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Monday, July 4, 2022

‘Until Dawn’ and Beyond: Ranking the 5 Interactive Movies from Supermassive Games

For gore hounds and connoisseurs of shlock alike, 2015’s Until Dawn was an unexpected treat.

The appeal was quite ingenious yet simple. Supermassive Games thrusted you into an achingly familiar horror scenario, in which a bunch of hormonal teenagers (each snuggly fitting into the most stereotypical of stereotypes) were left stranded in a remote location to be menaced by a rarely-glimpsed serial killer.

While that might sound like a spectacularly unremarkable set-up, the USP was that players actually got to influence how things would proceed from thereon. Direct control over the characters’ decision-making was placed entirely in your hands, and you were also made responsible for their reflexive actions.

As such, you were able to cherry-pick which clichés you wanted to indulge in, decide if there would be any deviations from the typical slasher formula (maybe premarital sex isn’t a death sentence in your version, or the final girl could be the first to go) and choose who lived. Suffice it to say, it was an intoxication power trip.

If you’re the type of person who can’t get through a scary movie without yelling instructions at the actors on-screen, then this was an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is and prove your superior survivalist instincts to the world. Alternatively, you could channel the scientists from The Cabin in the Woods and try to exploit genre tropes in a way that guaranteed the grisliest ends for your adolescent cast. Either way, it was super fun.

Yet despite its positive reception and the implications of a post-credit tease, Until Dawn never felt like it warranted a traditional sequel. The developers had exhaustively mined the idea for all its worth and trying to craft a follow-up that satisfyingly continued each of the original’s branching paths would just be a logistical nightmare.

Even if they introduced a fresh batch of potential victims — without making any reference to the first game’s protagonists — many “Butterfly Effect” decisions would still have lingering consequences that couldn’t be ignored. Supermassive would have to either directly acknowledge those things or find increasingly convoluted ways of writing around them.

With that said, taking the established Until Dawn framework and using it to create an American Horror Story-esque anthology series was a smart move. After all, it gave the team an opportunity to devise original mysteries, explore alternative settings and conjure up new monsters, all while playing within the sandboxes of different subgenres.

Now that the latest of these “interactive movies”, The Quarry, has been out for a couple of weeks, it feels like the perfect time to reflect on Supermassive’s legacy and to definitively rank each of the titles. Before we begin, it is worth pointing out that this list won’t include any of the developer’s VR offerings (like Rush of Blood or The Inpatient), nor will it feature the gimmicky party game Hidden Agenda, as those outliers don’t really fit.

Anyway, from trippy voyages aboard legendary ghost ships to summer camp blood baths, let’s dive in.

little hope

#5: Little Hope

While the Dark Pictures Anthology was built on an attractive premise, the results have not been entirely consistent. Take Little Hope for example, which squanders its potential (college students wind up in a deserted town, haunted by revenants of those who were wrongly accused of witchcraft) on lethargic pacing and a deflating twist.

Granted, Until Dawn also tried to pull the rug out from under audiences, but it did so in a way that actually raised the stakes. Without giving too much away, Little Hope’s ending manages to do the exact opposite and makes most of your actions feel utterly inconsequential on a second play-through.

To an extent, the narrative is predicated on the very idea that nothing your characters do matters, which might work thematically in a regular movie but not in a choose-your-own-adventure story like this. It just felt like a twist for the sake of a twist.

If you can ignore that disappointing aftertaste, Little Hope is still on the weaker end of the spectrum. Its plot is engineered so that most of the main characters are protected from death until at least the halfway mark and there’s a lot of aimless wandering around the titular New England settlement without any sense of narrative urgency.

There are a couple of spooky moments here and there, and the flashback sequences to the 1600s give it a slightly different flavour, but otherwise this was a bit of a dud.

BEST CHOICE: Deciding which family member to rescue from a burning fire (in the prologue) will impact the Final Destination-style accident that befalls them. Later on, you will be pursued by either a hanging ghost or an impaled creature, depending on the outcome of this.

Supermassive ranking man of medan

#4: Man of Medan

After Until Dawn was such a big hit, the team at Supermassive tried to meticulously reproduce its success for their next couple of outings. Much to their own detriment.

