative Director of The Dark Pictures Anthology. A veteran of the UK games industry, Will has worked for studios such as HotGen Studios, Frontier Developments, and Supermassive Games. Story games are Will’s speciality, and it’s no surprise he’s a huge fan of horror. In his hobby time, he’s also a keen tabletop gamer; swapping mouse and keyboard for d20 and character sheet.
Alejandro Arque Gallardo is the Game Director of Switchback VR at Supermassive Games. Since joining the games industry in 2006, Alejandro’s work as a Game Designer has spanned multiple platforms, including PC, mobile & console. He has worked on everything from online shooters and racers, to puzzles, and open world adventures. Prior to joining Supermassive, Alejandro worked as Senior Game Designer for Square-Enix on the award-winning narrative game series Life is Strange.
Don’t blink. Don’t open your eyes. Don’t look away. Don’t look at.
It’s a nightmare scenario in a nightmare game.
When The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR hits the PlayStation®VR2 on March 16, you won’t know where to look in the roller coaster horror title thanks to just one of the new features of the next-gen VR headset that allows games to track eye movement.
Much like developer Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, Switchback is a rail shooter that pulls together the most horrifying moments of previous games. Where Rush of Blood focused on the studio’s popular Until Dawn release, Switchback crafts new scares from the most frightening concepts found in the first season of The Dark Pictures anthology of games. That means players can expect to find moments and creatures from The Devil in Me, House of Ashes, Little Hope, and Man of Medan.
To get some insight into how Supermassive Games drew on both its back catalog of horror and Unreal Engine’s design features to create this roller coaster of fear, we chatted with Supermassive Games game director and creative director about The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR.
What made you decide to develop another virtual reality game?
Alejandro Arque Gallardo, Supermassive Games Game Director: After the success of Rush of Blood, which launched with the original PlayStation®VR2 in 2016, we were thrilled to learn of the upcoming hardware and its innovative capabilities offered in what we now know to be PlayStation VR2. We knew with the new technology such as eye tracking, haptic feedback, and adaptive triggers, we could bring a terrifying spiritual successor of Rush of Blood, based on The Dark Pictures Anthology, to the new generation of VR.
How did you apply lessons learned on your earlier virtual reality games to this latest creation?
Gallardo:Switchback VR has a new team working to deliver one of the most immersive horror experiences coming to VR2 in 2023. We applied all our knowledge on how to create the feeling of a roller coaster and how to create horror for VR (which is different to how you do it for more traditional games).
Once you decided to create a VR game, what ideas were you playing with for the game before you settled on the final concept?
Gallardo: Following the success and audience reception to Rush of Blood, we wanted to update the concept for this game–a very sinister roller coaster from hell which travels through The Dark Pictures Anthology. Our experience with The Dark Pictures meant that the scope of the game was huge, with many ideas from our team including how to adapt Dumet’s murder traps from our latest release, The Devil in Me. We also decided on an original story as this is a standalone title (with influence from The Dark Pictures Anthology) and this game can be picked up and played with no prior knowledge required.
Can you explain how you decided to create what appears to be a roller coaster ride through the greatest hits of The Dark Picture Anthology’s first season?
Will Doyle, Supermassive Games Creative Director:Rush of Blood was a huge success for us on PS VR, and Switchback is very much its spiritual successor for PS VR2. Over the last few years, we’ve built a rich, imagined universe around the Dark Pictures, with its own villains, supernatural threats, and frightening locations. Switchback gives us a chance to revisit that world—but most importantly, put our fans right inside it. You’ll get up close with some of our scariest creations.
Why did it make sense for the game to take place on a roller coaster?
Gallardo: Immersion is key for VR and with the PlayStation VR2’s new innovation features, we knew we could deliver an improved roller coaster experience with haptic feedback so you can feel the motion of the roller coaster…and of course, the player has to progress through the game, no matter how scared they get!
What challenges did you face in creating your first Dark Pictures VR game and how did Unreal Engine help you solve them?
Gallardo: Our relationship with Epic has been incredible since we started the project. They quickly implemented the support for the new tech and their continued updates to the FireAnt plugin helped overcome any technical issues we faced with the evolving technology. Also, their constant technical support, with extremely quick response to any of the new features implemented or blockers our engineers found, made the production very smooth.
How did you decide which scenes and creatures from the first season’s titles to place into Switchback?
Gallardo: Through research and audience feedback, we identified those that made the players jump, or made them feel uneasy, such as the stalker Sailor Girl from Man of Medan whose gruesome transformations haunts players. Many of the characters are also based on phobias for example, our masked mannequins are based on automatonophobia, the fear of human-like figures.
What sort of work did you do to ensure that they would be updated to make the best use of the PS VR2’s visual acuity?
Gallardo: The PS VR2’s visual acuity is very impressive and we have worked to ensure our assets in-game are up to this same standard. Therefore, we remade a lot of the 3D art that we had to make sure they were up to the quality of the PS VR2.
The PS VR2 has some really cool features that it sounds like you’re tapping into for the game. I’d love to hear more about how you’re making use of eye-tracking, for instance.
