Image courtesy of Supermassive Games

How Supermassive Games redefined itself and birthed The Dark Pictures Anthology

Brian Crecente |
October 20, 2021

Pete Samuels has held leadership roles in the games industry since 1997—first at Psygnosis and then as Senior Development Director for a number of large titles at Electronic Arts European Studio. In 2007, Pete founded Supermassive Games with his brother Joe. As the CEO of Supermassive, and with the support of the other directors, Pete led the studio through several phases of growth to become a group of forward-looking and world-class games development teams working independently on multiple properties.
Sometime around 2015, Supermassive Games had an epiphany of sorts. The release of that year’s Until Dawn and the positive response to the horrific bit of interactive storytelling (not to mention winning a BAFTA) changed the direction of the studio, and more importantly, helped it find its identity.

In the years since, the studio has worked on a plethora of games across a few genres but seems most comfortable doling out terror-tinged stories to a variety of platforms.

In 2019, the studio revealed its opus: The Dark Pictures Anthology, a series of eight interactive-storytelling survival video games that explore a swath of horror genres. The anthology premiered with Man of Medan, which drops players onto a ghost ship. In 2020, Little Hope delivered players to a ghost town. And this year, House of Ashes will have players trapped in an underground Mesopotamian temple during the 2003 Iraq War.

We chatted with Pete Samuels, CEO of Supermassive Games, about the company’s evolution, how it creates such horrific masterpieces, and where the anthology stands as it approaches the first season finale: The Devil Within.
 

Looking at Supermassive’s thirteen-year history as a game developer, it seems like the 2015 release of Until Dawn and the overwhelmingly positive response to it had an outsized impact on the studio and what it creates. How would you say the studio evolved from its early days working on titles like LittleBigPlanet and Killzone, to its current state so deeply invested in an eight-part, narratively-driven horror anthology?

Supermassive Games CEO Pete Samuels:
We’re 13 years old this year and I think it took us half that time to really find our real identity as a studio. Looking back, it’s clear that Until Dawn was a turning point for us. Until then, we had been doing a lot of varied work and hadn’t really focused on many of the things that people now identify in a typical Supermassive Games game. The opportunity to create Until Dawn opened our eyes to what we could become, and where we might focus for the future. Not specifically horror, but interesting storytelling, cinematic presentation, and narratives strongly influenced by players’ actions. Sometime after Until Dawn’s release, we started talking about an idea that would later become The Dark Pictures Anthology. We got very excited about the concept of multiplayer short-form horror. We’ve released a number of games since Until Dawn – including some VR titles—but storytelling is something that really defines us as a studio now. We look forward to telling these stories and creating these games for many years to come.
Image courtesy of Supermassive Games
Until Dawn, The Inpatient, and Shattered State were all forms of interactive cinematic storytelling. How did each help evolve the studio’s approach to this form of video game and what impact did it have on the decision to create The Dark Pictures Anthology?

Samuels:
We learn from everything we do and are always looking to improve and refine what we do. The three titles that you mention specifically have the same DNA but are all different in the mechanics used to tell the story, and for the player’s involvement in it; they are also played from very different perspectives. Each, in its own way, has helped us to develop the storytelling mechanics that our teams are so proficient in today. We have learned that perspective, platform, and theme don’t alter the basic principles of good interactive storytelling, so introducing new game mechanics, or using different technology to deliver the experience, is viewed as a great new opportunity, and a welcome challenge.
Image courtesy of Supermassive Games
Man of Medan, the first in your anthology series, focused on the players’ moral compass and having to choose head or heart when making a decision. What drove that design decision?

Samuels:
The mechanics around choices in The Dark Pictures are designed to be a constant reminder that the decisions made in the game, every decision, has a consequence. The interface being quite big and bold and in your face is a cue to stop and think, “Do I want my decision to be based on what I feel is right, or what I think is best, tactically, to keep everyone alive?”

In your second in the anthology, Little Hope, you seem to have made the game a bit more accessible to a broader audience by making controls a bit easier and response times a bit longer. What are your plans for House of Ashes in that regard? Did you find the sweet spot for difficulty with Little Hope, or is that something you’re still trying to nail?

Samuels:
Our philosophy is that nothing is nailed, ever, but from game to game, we do place most focus on protecting those things that fans of our games like the most and improving those things that we receive the most requests to improve. It’s not realistic for us to assume that we can make everything perfect for everyone; people are different and have different preferences for how they play the game and enjoy that experience. The House of Ashes team has put a lot of thought into how best to empower players to set the game up to be played the way that they want to play it. Again, we will look to feedback from fans to see whether and how we develop those systems and interfaces for the future.

Man of Medan digs into the haunted ship trope and Little Hope is about a ghost town, and House of Ashes seems to be about awakening a sleeping evil. How do you settle on the horror themes for your anthology and are you trying to tell a bigger, metastory across the titles?

Samuels:
At the outset, some five or so years ago, we determined the themes and high-level stories for eight games that make up the first two seasons of the Anthology. It was a lengthy exercise that involved studying the properties of stories in film, TV, and written fiction, across 39 recognizable sub-genres of horror and devising creative what-if scenarios for stories that mashed two or more of these together. As you can imagine, we came up with some interesting and quite bizarre stuff. We whittled that down to the eight themes that we felt would be the most interesting to explore. Each story is therefore a story in its own right. It’s not essential to have played the earlier games to understand and appreciate the later ones. Having said that, they are all set in the same universe, as evidenced by Easter eggs that can be found in each game that reference both earlier and later stories, and there is a parallel plot line. I can’t say more than that.
Image courtesy of Supermassive Games
Your first anthology titles drew inspiration from a wide variety of works as varied as Silent Hill, The Crucible, The Witch, and urban legends; what was your inspiration for House of Ashes?