Man of Medan — the inaugural entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology — fell victim to the dreaded second album syndrome, failing to meaningfully innovate or evolve upon the existing formula. There were a lot of recycled scares (like big-mouthed ghosts shrieking at the camera) and long, tedious stretches of you sluggishly pacing around in the dark, looking out for glinting objects.

Worst of all, the developers seemed to be under the misguided impression that Until Dawn only worked because of its twist, and so they felt the need to awkwardly shoehorn another one in here (as though the fanbase were demanding it). Much like with Little Hope, it’s an underwhelming reveal that only serves to make things less interesting in retrospect and it’s also one that you can see coming from miles away, thanks to many of the clues being far too obvious.

On the plus side, Man of Medan does give you a lot more agency than Little Hope and the story has a number of permutations. Major characters can drop out of the narrative altogether (before you even get a taste of the supernatural), finding certain scraps of evidence will unlock extra paths, and even some of the most innocuous QTEs can have huge ramifications.

The nautical setting also makes it stand out from the rest of the pack, especially in the claustrophobic sequences that are set on a private yacht. In fact, there’s more tension when you’re dealing with the real-world dangers of the sea, like decompression sickness and the threat of modern-day pirates, than there is when you’re running away from watery spirits.

BEST CHOICE: If you jump the gun and surface prematurely during a deep-sea dive at the beginning of the game, the preppy Julia may contract the bends. Providing that she doesn’t get stabbed or strangled before the effects of this catch up to her, she will eventually die of a heart attack.

Supermassive ranking house of ashes

#3: House of Ashes

Third time was the charm for Dark Pictures, as they finally gave up on all of those lackluster twists (which often boiled down to people hallucinating things) and came up with a scenario that forced you to make snap judgements on a regular basis.

House of Ashes puts you in control of a U.S. military unit, stationed in Iraq circa 2003, who are on a doomed hunt for WMDs. When your off-the-books raid is interrupted by the local republican guard, a bombastic firefight ensues, and your team accidentally falls into an underground Akkadian temple. Not only must you then desperately search for a way out, while avoiding pursuing forces, but it turns out that you’ve also stumbled upon a nest of overgrown, bulletproof, subterranean bat-monsters.

Supermassive clearly took player feedback on board for this one — they even introduced a difficulty setting for the QTEs, in case you’re less au fait with your button layouts — and the experience is considerably better paced than its two predecessors. You don’t spend anywhere near as much time marching from one cutscene to the next, and the characters’ movement speed has been noticeably accelerated when you do. Plus, once the nasty creatures are eventually revealed, the momentum doesn’t ever wane.

Indeed, the whole thing feels like a relentless string of life-and-death choices (as opposed to those that only make superficial differences) and stressful QTEs. Not to mention, these decisions are surprisingly tough. In previous games, it was usually quite blatant to genre fans what your actions would result in (everyone knows not to investigate strange noises alone for example), but here your choices are more tactical in nature.

Where should you place tripwire bombs for maximum impact? Which weapon is ideal for use in close-quarters? Should you forge a temporary alliance with sworn enemies? Do you call for air support or try to sneak out undetected? These are the kind of ambiguous choices that leave you genuinely wringing your hands and, even if you make a regrettable mistake, you’ll be satisfied with just how flexible the narrative is.

The only downside to House of Ashes is that — other than the bigoted Jason and Iraqi solider Salim bonding through adversity to become unlikely bros — the characters here are just not that engaging, so you’re less invested if they do happen to bite the dust.

BEST CHOICE: In the second act, Salim has an opportunity to shoot either a monster that’s attacking Rachel or one that’s coming directly for him. Failing to save Rachel will result in her becoming infected later on, which has a surprising benefit as you’ll get to join the alien hive mind and witness their initial arrival on earth via a hidden flashback.

Supermassive ranking until dawn

#2: Until Dawn

Until Dawn was one of those great “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” ideas.

Sure, interactive movies had already been around for a while — popularized by Quantic Dream’s “mature” dramas — but no one had tried to produce one in the slasher mold yet. When you think about it though, that’s the most obvious fit!

