Director Tom Heaton talks exclusively to Wireframe about The Devil in Me, the final episode in The Dark Pictures Anthology’s first season.
If you want a sign of just how popular Supermassive’s Dark Pictures Anthology has become, look no further than publisher Bandai Namco’s stand at August’s Gamescom expo in Cologne. Each day, hundreds of gamers lined up outside the firm’s gigantic stand, all waiting to get their hands on the latest instalment, The Devil In Me. Having worked our way inside the inky-black play area, we finally got to see what all the excitement was about for ourselves.
For The Devil In Me, Supermassive has gone for a rather different approach from the previous three entries in the series: where the previous game, House of Ashes, was essentially a mix of monster flick and war film, this one’s more in the mould of a Saw movie, with its mysterious villain having lured a quintet of filmmakers to his hotel, where he intends to kill each of them with a variety of tailor-made, grisly traps. Said villain was inspired by late 19th-century murderer H.H. Holmes who, according to tabloid newspapers, created his own trap-laden hotel in which he killed dozens of victims.
Such is the backdrop for another cinematic horror game that feels surprisingly like a mid-2000s Resident Evil entry; while there’s no shortage of cutscenes and branching paths, you’re also free to roam around the hotel, picking a path around obstacles and seeking out clues. In another break from earlier Dark Pictures games, there’s an inventory system, thus moving the series into more typical third-person adventure territory.
Taking on the role of filmmaker Jamie Tiergan, we find ourselves picking around a particularly run-down part of the hotel, full of crumbling floors and dank alcoves. Whoever owns the place also has an unnerving penchant for leaving naked storefront dummies in
the most unexpected places. We’re capable of jumping, climbing ladders, and sidling across narrow ledges, but there’s seldom the sense that we’re freely exploring, exactly: rather, The Devil In Me resembles a grimy, ghastly maze with various sundry items and clues (we discovered a variety of old coins and an ID card tucked away in the clothes of a long-dead corpse) serving as breadcrumbs.
Again, like earlier Resident Evil entries, the pace is slow and deliberate; all the better to build up an air of impending dread as you and your sidekick Mark edge ever closer to the next atrocity. And in the 15-minute demo we played, we witnessed two: one a teasing, sharp-edged taster ofnastier things to come; the latter forcing the player into making a split-second choice that no right-minded person would want to even think about for too long.
Not long after we set the controller down, we caught up with a gleeful Tom Heaton, director of The Devil In Me and earlier Dark Pictures entry, Man of Medan. His eyes twinkle with mischief as he talks about dreaming up the ultimate in grisly murder, generating suspense, and the more obscure recesses of the Halloween movie franchise. Here’s what he and studio director Dan McDonald had to say.
What was the genesis of this chapter? Was there a particular idea that led to it?
Tom Heaton: Whenever we do a new Dark Pictures instalment, we’re always looking to shake it up a bit, make it different from the ones that have gone before. We wanted to do one I was very passionate about doing, about a serial killer, because I’m quite fond of serial killer horror. A slasher movie, something like that. We always look for something in the real world – some sort of myth or legend or fact that we can get into. We fairly quickly landed on H.H. Holmes – the first American serial killer. It helps that there’s some historical distance, to be honest – 100 years is quite a long time.
Our game’s set in the present day, and it’s [about] a killer inspired by Holmes, who builds his own version of this hotel. He hoodwinks a documentary film crew that are making a film about Holmes to come and visit it, and then he traps them in and observes them. His aim is to kill – that’s his brand. As a player, you’re playing each of these characters – can you make it out alive? That’s always the question.
Dan McDonald: We had this amazing pitch that we talked about in the studio, and I remember every time it was told to me, the hairs would stand up on my arms. We can’t talk about it because there’s spoilers, but we knew we were onto something cool. It’s a great place to build from.
There’s a lot of grisly deaths in this one, clearly. So what’s your process amongst the team for coming up with those? Is it like a grim brainstorming session?
TH: There are grim brainstorming sessions [laughs]. They’re a lot of fun, actually. Whether they shouldn’t be or they should, they are. And it’s quite difficult because you have to have a sort of logic about how this is going on as well. In most films, people are shot or stabbed or something like that. You have to find a way of making that different. It might be something that’s unusual, it might be an unusual murder weapon or the particular use of it. There’s usually a fair dose of body horror. I’m the one that has to come and say, ‘No, that’s not gruesome enough. Make it more gruesome’ until we get something where everyone goes, ‘Yep, that’s pretty bad’.
You have a proprietary piece of software that you use to craft the story branches and track everything – the logic, the continuity. How important is that to your process?
TH: It’s important because we have to understand how the whole branching structure works before we get actors involved, screenwriters, all those cinematic people. Because once they come and do their stuff, it’s very difficult to change things after that… We spend ages in this piece of software, working out how everything fits together – it’s complicated. And in the software, we can play it – we have the whole game in storyboard form. We can play the exploration sections, the drama, when the characters are talking to each other, the action sequences, and we can get members of the public in, to get them to play it and watch them, talk to them about it, to really understand what we’re making and have a high degree of confidence that it’s good before we actually commit to the script. And before we actually commit to the performances.
In terms of storytelling, is there an optimum number of branches? Can you have too many?
TH: It’s a good question. Certainly, something we’ve done on [The Devil In Me] is to look at the value of the branching. One of the things we’ve learned is that there are two types of story branches. Sometimes, we say, ‘Let’s put a big decision here; the story could go this way, or the story could go that way’. That’s desired branching, and that’s very high value to the player. Sometimes we have to put branching in because we’re forced to by the game. Like, if someone’s been killed, but we’ve got a later scene where they could have been there – well, we just have to take account of that. And that is branching that is less interesting to the player. In fact, ideally, they don’t even notice that it’s happened, but the cost is kind of the same. So what we want to have is as much of that high-value, high-impact branching as possible. And again, we’re refining this process. So one thing we find is, if we’re gonna make it different, we may as well make it really different. Because it’s the same to us, and it has more value. So it’s about getting the best bang for the buck from branching.