Samuels:
The initial inspiration came from the process I mentioned earlier, and the interesting possibilities that arose from a mythological, scientific, historical, and character perspective. As has been typical so far, these real-world facts drove further research into more distant history, ancient civilizations and beliefs, and the possibilities that the specific mix of characters presented. Visually, cinematically, and narratively, the game director drew on influences from films like The Descent and Aliens, and also some of the literary works from authors like H.P. Lovecraft, to set up the disturbing environments and the very real threat.

The games’ framing device is a curator of sorts who seems to collect the many stories and deaths of humanity. Where did the idea for The Curator come from and how will his role in the games evolve over the course of the anthology?

Samuels:
The original concept for The Curator was based on the archetypal horror show host, like The Crypt Keeper, Orson Wells, or Rod Serling. Unlike these hosts, he is actually part of the overarching narrative. His story is evolving, and there’s evidence of that, if you look for it, between Man of Medan and Little Hope. It will evolve even more as he becomes more “involved” in the players’ stories, and we’ll evidence this further in the season-one finale, The Devil in Me.
Image courtesy of Supermassive Games
The anthology games feature an interesting, almost cinematic approach to multiplayer. How was that idea developed and how has it changed? What sort of multiplayer will be available in House of Ashes?

Samuels:
Multiplayer was one of the first elements we discussed when initially planning The Dark Pictures. Sharing stories, whether online or in-person on the couch, is a thing that people like to do, and we wanted players to experience that. For House of Ashes, we’ll be carrying on our two multiplayer modes, Shared Story (two-player online) and Movie Night (couch co-op for up to five players). What excites us most is not changing the systems and mechanics by which we deliver these experiences, but how each story uses them differently, creating new player and character dynamics that people don’t often get the opportunity to experience in games.

What made you decide to include a difficulty setting in House of Ashes—a first for the series—and how will that impact play?

Samuels:
That decision was entirely based on the feedback from both Man of Medan and Little Hope, and a realization that a middle ground isn’t what people who play these games really want. The games are enjoyed by people with a broad range of difficulty preferences, so a single level of difficulty is only “best” for a part of the audience. The setting is there now so that people can choose, and play the way that they prefer. We hope that this makes it a better experience for everybody.

The camera angle also gets a change, shifting from fixed to a 360-degree view. How did that impact your development and how will it change the sense of tension that was so clear in previous games?

Samuels:
There’s a range of ways that we can use the camera to support tension, and even though it’s a permanent 360-degree view in House of Ashes, I think we demonstrated in Little Hope how we can create atmosphere using that system. Little Hope was 50:50. Some fixed angle and some 360. It’s a creative choice that is driven by what we want to achieve on a game-by-game basis.
Image courtesy of Supermassive Games
Lighting plays an important role in the anthology, from the volumetric fog in Little Hope to the stark day and night differences in Man of Medan. How important is lighting to House of Ashes and how will you be using it to heighten the experience?

Samuels:
There’s a bunch of key elements in creating the atmosphere and lighting, along with camera and sound, is certainly one of those. The balance between light and dark is incredibly important for the games we make. Horror is at least as much about what you can’t see, or can’t quite see, as it is about what you can see. Each of the games in the anthology so far uses a very different emphasis—from the thick mist in Little Hope to the dark corners aboard the Man of Medan—but they all serve the purpose of immersing the player in the world we’ve created. House of Ashes is no different.

The game’s approach to interactive storytelling makes it seem like a good fit for porting to non-traditional gaming platforms like Netflix. How would adjusting the games to bring them to television streaming services or other less interactive platforms impact the experience? 

Samuels:
We’re excited about new platforms and the opportunities they present to us creatively in the kind of entertainment we make. One of the things we love about developing for traditional gaming platforms is the scope it gives us designers and creators. Console and PC gaming is where we’ve been focused, and that’s still all very exciting with new technology and new opportunities on those platforms, but we are also exploring how to bring our brand of entertainment to new audiences on new platforms.
Image courtesy of Supermassive Games
Why are you developing the game in Unreal Engine?

Samuels:
We developed our toolset to produce the Dark Pictures series around Unreal Engine, and we want to stick with it, and improve it. We keep the engine updated with the most recent releases which give us the latest features to improve our games, as well. All our artists are also used to the engine and are very productive with it.

Are there any particular features of Unreal Engine that you found more useful in bringing your games to life?

Samuels:
The content creation overall is very efficient. We extensively use Sequencer for our content production. The visual debugging tools also help a lot when optimizing the content of our games.

House of Ashes will be coming to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S. How did the next-gen features of these platforms help shape the game?

Samuels
: The faster loading times come out of the box with the latest versions of the engine, which saved us some engineering time. We improved upon the existing features for ray-traced reflections and shadows. The platform support is already provided by Epic, which allowed us to focus on more important features.
Image courtesy of Supermassive Games
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?

Samuels:
We are looking forward to improving our animation and rendering pipeline to take advantage of the new hardware capabilities. We are already working on some next-gen-specific features to improve those areas.

Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Supermassive and The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes?

Samuels:
You can check out our website and social media channels below for all the latest news on Supermassive and The Dark Pictures Anthology.

https://www.supermassivegames.com/
https://www.thedarkpictures.com/

@TheDarkPictures - Twitter
www.instagram.com/The_Dark_Pictures/
@TheDarkPictures - Facebook

@SuperMGames - Twitter
www.instagram.com/supermassivegames/
@SupermassiveGames - Facebook

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