Gallardo: Don’t blink means that your enemies will be on you in the blink of an eye! This ranges from the masked mannequins posing like they are running at you, or to the wooden recreations of 17th century hanging witch trials trying to attack you. The eye tracking feature follows exactly where you look, so some enemies may attack when you look at them, some if you don’t look at them. Others may multiply when you blink and if you think closing your eyes will help, think again! 3D Audio will have them whispering in your ear and headset rumble will mean you’ll feel their every touch.
What about the PS VR2’s headset feedback?
Gallardo: Avoid falling beams, overturned buses and hung victims at the murder hotel. A headset rumble will ensure you feel everything.
The controllers for the PS VR2 have haptic feedback, adaptive triggers. How do you incorporate those features into the game?
Gallardo: As this is a shooter-action-horror, adaptive triggers have been used on all the guns. So the player will be able to feel the unique shakes and kickback of their weapons including uzi’s and shotguns, as they unload on the terrifying enemies that emerge from the shadows.
Players will need to hold on tight with haptic feedback, as you’ll endure every bump, twist, turn and drop as your cart speeds along the tracks, really bringing that roller coaster feeling to life.
Audio can play a massive role in horror and the PS VR2 makes use of the PS5’s next-gen hardware-accelerated virtual spatial 3D audio. What can players expect to hear from the game’s audio and how much did you make use of the spatial audio?
Gallardo: The players will begin their journey on a train, which later crashes leaving you in a burning carriage with just one person–a demon called Belial, the mother of lies, our main antagonist. It’s throughout your journey that you’ll hear phone conversations with your sister, with imitations from Belial. She will whisper from one side of your head, around to the other. You’ll also hear strange, horrifying sounds as you progress through the terror.
Are there any particular design elements or challenges you overcame that you’re particularly proud of which you’d like to walk us through?
Gallardo: One of the biggest challenges we had was how to create horror scenes after a roller coaster section or after a full action sequence where players will feel very powerful with their weapons. So, we tried to curate every single one of those moments. For example, we might remove the guns when entering a church full of faceless enemies chanting, take out all the lights in an ancient temple to make you use your ears to perceive where the enemies are coming from or make some enemies appear in front of you only when you blink.
All of the PS VR2’s bells-and-whistles aside, the game will rely deeply on your team's talented designers and writers. Switchback promises multiple paths through the game and that no two runs will be the same. How are you achieving that?
Gallardo: We wanted to make the experience very unique to the player from the beginning of pre-production, so we used the eye tracking technology to get this feeling, because different events will happen based on where you look at. For example, there is a location that if you blink the whole area becomes full of blood or if you look at a specific frame, a demon will appear.
To add more to the experience, we added branching tracks where players can choose which direction they want to go, each of those tracks are very different in terms of experience to each other.
Do you consider Switchback to be canon for the anthology series?
Doyle:Switchback VR sits within The Dark Pictures universe, as each level is based on season one of the anthology. Similarly to The Dark Pictures Anthology games, you can play any games singularly without playing the others. However, for the core Dark Pictures fans, as always, there are easter eggs to and from each of our games and you may spot The Curator watching and taking notes.
The Dark Pictures Anthology is as much known for its cinematic experience and ability to be enjoyed by a group as it is its horrifying story-telling. Were you able to come up with a VR experience in Switchback that can also be enjoyed by non-players?
Gallardo: We are particularly excited for the shared experience and jump scares that this will bring to unsuspecting players. As we are anticipating this to be a game that you dare your friends and family to try. The hyper-realistic feeling in VR, mixed with the absolute terror offered by being on an unstoppable roller coaster through hellish worlds that play on your darkest fears can only result in hilarious reactions.
Do you consider this to be a sort of capstone to the first season of Dark Pictures?
Doyle: This will be an all-encompassing experience which lets the player experience a taste of every one of our games in season one of The Dark Pictures Anthology. For those who know the series, this allows players to put themselves in the front seat of their story to see if they themselves can survive. Or can also be a great introduction to anyone who may be interested in trying The Dark Pictures titles. The Devil in Me was our last title in season one, Switchback VR is our summative experience of season one, and we very much look forward to revealing more on season two … it’s going to be deadly exciting!
With a full season of horror games now under your belt, what sort of lessons do you think you’ve learned about how to scare people and how to get them emotionally involved in an interactive story?
Doyle: We’ve learned so much. For a good horror story, you always need emotional investment in the characters—you need to know what threads they’re hanging onto to stay alive. When it comes to scaring people, there are techniques that we always keep in mind—rising tension leading into horror, lingering pauses before a shock, use of music to drive fear. In a sense, you use music, lighting, and sinister camerawork to tell people when they should be scared, so they’re in that zone when the horror finally lands.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about Dark Pictures Switchback VR?
Gallardo:Switchback VR is available to pre-order now exclusively on the PlayStation store, where all pre-orders receive two new guns from launch, a remodelled skull and bones cart, and skull bobble head for their cart.
Pre-order at the US PlayStation store here.
Pure-order at the UK PlayStation store here.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Where can people find out more about Supermassive and Dark Pictures Switchback VR?