A film script tends to be around 90 to 120 pages. I wondered, what would The Devil In Me script look like if it were a film script?
TH: It’s about five times the size of a normal film script. So a film script is that big [indicates something about 20 mm thick]. One of our scripts is about that big [indicates a Tolkien novel]. And you can’t read them as scripts. It doesn’t work like that. We used to print them, but we rarely do that now. We usually have some sort of read-through with the actors where we go through one core version of the story and say, ‘This isn’t the story – it’s just this one version of the story’. And that’s kind of film script-sized. But when we record it – using the flow tool software that we talked about earlier – they’re working off that on a big screen. And again, we try and give them continuity so that they understand it, but sometimes we have to go, ‘OK, now whizz right back to here. Imagine that you did this instead. And now we have to do this’.
Speaking of actors, getting Jessie Buckley is quite a coup…
TH: Jessie Buckley is a massive coup. She’s a terrific actress. Oscar nominee, BAFTA nominee, Olivier Award winner. I was very keen to get Jessie, and that she agreed to do it was fantastic. The role of Kate is quite a complex character. She’s got things in her past – secrets that she’s not quite dealt with. She can be prickly. She’s very clever and able, and she’s also very passionate about doing the right thing. So there’s a lot there to unpack. And Jessie got that straight away. I thought she played her with great sensitivity. One of Jessie’s strengths is that a lot of her roles are prickly; they’re quite difficult characters. But she gets you to like those characters because of the way she plays them.
Do you find it’s getting easier to get a certain generation of actors to perform in a video game? We’re no longer in the era of something like Command & Conquer: Red Alert, which had quite cheesy cutscenes.
TH: I think they understand what games are about much more than they used to. They realise the size of the games industry, which is pretty significant. I’ve had lots of conversations with actors about this. They know there’s a big audience there. And they know that culturally, games are close to par with films and TV.
DM: We always iterate our process in everything we do. We iterate the gameplay as well as the process we go through with the actors. We’ve shot this in the UK, and we’ve used a fantastic casting director, Jessica Ronane, who works at The Old Vic. She’s part of that theatre world. And we’ve got a fantastic performance director that worked alongside Tom, and again, she’s part of that theatre world; she’s directed a whole bunch of stuff. There are names that people can gravitate towards. They’ve seen us working with Shawn [Ashmore] and Ashley [Tisdale], Will Poulter, and they want to be part of that. So I think it is getting easier each time to attract those fantastic people.
Do you think video games have as much in common with theatre as cinema?
TH: Funnily enough, there is some truth in that. So the presentation is cinematic. It’s about using the right camera and using the right lens and getting the cuts just right. So the back end of the game is very cinematic. But the actual performance capture process, and the acting, is a bit like a theatre workshop, actually. There’s just the minimum amount of set. And we ask people to imagine it. And it’s done very, very fast. Because usually, TV and film is quite a slow process. Sets have to be built, there’s make-up, and the cameras take ages. We dispense with all of that; we just say, ‘Do the performance, and we’ll do all that later’. And at first, it’s a bit strange for them, but eventually, they find they get into a flow. We say it’s like a theatre workshop – it’s quite fast-moving, it’s fun, and you can try things out.
What would you say is the key to generating suspense in video games like this?
TH: It’s a thing we think about a lot. Suspense in itself is a narrative thing. So we’ve looked at films and how they do suspense and how they structure things, but on a moment-to-moment basis, there are a couple of things that are needed. One thing is that the player has to understand the context, and particularly, they have to understand what it is that is threatening them. What’s the immediate threat? And they have to understand the proximity of that threat. There’s also a ton of stuff that they don’t understand. They don’t know exactly where that threat is. Is it around the next corner? Or are they on their own? That plays crazy tricks on the mind, and we try and maintain that state for as long as we can.
DM: We also know that we need to drop [suspense] off, because if you keep it going for too long, you lose it. You need to have a moment of laughter and sometimes black humour. Gallows humour, just to break it up. Then you ramp it up again.
You can’t possibly make a game like this and not love horror. What sort of horror movies, maybe even horror short stories or novels, influenced you?
TH: I’m a movie guy, mostly. I love all the classic stuff. I like the cheesiest of slasher movies, they’re my absolute favourite things. I recently sat down and watched all the Halloween movies back to back. I can eat that stuff up all day long. It’s cheesy. It’s not sophisticated, but I love it. Horror is such a rich thing. There’s quite intellectual stuff; there’s stuff that’s dealing with very serious issues. It’s a great medium for that.
DM: We’ve been talking about The Shining and the malevolence of the hotel – we’ve got some of that feeling in this game. Even though it’s not a [supernatural] place, we can still create those same feelings.
TH: Yeah. And again, we’re looking at
the techniques of it. The camera lenses, the way the camera is kept low, the repeating patterns – there’s a lot of that
in The Devil In Me.
I wonder what sub-genres you’d like to explore in future episodes of The Devil In Me… You mentioned body horror earlier, so might we see a David Cronenberg-esque one, perhaps?
TH: I’m not going to get drawn on any details. But the thing about our formula is that it’s very flexible. And it’s about, ‘Can we take the audience with us?’ So yeah, we could do that. We could really explore anything. It’s a formula that allows you to tell any sort of story you want. It’s just working out what we want to do. What do we think would be good for the audience?
DM: What’s our twist on it? It’s like vampires. What’s our take on those? There’s always that element of how can we twist expectations.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: The Devil In Me releases on 18 November 2022.