Whatever long-term plans Sony might have held for the PlayStation in the early 2010s, reinvigorating the interactive movie — a hybrid the video game industry had largely given up on a couple of decades prior — was not among them. Nor was it for Supermassive Games, the studio that helped herald this change with its BAFTA-winning spin on the slasher film, 2015′s “Until Dawn.”
Over its roughly five-year-long development cycle, “Until Dawn” began as a conventional first-person adventure, morphing twice before improbably settling into its final form as the epitome of a historically troublesome genre: a horror adventure that hands players control of several characters, most of whom could perish midway through, their gruesome deaths woven into the cinematic narrative rather than prompting a Game Over screen.
“Sony had been working on a Move-controlled game,” said Will Byles, director of both “Until Dawn” and its 2022 spiritual successor, “The Quarry,” referring to PlayStation’s motion controller. “I think it was called ‘Beyond’ in those days, and they asked us to develop it further. We rewrote the story, rewrote the dynamics of it, and it became much lighter, teen-horror fare. Eventually we got the whole thing on the PlayStation 3. We got to Gamescom in Cologne [in 2012], and the audience went mad about it. So Sony said ‘Let’s remake it. Let’s take Move out and do it as a third-person interactive drama for the PlayStation 4.’ ”
But the shift was bound to raise questions for a developer that, until that point, specialized in DLC packs and remasters, especially when the issues that had condemned projects with similar ambitions on multiple occasions in the past remained unsolved. Interactive movies have persevered, in one form or another, in the games industry for more than four decades — despite finding little financial or critical success. Many have been foiled by a core conundrum: How do you incorporate compelling gameplay into a medium like film, which is an inherently hands-off experience for the audience?
In the early ‘80s, that elusive dream manifested as Laserdisc interactive cartoons (such as Konami’s spectacular 1984 Western, “Badlands”) and VHS-powered, live-action shooting galleries (developed for experimental home consoles, like the Action Max). Both approaches ensured a measure of spectacle light-years ahead of anything offered by the home consoles of the era, but the price for their visual extravagance was rigid, predetermined action sequences and a lack of meaningful engagement. Players would simply point plastic guns at their TV set to rack up points or wait for the prompt to perform button presses that had little to do with what happened on the screen — early precursors to contemporary quick time events.
Later in the decade, cinematic ambitions motivated software houses at the cutting edge of the video game medium. Developing for the powerful new 16-bit computers like the Amiga 500 and Atari ST, game developer and publisher Cinemaware produced titles based on different film genres (swashbuckling adventures, invasion movies, crime epics, etc.) and combined their branching narratives with minigames appropriate to each situation, whether that be shooting the antennae off a giant ant or sneaking into a castle to rescue your future betrothed.
When CD-ROMs became a viable commercial proposition in the ‘90s, the confidence that technology had finally caught up to the fantasy of the interactive movie encouraged the era’s biggest publishers to jump on the full-motion video (FMV) bandwagon, luring major Hollywood talent and producing some famously hammy performances in the process (most memorably Christopher Walken’s in Take Two’s futuristic murder mystery, “Ripper”).
Developers during the FMV boom ascribe the market’s collapse to the rising popularity of cheaper-to-produce alternatives. In one of the more poignant examples, “Ripper” lead designer F.J. Lennon recalled how the production crew would huddle around the screen during breaks to play the latest sensation, a humble first-person shooter called “Doom II,” which he reluctantly acknowledged as the more engaging gaming experience. The last sustained, industry-wide push for the interactive movie petered out in the mid-‘90s, though we’ve still seen vestiges in this millennium, in the form of Quantic Dream’s “Heavy Rain” and Sam Barlow’s “Her Story.”
“I think the entertainment industry has a tendency to shoot itself in the foot and get too excited about emerging technologies,” said Graham Reznick, lead writer on both “Until Dawn” (alongside indie-horror legend Larry Fessenden) and “The Quarry.” “We’ve seen it over and over again with 3D and VR. These are viable artistic mediums that need to be explored organically. But when you get a lot of money and expectations put into them, they can easily topple before they’ve had a chance to mature. That’s probably what happened in the ‘90s with FMVs.”
Reznick even includes traditional adventure games in the interactive movie’s long lineage of partial successes and outright failures. Growing up without a dedicated console, he would use his father’s work PC to immerse himself in games like “King’s Quest,” which he considers “essentially, weirdly templates for what Supermassive ends up doing.”
“[It] seems counterintuitive because the latter [of Supermassive’s Games] are primarily narrative-driven,” he told The Washington Post, “but they do share more with Sierra adventures than people tend to realize.”
While citing point ‘n clicks as a precursor to the modern interactive movie may raise some eyebrows, at the same time it highlights how a fresh perspective on the genre — one focused on storytelling rather than the technological spectacle and star-studded casts of the FMV era — proved vital for Supermassive’s success with the genre.
Byles, who joined the Guildford-based studio in 2010, is slightly older and, having followed the medium’s cinematic ambitions from the start, somewhat less controversial with his historical references.
“I loved ‘Dragon’s Lair’ — I spent a bloody fortune on it!” he said, referring to the most celebrated product of the Laserdisc era, a gorgeously animated fantasy arcade game helmed by occasional Spielberg collaborator Don Bluth that was visually indistinguishable from his award-winning animated films.
Despite approaching the interactive movie’s winding genealogy from different entry points, both contributors were aware of the pitfalls involved in Supermassive’s undertaking. If overinvestment doomed the medium’s most orchestrated pursuit of the interactive-movie ideal, it could be argued that Supermassive’s creative triumph was, at least partly, due to the freedom of operating outside the zeitgeist.
