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.