The horror genre continues to be one of the biggest on the market, regardless of the media it sits within. UK games developer Supermassive Games has made a name for itself over the last decade, thanks to a string of interactive dramas set within nightmarish territories – its latest, The Devil in Me, looks set to continue that trend.
Following a group of documentary filmmakers that receive a mysterious call inviting them to a modern-day replica of serial killer H.H. Holmes’ ‘Murder Castle’, the crew find it's too good of an opportunity to pass up. Being watched and manipulated at every turn, things aren't quite what they seem at the hotel with more than just their ratings at stake.
During Gamescom 2022, T3 sat down with Supermassive Games game director Tom Heaton and studio director Dan McDonald to discuss The Devil in Me, how the developer addresses horror in 2022 as well as plans for the future.
Please note this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
T3: How does The Devil in Me compare to other games in The Dark Pictures Anthology?
Tom Heaton: There’s a couple of key differences. Every time we do a new instalment, we’re always looking to keep it fresh for the players. And that is partly: new plot, new genre, new cast, a completely new story, new locations – and especially New Zealand. So it really feels very different. And because this is the season one finale, we’ve introduced a whole range of new features, which I’ll talk you through. If you look at our exploration mechanics, you’ve always been able to walk around the environments that we create – they’re scary, spooky environments – and look for things in the world to help them survive the horror.
But we’ve added in a suite of new exploration actions. So you can climb over things, jump over things, crawl and crouch under things. The aim is that we allow players to look for hidden things in the world – hidden rooms. Sometimes we set little challenges, like: how can you get over to there?
There’s obviously something interesting. You shimmy along a ledge, you balance on a beam. So we’re giving more agency to the player because we’re making a scary game, and there’s a threat in that environment, but you don’t know where it is, everything that we get the player to do – if you give them more access, we’re kind of giving them more responsibility.
We’ve added an inventory. A simple inventory. It’s not complicated. There’s things that characters have with them because they’re part of a film crew that they can use. If you’ve got a certain tool at a certain point, maybe the narrative will branch this way, or branch that way.
T3: Can you tell me about the cast of the Devil in Me?
Tom Heaton: The cast is led by Jessie Buckley – Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-nominated, Olivier Award-winning. Really fantastic in the role as Kate Wilder, the show’s presenter. It’s a really good performance. She creates very likeable but complex characters. She’s just fantastic. We were very lucky to assemble a cast – it was kind of in the middle of the pandemic, which made things a little bit difficult, but we did get really good actors.
T3: How do you approach horror games in 2022? How do you keep them fresh and exciting?
Tom Heaton: I think part of it is the shift around genres. So this one, we’re looking at serial killers and slashers. It’s not something we’ve done before in The Dark Pictures Anthology. We will go watch a whole bunch of movies and TV. For me, it was looking at those movies especially, and working out what made a slasher movie. What were the key beats? What were the things that had to happen? And then I think we go through a creative process which is, to some extent, subverting all of that, subverting the audience’s expectations.
We’re looking for great set-pieces, memorable events in the game that people are going to take away. And then it’s about putting that all together. In a way, it’s the belt and braces and stuff. It’s getting a really great narrative. It’s creating really strong characters that the players can root for. Specifically, on horror, we’re looking at: how can we make great deaths. How can we raise tension? There’s tricks of the trade. We’ve got to do that.
T3: For Supermassive Games, the studio is now coming to the season one finale with its fourth game in The Devil in Me, right? What does that mean? Is there still a plan for season two?
Tom Heaton: Season two is coming. It’s very exciting. People are working on it back in the office right now, on those games, on multiples of those games. We planned right at the start to do eight games.
We shuffled those games around a little bit. We made a few little changes and the idea was after we’ve done four, we’d take a look at what we’d achieved and what was working and what needed freshening up, to make sure we weren’t resting on our laurels. I think you’re going to see some new stuff in season two.
Dan McDonald: Yeah. There’s a large team on game five, and game six is in the design phase. Games seven and eight, as we go forward, there’s not much going on, on those right now. As Tom’s team finish up, they’ll start to free up, and move onto those other titles as well.
T3: Is The Devil in Me connected to previous titles since this is now one season?
Tom Heaton: They’re all completely separate. They’re new stories, a new cast, new settings. It’s an anthology. And that allows us to start again each time, which is actually really useful for us. That said, we are linking things. We’ve got the curator who’s there in all the games. It’s a story arc of its own that moves along bit by bit with every game. And we put in little hints and teasers to future games as well as callbacks to games we’ve already done.
