Were there any particular films or filmmakers you studied for tone?
Sam Raimi is phenomenal. He uses cameras in a very exciting way and does things with them in Evil Dead and Evil Dead II that people hadn’t done before. Also, I’ve got to say Hitchcock, probably one of the most eloquent makers of film, in terms of the way he uses film language, that I’ve ever seen. And [John] Carpenter!
Did the move to PS4 encourage you to include more butterfly-effect decisions?
We did develop those, actually. Obviously, the number of permutations of deaths make [adding more choices] really tricky. But PS4 gave us stacks of data to be able to go through that stuff. You can get a scenario where there’s a branch at the end that goes one way or another on a life or death decision, but also a second set of branches [pertaining to] conversational options, and even a third set for the state that person is in. You’ve got to be able to hold all of those things in a stack of various states and branch the right bit, and PS4 let us do that.
The game is transparent about the choices players make. Why be so up front about it?
When I started here, we came up with a prototype where that was fundamentally invisible to the player. Everything you did was a decision and had a consequence. But with hindsight, it was linear – I mean, really, it’s the exact opposite – but you ended up following a line, a story. The experience in itself was quite good fun, but no one felt [the divergence]. We genuinely hadn’t thought of that. My ambition for Until Dawn was to make all this invisible, to make it HUDless, to have no breaking of that fourth wall, but it proved to be a negative thing. don’t know what’s in there,” Byles says. “And with games, it’s really hard to do dark. Which sounds mad, but it really is, because traditionally you have a bake, where all the lights for an entire scene are effectively baked into the texture, and then the lights [for darker areas] are taken away, because it’s just too [computationally] expensive. The game wouldn’t run.” But within what Byles calls “absolute shadows”, any interactive objects, including people, will glow. The answer was to strip back most of the pre-baked lights and attempt to use as much realtime lighting as possible, for which Supermassive had to invent its own rig – one that essentially gave each character their own personal director of photography. “What happens is you get this chiaroscuro [effect], where you have these nicely lit characters in the foreground in front of darkness, without looking out of place.”
It was a calculated risk that paid off, as was the game’s frequent use of static camera angles, a decision that Byles admits initially met with some resistance. Resident Evil might remain a landmark entry in the horror game genre, but these days its techniques are generally considered to be archaic. Several meetings were held to convince the hesitant. “It was very, very collaborative,” Byles recalls. “Lee Robinson, the production designer, and I would storyboard everything up like a film, and [explain] the mood we wanted to get across, and what we were trying to evoke with the cameras we were using.”
But there was more to consider than the narrative motivation of any given shot. If Until Dawn was to look like a film, it still had to function as a game. It was a lesson learned the hard way, with testers growing frustrated and confused by shifting angles at first, but Supermassive soon began to learn the ruleset its design imposed. “We worked out that if you cut the camera at a threshold – like a door, or a [junction] in a corridor – at a 90-degree angle, people would just keep turning around in circles for eternity.” Byles also found he had to kill a few of his personal darlings. “One of my favourite shots is when Sam’s being chased by the psycho, and she pushes through that door that breaks, and there’s a reverse shot that dollies all the way down a really long corridor. Oh my god! But we had to use them very sparingly because they do disrupt the player’s orientation.”
Byles isn’t convinced that the finished game quite achieved the elusive blend of artistry and pragmatism it was shooting for, but Until Dawn’s absorbing mix of scripted frights and branching story made it the most-watched game on YouTube for August, despite only being available for the final five days of the month. “We weren’t expecting that, and we weren’t expecting all the Tumblr [posts], the cosplay or the fanart. I was talking to Larry Fessenden, and at Comic-Con he had people going up to him and saying, ‘You’re Flamethrower Guy!’ I mean, we definitely wanted to have watercooler moments, but we didn’t think it would be like this.” The horror genre is hardly renowned for its happy endings, but after four years, you’d be hard pushed to argue that Supermassive hasn’t earned one.