Supermassive Games explains how The Dark Pictures Anthology refines the formula for twisted tales
To see how Supermassive Games is pushing the horror genre forward with Man of Medan, the first entry in the series, we interviewed Game Director Tom Heaton. He talks about what they learned while developing Until Dawn that they’re building on for The Dark Pictures Anthology. For instance, Supermassive noticed that groups of people would often huddle around the TV as one person played the survival thriller, so the studio incorporated a couch co-op mode for Man of Medan that let’s friends pass around a single gamepad to control different in-game characters. Heaton also talks about designing their new two-player online co-op mode, which created difficult challenges for the developer to overcome in terms of keeping the action not only engaging, but in sync between two players who go down divergent paths.
In our discussion, Heaton also explains how Man of Medan has been designed with replayability in mind, making the game the studio's biggest branching game yet. Finally, Heaton expounds on his take for making a compelling horror game, talks about how they achieved the Man of Medan’s gorgeous visuals, and elaborates on the benefits of using UE4. Considering Until Dawn had a passionate following, what did you learn from developing that choice-driven horror game that you're building on for The Dark Pictures Anthology?
Game Director Tom Heaton: We learnt so much from making Until Dawn and watching people playing it. One of the key things was how people liked to play the game in groups. It was part of the inspiration to bring multiplayer modes to The Dark Pictures Anthology. And we loved how people related to the characters and really got into their relationships. We boosted our whole relationship system because of this.
Can you tell us more about your vision for The Dark Pictures Anthology and explain where Man of Medan fits in with it?
Heaton: The Dark Pictures Anthology is a series of intense, stand-alone cinematic horror games that combine powerful storytelling with film-like graphics to create a terrifying new gaming experience. The anthology format has a great heritage in horror and we thought it would work very well in games, too. It gives us the opportunity to tell new stories using different sub-genres of horror. We actually counted 39 different sub-genres of horror, so we have plenty of ideas to play with!
Man of Medan is the first game in The Dark Pictures Anthology. Five friends set sail on a holiday diving trip. With a rumored WWII wreck to find, and plenty of on-deck partying to be had. Our group gets ready for what should be the dive trip of a lifetime. As the day unfolds, and a storm rolls in, their trip soon changes into something much more sinister and terrifying. Put it this way, things go wrong very quickly!
With numerous dialogue options, how did the studio craft branching pathways that would ensure a cohesive yet unique experience for players?
Heaton: It’s a fun challenge for sure! Man of Medan is the most branching game we’ve ever made. We built an in-house tool that allows us to map out the game and track all the branches. We can play the game at a very basic level and see what works straight away. With the two-player Shared Story, it’s key that both players enjoy a great story no matter where they are in the game.
The Curator’s Cut will allow players to experience the game with new choices from the perspective of different characters. Can you talk about how you implemented that mode?
Heaton: The Curator’s Cut allows you to play an alternative version of the game, and is different to, say, a traditional Director’s Cut as it gives the player new ways to directly influence the story and its outcomes. Players will see and change events and relationships from the perspective of characters that weren’t under their control in the first playthrough. It adds a whole new layer to how the player understands and interacts with the story in a way that’s never been done before, and we’re excited for people to experience it.
With 69 different ways for protagonists to die in the game, was replayability a core tenant of the game’s design?
Heaton: Absolutely! We know that players love to replay the games to try and save the characters that got killed the first time around. We built the game with replayability in mind and you can have a very different experience over several playthroughs. For instance, we estimate you would need to play the game nine times just to see all the deaths!
Man of Medan will offer both two-player online co-op and couch co-op, the latter of which allows up to five people to pass a single controller around to inhabit the game’s five in-game characters. Can you explain the thought process behind implementing these novel modes?
Heaton: We wanted to bring something new and compelling to the genre, so Man of Medan – like all the games in the Dark Pictures Anthology – has been designed with multiplayer in mind from the start. We thought two people playing online in the same story would be a really exciting new way to experience a narrative horror game. Also, we were inspired by how people played Until Dawn socially and that helped us decide to do the pass-the-pad Movie Night mode, too.
With two gamers playing together simultaneously online and going down different paths, how do you keep the narrative consistently engaging for both players while keeping it in sync in real time?
Heaton: It’s a challenge, maybe the biggest challenge in designing games of this type. We have a few tricks up our sleeves to keep everything in sync. But the main thing is that we play the game over and over again, from early in development, to make sure that both players have an interesting and engaging experience.
In your opinion, what is the formula for making a gripping scary game?
Heaton: You have to have a great idea for a core concept and then you need to develop a gripping narrative featuring interesting and distinctive characters that the audience will really care about. There’s no magic button you can press that will give you that, so there’s a lot of hard work and false steps before you finally get there.
With amazing lighting and captivating visual effects, Man of Medan features extremely life-like visuals. The aesthetics are so impressive that we nominated it for our E3 Eye Candy award. How did you achieve the game's high-fidelity graphics?
Heaton: Delivering a brilliant cinematic look is really important to us. We want players to feel like they’re playing a horror movie. We have brilliant production design and art teams that give us fantastic environments that our players can explore. And lighting is really important to the look we achieve, so we also have dedicated lighting and camera teams. And we use best-in-class facial scanning and performance capture.
Considering Man of Medan is a highly cinematic experience with movie-like shots and hand-held camera movements, did Sequencer play a big role in the game’s development?
Heaton: Yes. Sequencer is a core part of our workflow and lets us integrate elements like animation, audio, lighting, and cameras. It allows us to have very fine-grained control over all elements of a shot, and to make director-level edits quickly and safely.
With excellent performances, can you detail how you mo-capped the actors for the game?
Heaton: We use top-quality Hollywood talent, so it’s important to us that we capture every nuance of their performance. Shawn Ashmore is excellent as Conrad in Man of Medan. We have created a process that is centered on the actors and gives them the freedom to develop the characters and deliver brilliant performances without us getting in the way. The actors wear lightweight head rigs for the shoot, and they are free to move around and interact with other actors in the scene.
Considering Until Dawn used a different game engine, what made UE4 a good fit for Man of Medan?
Heaton: Our games use a bespoke version of the Unreal Engine, which is carefully tailored to suit our needs. Unreal allows us to make a fantastic looking product across multiple platforms and we are really happy with the results.
What has been the biggest challenge making the game and how did you overcome it?
Heaton: Man of Medan is the most branching game we have ever made. Every time a player does something, the game branches, sometimes in small ways, but sometimes opening up whole new narrative paths or killing off a major character. Keeping track of all that branching is a massive challenge, especially when you throw two-player co-op into the mix. It also means we have to keep track of a large quantity of data. But it’s worth it because players really respond positively to how the game changes depending on what actions they take.
Thanks for your time! Where can people learn more about Man of Medan and The Dark Pictures Anthology?
Heaton: Thanks! You can find out more about Man of Medan and The Dark Pictures Anthology on our official website or social media.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan releases August 30, 2019 on PC. PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.