T3: How long is the game? Is it a similar length to predecessors?
Tom Heaton: It’s a bit longer. Previously, they’ve been about four-and-a-half to five hours. House of Ashes, which was released last year, was a little bit longer than that. The Devil in Me is going to be seven hours.
T3: Can you tell me about that length, and why specifically do horror games work at these lengths? Why not a horror game that is 20 or 30 hours or more?
Tom Heaton: The original idea for The Dark Pictures was that this is a very social game. We’ve got two great multiplayer modes. We’ve got the mode – you can play with a friend online. You’re in the world at the same time. You’ve each got different characters, it’s different bits of it, and you experience different bits of the game. You can also play “Movie Night", which is get a load of friends around on the sofa, get some drinks in, some snacks. It’s a bit like watching a movie, but you’re taking turns to play a character. So they’re quite social. They were designed to be played in a sitting. So they were a little bit shorter.
Seven hours is quite a sweet spot, actually, for telling a really good story. There’s enough room for the characters to develop and to really get to know them. But it’s not a chore to get through it.
Dan McDonald: We have that thing, obviously, where everyone can live, and everyone can die. We always maintain that. The story doesn’t end when the characters die. The story goes on. And so your version of the story – well, for some of us, you know, we’ll play through it once, and we’re happy we’ve what we achieved and what we didn’t. But it’s so replayable. There are so many different major endings and things that change. You can change the relationships, and how they end up working out. So even though it’s a short game, there’s a lot of replayability in there, if that’s what you’re after.
T3: Was there ever any intention to make The Devil in Me next-gen only?
Tom Heaton: No. We’re looking at our install base. There’s still a lot of people playing on the last gen and we were always going to support that.
Dan McDonald: We were able to push the next generation forward while also maintaining the old generation. I want as many people as we can to play this game. I don’t want to cut off half the market, because we know how hard Sony and Microsoft are working to get those kits into people’s hands. But they’re still quite rare.
T3: Have you taken advantage of next-gen console’s capabilities?
Tom Heaton: So we looked at the DualSense. We looked at the haptic feedback and force feedback. We‘ve used that. It’s nice for us because we’re always aiming for immersion. We want to break the wall down, so that you’re in there, empathising with the characters. So the little things that we can get from that, especially the haptics; if you go outside in our game and it’s raining, you’ll get a little pitter-patter from the console. If you’re pulling a lever and things, you can feel it. It’s very nice. It gives a lot of control.
Of course, we’re using the power of the next-generation consoles as well. The visual stuff is really great. But the DualSense is nice. We’re still experimenting with that.
T3: Do you worry that these iterative releases will not have the same impact as say Until Dawn?
Tom Heaton: I think they are having an impact. We’ve both been on The Dark Pictures Anthology since the very start of it and at the start of it, it was a new thing. No one quite knew what we were doing. We were looking to find an audience, and we have found that audience. And that audience has found us.
The fan community are very, very enthusiastic about our games. They love them. They love the format of them, and they love the strong narrative and compelling characters It’s very exciting when we go on the show floor, and we’ve got our demo, and there’s people queuing around the block to play it. We’ve been working on something for a very long time and to see actual members of the public spending their time on it is fantastic. So we’re really happy with the way this is developing.
T3: What else can people expect from the future of Supermassive games?
Tom Heaton: That’s not something we can really talk about. But I’ll say a little bit. It’s a very ambitious studio It’s a big studio now. It’s over 300 people.
Dan McDonald: There’s so much ambition within the group – everyone’s always pushing for higher quality. We’re listening to the teams, and what they want to do. Obviously, we need a business case for every game we’re going to do, because we want to make money. But we want to make great experiences.
Each of the games we’ve done, we focus on the characters and relationships and the emotion and making people cry – as well as making you laugh as well. It’s such a wonderful space to be in. So, yeah, we’re always looking at new opportunities and new things, and there’s a lot more to come from Supermassive.
T3: So outside of that, you’re teasing a little bit about exploring other things. Would it be outside of the horror genre, do you think?
Tom Heaton: Everything that Supermassive Games is doing right now is dark. So that’s the space that we like to play in. We wouldn’t want anything out of that. That’s what we like to do. That’s what we specialise in. That’s the space that we’re playing in.
The Devil in Me is scheduled to launch on November 18th, 2022 across PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox Series X / S, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows.
Looking for more Gamescom coverage? Check out T3's thoughts on The Callisto Protocol, the new terrifying survival horror game from the makers behind Dead Space.