Shared universes are all the rage in entertainment mediums these days. From movies to TV shows, companies want their characters to co-exist in the same world, allowing them to interact and weave interconnecting stories throughout their narrative. Video game developers are slowly beginning to follow suit. Whether explicitly confirmed or not, games in the past few years have been linked to others in their franchises, and enable characters to cross over in some incidences.
For Supermassive Games, the developer behind survival horror game Until Dawn, the lure of creating a shared universe was one they couldn’t resist, with one notable exception.
“The advantage of going to completely standalone games is that it allows us to create completely different narratives from scratch every time,” game director and CEO Tom Heaton told me at EGX 2018. “It gives us a lot more freedom to explore different narratives and characters, but presented in the same ‘house style.’ It’s a bit more like, say a TV show like Black Mirror, where you get a unifying presentation and a set theme, but they’re all separate.”
Supermassive’s shared universe is known as The Dark Pictures Anthology, a series of standalone horror games, which will begin with the franchise’s first title, called Man of Medan, in Q1 2019. With the development team at Supermassive being huge horror film buffs, it seemed like a logical step for Heaton and his co-workers to continue to tread down a path they know so well.
“I think we always knew we were going to do more horror. We love it in the studio and a lot of people within our studio are horror buffs,” he explained. “We are aware that a lot of horror comes in sub-genres. You never go to a straight horror movie; you always see a slasher movie, a weird Japanese movie, or something else. So we knew it worked in some genres, and we wanted to work out how we service that really. The anthology did that for us.”
Key to the team’s decision to forego a shared universe vibe was their desire to allow players to experience their own version of events. Like Until Dawn, Man of Medan will allow players to kill every cast member off, keep them all alive, or see some perish based on a silly mistake that they make. Seeing Man of Medan’s characters crossing over into future Dark Pictures Anthology titles would certainly remove the uniqueness of each person’s playthrough, and cause problems with what would be seen as canon for the Dark Pictures Anthology’s overarching universe.
“That’s a consideration (we had to take into account),” Heaton admitted. “In this game, every one of the playable characters can live and all of them can die, and I think we can’t do that in one game and then pick them up in another and say ‘they are alive.’ That wouldn’t be possible.”
Man of Medan’s premise sees four young Americans voyage to a World War II wreck in the South Pacific, alongside their skipper Fliss, in search of sunken treasure and the memory of a lifetime. Things inevitably don’t go to plan, and the quintet find themselves fighting for their lives on a ship with a paranormal presence. Setting Man of Medan onboard a haunted vessel—one which took inspiration from legendary ghost ship the SS Ourang Medan—allowed the team to play with tighter environments, and build up the tension among its playtesters and those who buy the game.
“We started doing production design and, as soon as we started that, we wanted tight, claustrophobic environments,” Heaton revealed. “That stays true to the story and works well for us, and it helps to create a very creepy environment. It’s really helpful (to build suspense) as all those kind of twisted corridors, or any time that you have to walk somewhere that doesn’t look particularly safe structurally, combine with what’s going on in the ship, so it all helps.”
Challenges of Cinematic Gameplay
Until Dawn presented the team with new challenges in terms of creating a gameplay mechanic that was cinematic, story-driven, and full of scares. Heaton admitted that his team learned “a huge deal” from their first venture into this growing type of genre, and that the now “battle hardened team” had a greater idea of how to implement and refine their games for the Dark Pictures Anthology’s upcoming titles.
“Everyone who does narrative games makes them in a slightly different way. We have our style of doing it, and we stayed fairly true to that and enhanced things or fixed things that weren’t working as they could,” he stated. “Now we know how it plays, how the game looks, the way it’s lit, the way the cameras are used. We know how to use them and enhance them moving forward. There’s only four or five studios that do full-on, narrative games. We certainly play those games—and we love them actually, they do very well—and it pushes us to up our game.”
Until Dawn had an all-star cast, with the likes of Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) lending their talents to the game. Man of Medan is no different, with actors such as Shawn Ashmore taking on a role in Supermasssive’s next title. Their acceptance of the roles, and subsequent performances, left Heaton in agreement that star actors, who cross over into the video game industry, would only serve as a positive for the medium.
“It’s something they’re very excited about, and it’s brilliant for us because getting an actor of Shaun’s quality into a game, there’s name recognition and people are just excited to see Shaun because he brings so much quality to the performance,” he claimed. “A lot of what we’re about is trying to get a cinematic feel, so we need actors to come in with a great script, to understand their characters. We give them time and space to do that, and we give them a good performance space to give their best, because we need you, as a player, to make an emotional connection to those characters. If there isn’t an emotional connection, we can’t scare you.”
With more video games creating cinematic experiences for players, and household names appearing in the industry, the lines between the games industry, movies, and TV shows are continuing to blur. Heaton feels that further cross-pollination is inevitable, and that can only be a good thing for everyone at Supermassive.
“For us, what it means is continually looking at films, borrowing their techniques, and we want gamers to introduce their boyfriends, girlfriends, and partners to games as well,” he opined. “That’s always been a part of our key demographic, and it’s because they can take one of our games and it feels and looks like a movie. The step to then move characters around and pick things up is a relatively small step to take, which is really important to us and we’ll continue to look at films to inspire us, and we’ll continue to inspire them too.”