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Evolving a horror aesthetic with The Dark Pictures Anthology

The creative director of Supermassive Games' anthology series explains how they built a growing subgenre of horror gaming.

Alessandro Fillari, Contributor

March 23, 2023

5 Min Read

While the horror genre has grown increasingly popular, a particular sub-genre of gaming horror focusing on interactive narrative is one that has a large following. One of the key developers focusing on narrative first horror games is Supermassive Games, the creators of Until Dawn, The Dark Pictures Anthology, and The Quarry–which has gained a large following for its particular marrying of interactive storytelling and terrifying and tense atmospheres.

At GDC 2023, the creative director of The Dark Pictures Anthology, Tom Heaton, spoke about how the success of Until Dawn led to the creation of the development studio's particular brand of horror. He also talked about the growing subgenre of storytelling with their recent games, what it took to make an evolving and changing narrative, and how to ensure it stays a satisfying experience for solo players and in multiplayer.

"Do you like scary movies?"

In 2015, Supermassive Games released Until Dawn, quickly becoming a sleeper hit on the PlayStation 4. As a horror game with an interactive narrative, where a player's choices will decide which of the leading characters will make it to the end of the story, its general hook was that it was an interactive horror film. This game served as the proof of concept and a subsequent sign of success for Supermassive Games' approach to horror, which put them on the path to continue with The Dark Pictures Anthology.

To Heaton, the success of Until Dawn was due to how the developers had established their own brand of "aesthetic" for horror.

"The aesthetic for [Until Dawn] was a horror movie, a kind of B-movie slightly cheesy horror movie, but the top-level design idea was a horror movie that you can play," said Heaton about the appeal of Until Dawn. "It was a notion that was delivered something that was quite close to survival horror, but what we wanted was something that looked and sounded and was plotted like a horror movie – we wanted to fool people that suddenly walked into the room to think that you're watching a movie."

In building the "horror aesthetic" for Until Dawn and subsequent games, they would also establish rules that their interactive horror games had to follow. As Heaton explained, this included the rules behind death, a nebulous concept in games with the concept of lives or respawning. Within horror films, Heaton stated that they are "playing for keeps," that death is absolute, and that deviating from that would result in a disconnect from the narrative.

For the developers at Supermassive Games to maintain that "horror aesthetic" for Until Dawn, the game instituted permadeath for its characters during a run of the story. But a twist also allows players to alter a character's fate by giving them a possible glimpse into the future–which not only gives them a chance to save a protagonist but also heightens the tension with the knowledge that danger is approaching. Along with the static choices, there were also interactive moments such as QTEs, combat, and stealth sections, which made those decision-making moments tenser. This method of horror storytelling led to how Supermassive Games established its own "horror aesthetic," which Heaton stated satisfied a certain need from the audience.

Twice The Terror

Following the success of Until Dawn, Supermassive Games went to work on The Dark Pictures Anthology, which expanded the unique aesthetic that the developers established–this time by bringing a focus on cooperative play. While adding multiplayer might seem like an obvious next step, it also led to numerous challenges in gameplay and storytelling that broke some elements of the formula established by Until Dawn.

While The Dark Pictures Anthology is fully playable in single-player, a big draw for the game was the ability to share and interact with another player within the same story. Heaton broke down the issues during development, which focused on "the continuity problem," in that players will see conflicting story beats and gameplay sequences. Moreover, this also led to issues where one character that a player could take control of would see more activity than another, leading to a content deficit.

For Heaton, the issue–a "narrative branching paradox"–stemmed from the branching narrative, which he stated could be an entire talk. However, he eventually added that the core idea of resolving the issue was to focus on ensuring that both sides of the story would get the same satisfying experience and that players would always have control over where the story would go next.

"If there's one overwhelming rule, it's this that all routes through the game have to deliver a premium formative experience," said Heaton. "Every possible route the player could take is very difficult to achieve, but it's really important because otherwise, people will get bad experiences. So this is what we hold ourselves to: all roads have to deliver a premium narrative experience."

The remedy for this issue resulted in creating tailored narrative catch-ups for each player–summing up their choices and consequences–and ensuring that each character had a defining choice or objective that could potentially put them at odds with the other player. This resulted in a survival narrative that also blended cooperation with some competitive elements.

With the conclusion of the first season of The Dark Pictures Anthology, and the release of The Quarry, Heaton stated that work on Season 2 is already underway. He closed out the panel by stating that the horror aesthetic that Supermassive has built will continue to grow.

"The branching is a strong narrative feature, but it's essential to control the scope of it, "said Heaton." So you have to come from that narrative branching paradox and find a solution. The most challenging features are two, which combined with branching is a unique story format, but it comes with significant challenges."

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About the Author(s)

Alessandro Fillari


Alessandro Fillari is a writer/editor who has covered the games, tech, and entertainment industries for more than 12 years. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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