Working on a niche genre with lower financial expectations and little ambition to revolutionize the medium may have been a necessary precondition but, in itself, it hardly explains how Supermassive broke away from the pack to establish the definitive interactive-movie formula. A more illuminating suggestion may be mined from Reznick’s recollection of a presentation a few months before “Until Dawn’s” release:
“There was a moment when I knew we were on the right track. Pete Samuels, the head of the studio, was showing off the game at the PlayStation Experience. He’s up on the stage, in front of two thousand people, playing the section where Sam gets out of the bath and is chased down the lodge’s hallways — a classic horror-movie sequence. And people just started shouting things like ‘Hide under the bed!’ or ‘Don’t go there!’ They were having a primal reaction to what’s happening.”
Horror, it turns out, is an exceedingly good fit for the interactive-movie format. No other popular cinematic genre is as rigidly codified, meaning its timeworn cliches present players with an immediate understanding of any situation and their role in it. Byles describes it as a sort of transparency, “making sure everyone knows the ruleset: If you open a banging trapdoor because you heard the voice of your dead friend, what do you think is going to happen?”
The PlayStation Experience audience identified with Sam within seconds precisely because they could draw on horror’s universal lexicon, a kind of interpretive accessibility that extends even to non-gamers.
And once that common ground has been established, the rules can be playfully subverted both for the sake of a good, old-fashioned horror twist and, perhaps more surprisingly, to generate player empathy and solidify identification. Reznick explained that archetypal characters come with, “certain narrative expectations … [b]ut the second you make a choice for them, a little piece of you is transferred into the character. You might meet them and think ‘I don’t like this person, I’m going to get them killed’ but, as soon as you start making choices for them, it gets harder and harder to think of them as expendable.”
A key to “Until Dawn” and “The Quarry” nailing the interactive-movie template lies, therefore, in being anchored (unlike the more wide-ranging mix of Supermassive’s anthology “The Dark Pictures”) to a highly specific and widely familiar subgenre: the postmodern teen slasher.
There are several reasons this is such a vital ingredient in the formula. First, according to Byles, is the lightness of tone associated with franchises like “Scream” and “Final Destination.”
“It’s that slightly irreverent, self-referential approach which is really important, otherwise you can take yourself too seriously,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with earnestness per se, but it certainly doesn’t work for us in this kind of context.”
The more crucial element of the teen-slasher DNA, however, resides in a trope so well-established it becomes invisible until pointed out: Main characters tend to die in them. A lot. So much so, the protagonist often emerges midway via a process of elimination. Reznick defined the interactive movie as a game where “you’re not trying to achieve something other than your own experience,” having “no expectation for what’s going to happen, other than your reactions being reflected in the way it unfolds.”
But keeping your character alive, an objective hard-coded into the video game medium, clashes with such open-mindedness. “Until Dawn” wasn’t the first interactive movie to dare endanger the cast; both Reznick and Byles readily acknowledge the influence of “Heavy Rain” in that respect. But in that game, a death would still register as a deviation from the ideal trajectory, a fail state. The teen slasher’s great gift to the interactive-movie template is that it normalizes character loss.
Of course, for such events to land as truly impactful (“We want death to be genuinely traumatic,” Byles said), they must be enmeshed in the narrative as the final outcome of myriad decisions gone wrong, not preordained by an immutable script. This involves a staggering amount of branching, alternative plotlines to account for the numerous possibilities that each individual choice opens up.
Smaller-scale efforts in the genre have shrewdly sidestepped the problem by containing the action: “Her Story” takes place in a police interrogation room; “The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker” in a therapist’s office. But for a killing spree that spans multiple locations and features hands-on action, not just dialogue options, nothing less than a world record script is required.
“We have the Guinness World Record for the longest adventure game screenplay but it’s based on my annoyed b——- in an interview. Somebody asked me and I was like ‘I don’t know, 10,000 pages!’ but, in all honesty, it was between five and ten thousand,” Reznick said.
Such loquacity doesn’t come cheap, not just in terms of paying your writers and cast but also in capturing actors’ performances. Byles calculates the cost at a staggering quarter-million pounds ($300,000) per actor, just for mapping facial expressions and body movement at the USC lab that specializes in the specific animation technique Supermassive requires.
Keeping in mind the significantly expanded cast, greater length and wider range of locations, it is budget size that — alongside tone and choice of subgenre — differentiates “Until Dawn” from “The Dark Pictures” (perhaps not unrelated to that, the anthology has met with an increasingly lukewarm critical reception before “The Quarry” was hailed as a triumphant return to form earlier this year). Which is not to say its episodes are stopgaps, secondary pursuits to mark the time while the studio works on its next tentpole release.
“I think they’re equally important in the grand scheme of things,” Reznick said. “ ‘Man of Medan’ couldn’t feature as many characters as ‘Until Dawn’ because it experimented with a true multiplayer approach to narrative: different players control different characters and those branching narratives can intersect. That evolution can’t happen when you focus solely on tentpole games every four years. I don’t think ‘The Quarry’ would be what it is without the parallel evolution of ‘The Dark Pictures,’ ” he said, the idea of incremental improvement perhaps echoing his earlier theory about expectations and overinvestment spelling doom for FMVs in the ‘90s.
“It’s such a wild west of a new medium and a new way of telling stories that, ultimately, it’s not about cutting cost — it’s about trying new approaches,” he continued. Despite having concocted a winning formula, it’s reassuring to know that Supermassive will not let it stagnate, still searching, still seeking a balance between the comfort of familiarity and the delight of expectations subverted.
Alexander Chatziioannou writes about games, mainly. His work has appeared in The AV Club, The Outline, The Verge, and Wireframe Magazine. You can find him tweeting about obscure horror games @Alexander_Had1.