In slashers, the characters are meant to be dispensable, and the story can easily carry on if they kick the bucket. It’s the ideal premise for an interactive movie that needs to accommodate several branching paths, as you can get away with axing people at multiple junctures without the entire plot falling apart at the seams. Meanwhile, there is also something innately enjoyable about either trying to keep everyone alive until the credits or gleefully leading them to slaughter, knowing it’s your call.

In that sense, Until Dawn probably does a better job than any other game on this list of making you feel like you’re in the director’s chair, tailoring your own cheesy horror flick. The situations are deliciously cliché, the stock characters are just the right side of annoying (like you’re being subtly challenged not to kill the entitled brats) and every single genre trope is present and accounted for.

You can have endless amounts of fun trying to craft your perfect run, whatever that means to you. Perhaps you want to fan the flames of hormonal jealousy, rack up the largest body count, or characterize one of the teens as the most irredeemable dickheads imaginable, so that their comeuppance is all the sweeter. Or maybe you want to try and make a PG-13 slasher where nobody dies at all. It’s completely up to you.

Of course, this hook wouldn’t be quite so tantalizing if it weren’t for the all-star cast that you get to puppeteer around. There’s a pre-Oscar Rami Malek (who is instantly recognisable thanks to stunning performance-capture technology), Peter Stormare relishing the opportunity to chew any-and-all scenery, and the ever-likeable Hayden Panettiere as an appealing lead. With these strong foundations, it’s no wonder that Until Dawn was crowned the best horror game of the 2010s by Bloody Disgusting.

BEST CHOICE: Breaking up the game’s chapters are a number of therapy sessions with the creepy Dr. Hill. In one of your first appointments, he goes through a list of common phobias and asks you to identify the ones that most strongly get under your skin. Inevitably, this information is then weaponized against you at a later point, ensuring that everyone gets at least one good scare.

The Quarry review

#1: The Quarry

This might be a slightly controversial take, but The Quarry capitalizes on everything that Until Dawn nailed, while also fixing a couple of its minor foibles.

On a purely technical level, the visuals have never been stronger to the point where, if you squint your eyes, you could justifiably mistake the CG character models for their real-life counterparts. Meanwhile, the developers finally managed to crack that “Don’t Move” mechanic after experimenting with multiple iterations over the years, and the combat has been given a much-needed overhaul (with less restrictive aiming and buckshot spread that forces you to judiciously time your shots).

Of course, the most important thing is that it has a gripping, open-ended story and a surprisingly witty script to do it justice. In previous Supermassive titles, the dialogue has often been knowingly trashy but there are some genuinely funny lines in this one and it has a knock-on effect of making the cast way more likeable.

In fact, there’s not really a weak link amongst the playable camp counsellors and you feel incentivized to keep all of them alive. If they’re not killed right away, you’ll soon learn that even the douchey Jacob and narcissistic Emma have some redeeming qualities, while the likes of Dylan, Kaitlyn and Abigail are immediately endearing.

The Quarry is also more stylistically adventurous than its precursors too, featuring things like musical interludes, animated tutorial sections and more expressive camerawork. It also experiments with non-linear storytelling in a way that keeps things fresh and unpredictable, making this by far the most ambitious Supermassive offering to date.

With ample gore, a compelling mystery, pulse-pounding set pieces, and intimidating monster designs, it works supremely well as a simple horror game too. The climax is particularly exhilarating, filled to the brim with unbearable close calls that are guaranteed to get your heart racing.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it delivers on its promise of having a dizzying amount of branching paths. It’s not just about who lives and who dies this time (although there are plenty of exciting combinations to discover there), but also about whether you collect enough evidence to clear your name and how you resolve the supernatural predicament. There are a lot of different ways this can go down, meaning that we will be replaying it for years to come.

In short, The Quarry is the ultimate interactive horror experience. Supermassive is going to have to work really hard to top this one.

BEST CHOICE: Abigail is presented with an excruciating dilemma when she must contemplate shooting her summer crush, Nick, as he transforms into a werewolf in front of her very eyes. It’s not immediately clear if action or inaction is the prudent choice here, but one of them is sure to have deadly consequences.

The post ‘Until Dawn’ and Beyond: Ranking the 5 Interactive Movies from Supermassive Games appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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