For a brief moment, it looked like we’d witnessed the death of the adventure game. Thanks to the unstoppable rise of the PS2, millions of gamers abandoned their once beloved PC in favour of the achingly cool console and its more convenient controller. With games becoming more graphically complex, players soon wanted to experience the fast-paced action of , say, GTA instead of solving beard-stroking puzzles — and series like Broken Sword sadly began to resemble the very relics their narrative’s depicted.
Thankfully though, the public hadn’t completely turned its back on the adventure genre — it turns out, it just needed a bit of a makeover.
After years of cookie-cutter shooters, morality-testing experiences like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain felt like a breath of fresh air, proving that adventure games could be exciting once again.
Yet, while people are quick to praise the two aforementioned games and, of course, the unfairly named “walking simulators”, it was arguably 2015’s criminally underrated horror-meets-point-and-click Until Dawn that really blew off the last cobwebs coating the adventure genre. Boasting Hollywood talent like Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere, it seamlessly blended sharp dialogue and atmospheric gameplay sections with sweat-inducing player decisions.
Now, three years later, Until Dawn developer Supermassive is looking to give the adventure genre a second facelift. Taking inspiration from compendium-style stories like Black Mirror, Supermassive is creating the ridiculously ambitious The Dark Pictures — gaming’s first ever horror anthology series.
“It’s a set of games that are not connected but in the same universe, so it’s quite Twilight Zone or Black Mirror,” explains Pete Samuels, CEO of Supermassive Games. “Anthological horror has got a long history in all media, [it’s been around for] nearly 200 years in written fiction, almost 100 years in radio — believe it or not — and 50 years in film and TV. So, somebody had to move it onto games eventually, and we’re really pleased that it’s us.”
Swapping out the long-form spine-chiller format for a series of shorter, creepier chronicles, Supermassive sees the format as a more exciting way for both the studio and the player to explore a wider variety of different types of horror. “Working on the same thing for three or four years, that’s a different way of doing it. This just feels more lively within the team, working on new, fresh ideas in different genres. It’s great.”
Smaller Scale, Greater Choice
Who knew that we’d have Charlie Brooker, an ex-games journalist, of all people, to thank for saving the adventure genre? And now that we’ve played a brief demo of the first story, Man of Medan, thank him we should, as it is immediately clear that Supermassive is relishing its newfound creative freedom. It’s a gameplay experience that seems to incorporate multiple sub-genres of horror, offering up skeletons, ghost ships and most importantly, one that dishes out some wonderfully grisly ends for its cast of arrogant tourists. Thanks to the new setting and more supernatural tone, its story beats feel like a fairly radical departure from what came before.
“That was the plan,” nods Samuels. “So, in kind of the opposite to [Until Dawn’s] snow, we’ve gone for the middle of the Pacific Ocean for the first [story], Man of Medan. There’s almost a home invasion element to part of it [too], and then it’s very much ghost ship — supernatural rather than the kind of monster horror that Until Dawn turned into.”
Yet, more crucially for the player, Samuels confirms that The Dark Pictures will offer far more branching paths than any of Supermassive’s previous work. “This time, two different playthroughs can be very different. In Man of Medan, there is much more branching than we have ever done in any game we’ve ever done before. And partly we’re able to do that because of the length, because it’s four to five hours long rather than ten to 12 hours long, so depending on the decisions you make… [things] play out very differently.”
A Long-Lasting Anthology
While the genre’s revival has largely been thanks to its episodic nature, interestingly, much like The Twilight Zone, Supermassive isn’t attempting to commit to a set number of stories. Instead, it sees The Dark Pictures as a platform it can use to make horror stories for years to come.
“We haven’t set a number on it yet, but we’re working on the first three stories right now,” says Samuels. “What we certainly want to do is make each one very different in terms of the setting and the characters. [Each will be] a standalone horror game, four to five hours long. We’re looking at a release frequency of two a year — so that’s a fair chunk of story. We tend not to refer to it ourselves as episodic because that gives some people the impression the stories are connected and they follow on, and … they’re absolutely not.”
In such character-focused stories, you need quality actors to make the player feel invested. With Quantum Break’s Shawn Ashore already confirmed for Man of Medan, Samuels hints that we might see even more famous faces starring in the yet-to-be-announced Dark Pictures entries.
“Performance is really important for us, and what we get when we get somebody like Shawn or in previous games like Rami Malek, you get this real talent. Our entire cast is awesome, [there are] great actors in Man of Medan and in the next game which we’ve already shot the first part of. But Shawn brings a lot to it and I think you should expect to see more of that type of thing across the anthology.”
A More Holistic Horror
While he’s hesitant to give too much away about the other stories in the anthology, Samuels reluctantly gives a few hints. “I don’t want to talk about the second one, but that goes to a completely different environment, completely different characters, very different subgenres. So, while it’s part of a set — and it will feel part of the set –it will be a very different experience. The third game in the anthology is in [the] design stage too, and they are all radically different — but all horror.”
Yet, despite pushing the genre forward, Samuels and the team are very aware of the games that laid the groundwork for what they’re doing today. “I think [point and click games] are having a resurgence. As you say, it’s a reinvention of the old adventure game, and the more we can do and the more the guys at Telltale can do to move the genre forward, the better. I think it will continue to evolve, and it’s becoming bigger, more popular. It’s growing an audience still as a subgenre, as a genre within gaming, so that’s great to see.”
For those who have been following Supermassive Games’ career, it’s no surprise to hear that they’re pushing boundaries. The studio has been a close partner to Sony, creating several PSVR titles and even embracing the fairly cleverly (but woefully unsuccessful) smartphone-incorporating PS4 tech, PlayLink. Samuels teases that the studio is keen to keep experimenting with any new tech that will create interesting interactive experiences. Without being owned by a publisher, for Supermassive, it’s adapt or die.
“We like to try to do something different in everything we do, and there are risks associated with that[.] Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. And we’ve seen some of both of that over the past year, as you’re probably aware. We make no apologies for taking risks and trying to do things differently and we will continue to do that. But it is great to return to this as a format for us, we’re so excited about it, the whole team is massively buzzed to be working on this.”
It’s not been an easy decade for Supermassive, but for many of the most creative studios — it never is. These games might never match the sheer selling power of a GTA. Yet, if the social media response to Man of Medan‘s reveal is anything to go by — and with similar games like Life Is Strange also finding a sizable audience — it looks like the adventure genre is in the healthiest shape it’s ever been.
Ultimately, it will come down to how The Dark Pictures sells. With any luck, if fans support this anthology format with their wallets, we should all have a revolving door of horror titles to enjoy for a few years to come.