Supermassive Games has become one of Sony's most trusted partners in the UK, having created numerous games from Walking with Dinosaurs for the PS3 concept Wonderbook, the numerous PSVR titles, and perhaps their biggest hit Until Dawn. Around the time of the release of The Inpatient, we reached out to two members of the Supermassive team, Nik Bowen, game director on The Inpatient, and Pete Samuels, managing director of the company and executive producer on Until Dawn, to learning more about the studio and perhaps in particular their approach to narrative and VR.
Over the last few years you have amassed a wealth of experience from a range of different narrative -focused titles. What would you say is the key difference between telling an interactive story a full-length traditional offering like Until Dawn and your most recent VR effort The Inpatient?
Nik Bowen: VR requires a different approach, but the way in which you can build tension, tell a story and deliver scares to people is incredibly powerful. The really exciting thing about developing for VR is that it forces you to reassess how you create an experience to make the best of the technology. A number of the usual rules for creating a traditional game don't apply here, because you can do things in VR which just aren't possible anywhere else. For example, the freedom you have to look wherever you want, whenever you want means some of the techniques we've used in the past don't work in VR in the same way.
What's key to writing for a VR title? Is there something, in particular, you need to consider? Is it easier or more difficult?
Nik Bowen: We've been working with PlayStation VR for 5 years now, so in terms of understanding how to develop for the hardware we have got a really solid grounding in it. Having said that, there is always more to learn. We've said before that there is a tendency to be too quick with defining 'rules' for VR. At Supermassive Games, we have always tried to determine what we want to do with our game experience - and how we want the player to feel - and then work out how we can achieve that. This often means taking on a challenge and experimenting until we find a solution which meets our goals. This ranges from creating a horror roller coaster experience in Until Dawn: Rush of Blood and putting two players in the midst of a combat zone in Bravo Team, to placing the player at the heart of a psychological horror experience in The Inpatient.
What's the challenge in writing a prequel that both needs to stand on its own and satisfy returning fans with tidbits and tie-ins? How did you go about achieving that?
Nik Bowen: We felt we had a great story to tell around the iconic Blackwood Sanatorium. We wanted players to experience the Sanatorium in its heyday and to be able to delve deeper into the events prior to Until Dawn. Fans of Until Dawn will recognise a few familiar faces and uncover links between the games as they play.
However, The Inpatient is a brand new story so you can absolutely pick up and play without the need to have played Until Dawn first. There are a host of new characters, situations and mysteries to discover and the game has been developed exclusively for PlayStation VR so it offers a whole new take on the psychological horror game experience.
It's obvious that both Until Dawn and The Inpatient owes some inspiration to popular horror films. If you were to compare horror games to horror films - what sort of elements carry over well from film and what sort of things would you not want to carry over?
Pete Samuels: When we were developing Until Dawn we were striving to deliver the quality and complexity of narrative often only seen before in film and TV, and to deliver that using a visual language that most would associate with those mediums. We're pretty sure that this approach made a huge contribution to Until Dawn's success.
We set out to make a genuinely scary and engrossing, branching, interactive horror with enough variation to encourage multiple playthroughs. Achieving this relied heavily on the players' understanding of established conventions of horror movies - the tropes and clichés that enable us to navigate the genre from the safety of our own preconceptions.
I think that different people would probably call out different parts of Until Dawn where we best achieved that, but the Chris-and-Ashley sawblade scene is a good example of keeping the player engaged and influencing events, and feeling responsible, whilst creating filmic tension. Players had to make an incredibly tough decision that was made even more difficult by the great script, great acting performances from Noah and Galadriel, and the high visual fidelity, lighting, camera work and sound design that the team brought to the scene.
Jump scares is something that tends to divide players and one could argue they're even more divisive in VR. What's your stance and how do you go about striking the right balance of putting the player on the edge and not overdoing it?
Pete Samuels: We're conscious that we shouldn't rely on them too much but we think jump scares have a place in the types of horror stories that we develop. At the most basic level they serve as a sudden release for the player's anxiety at an appropriate moment in time. However, we do understand that every player has a different tolerance for shocks and so aim to strike a balance that we believe most will appreciate. More generally it's not always easy to find the right balance between terror, horror and gross-out, because the balance is different depending on what the experience is trying to achieve. We don't use gore gratuitously and have tried to minimise the gross-out in the work we've done so far. However, it can serve a serious narrative purpose in conveying a future possibility for a character. Whilst often the most effective tool in horror, the terror is the most difficult thing to achieve and sustain.
Another recent release from the studio was Hidden Agenda, in some ways the polar opposite of The Inpatient as it encompassed a social narrative experience. How would you compare these two projects?
Pete Samuels: Designed for group play, with smartphones replacing PlayStation controllers, Hidden Agenda is a very different kind of experience to The Inpatient. However, for both titles the narrative was still critically important, as was the dialogue, and we were keen to get the right scriptwriters on board. So we turned again to Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, who bought their sharp, smart dialogue style to both Hidden Agenda and The Inpatient and, once again, really helped bring the characters to life and helped keep the script tight across numerous branching storylines. Hitting a high visual fidelity in both games is something that was very important for us too.
The most significant similarity of The Inpatient with Hidden Agenda is that the nature of the branching narrative means that player-choices will have consequences in their story, be they immediate consequences or longer lasting effects on the narrative, including the permanent loss of characters. Players' choices will still have a very profound effect, with life and death decisions in their hands.
The Until Dawn franchise now spans three wildly different titles. How do you regard the franchise in terms of overarching themes. Is there a roadmap for it or ideas for more in the future?
Pete Samuels: We've returned to the world of Until Dawn twice already in VR with the PlayStation VR launch title, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and the VR prequel to Until Dawn, The Inpatient. We are very fond of the world we created in Until Dawn and we never say never! Right now though we're very busy with some other projects that we're really excited about, so that's where our focus is.
Supermassive Games has a quite diverse catalogue of titles from Walking with Dinosaurs and Doctor Who, to Until Dawn, Hidden Agenda and Bravo Team. What would you say they have in common and what's the focus moving forward for the studio?
Pete Samuels: It's fair to say that some of our earlier titles reflect us finding our feet as a studio - but we've always been keen to innovate in whatever we do. Our first game Tumble was one of the launch games for PlayStation Move while Until Dawn bought movie quality visuals and script to the PlayStation 4. These are very different games but both reflect our push for innovation. High quality storytelling is another important focus and we have a studio-wide passion to create stories and experiences that fully immerse our players.
How would you describe the process of working with actors on a game like The Inpatient? How important is their contribution and was there anything that stood out in your recording sessions?
Pete Samuels: The performances of the actors in games like Until Dawn, The Inpatient, and Hidden Agenda is an incredibly valuable piece in the whole storytelling effort. We've been very fortunate to work with the likes of Peter Stormare, Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek and Katie Cassidy, but every actor we've worked with has managed to bring something special to our storytelling. There have been many stand-out moments in our performance capture sessions. Some actors, like Hayden, bring huge energy to a session that uplifts everyone in the room. One of Rami's performances in Until Dawn was so powerful that it left the whole set in a stunned silence, immediately followed by rapturous applause. Bruce Gray, as Jefferson Bragg, brought a vast amount of acting experience to The Inpatient set. At times he would edit his own script with humorous results.
What's next for Supermassive? Having just released The Inpatient and Bravo Team for PSVR, we can't help but wish they'd get a shot at a full-on sequel to Until Dawn next...
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