The creators of Until Dawn unveil the secret of their new narrative horror game: an online co-op mode that changes everything.
When we first saw Man Of Medan at Gamescom last year we were generally very positive about it. As the new game from UK developer Supermassive Games, creators of Until Dawn, it continued that game’s experiments with branching narrative in a number of interesting ways and seemed to be essentially a spiritual sequel to the earlier PlayStation 4 exclusive. But while we liked what we saw we wouldn’t pretend we were blown away by it.
But at a press event last week, Supermassive, and publisher Bandai Namco, unveiled the game’s secret weapon: an online two-player multiplayer mode. Until Dawn has already proven popular as an ad hoc multiplayer game, with people shouting suggestions at each other while playing – especially during important binary decisions – but adding a proper online mode is something we never expected, and yet it works amazingly well.
Many compared Until Dawn to the likes of Heavy Rain but we always found it much more compelling, and less pretentious, than that. Both Until Dawn and Man Of Medan are horror games, but since most action is limited to QTE sequences they’re not really survival horror and the levels of violence and gore are quite mild (the game only has an age rating of 16). Despite that, any and all characters can die at multiple points during the story, and yet still the plot will continue on without them.
Man Of Medan is part of a larger anthology series called The Dark Pictures, with each entry having a semi-budget price of £25 and lasting around five hours on a single play through. But, just like Until Dawn, the idea is that you’ll want to play through multiple times in order to save (or kill) everyone and to see everything you missed. And there is a lot you will not see on just one run through.
We played through the entire prologue and an hour or so into the main story, which revolves around a literal ghost ship called the Man Of Medan. This is apparently a real urban legend in East Asia, with the other Dark Pictures games also being inspired by real stories, but we get the impression that Supermassive is using nothing but the most basic details.
In the prologue you play as a Second World War American soldier on shore leave, who returns with his friend drunk and is put in the brig. At the same time, some mysterious looking crates are loaded onto the ship and after a lightning strike start leaking an evil-looking green goo. Stuck in the brig you don’t see any of this and neither does your friend – who is played by someone else on the other end of the Internet (someone from your friends list though, as the game doesn’t allow for random matchmaking).
You can turn on voice chat if you want but it’s off by default, and likewise you can just play the whole game on your own. But with another player that you can’t directly communicate with you don’t lose any of the horror atmosphere and yet the sense of taking part in a shared narrative works extremely well, as often they’ll be off doing something that you never see or making choices you then have to work with the consequences of.
For example, there’s a sequence where you both have to hide and play a QTE sequence where you control your breathing, and if you fail you’re spotted. Sometimes you’re both exploring at the same time, in fixed camera locations that are very reminiscent of earlier Resident Evil games, and sometimes you get split up. There’s no way to avoid this at the end of the prologue, when it becomes clear something supernatural is going on, and, faced with a choice of what to do, we elect to do the sensible thing and hide in a cupboard.
Unfortunately, that didn’t manage to keep out the zombies/ghosts/whatever-they-ares and we’re discovered by what seems to be a fortune-teller we met during shore leave, but with a horribly melted face. We do the obvious thing and stab him with a knife, but it does nothing. Except, we later find out, by speaking to the person who was the other player, that that was actually them. The ghosts only made it look like it was a ghoul and we’d actually stabbed and killed our own friend.
Exactly what’s going on with the supernatural plot we’re not sure – at one point a shadow on the walls seems to have four arms – but when the prologue is over and the scene switches to the modern day the mood changes significantly. Now you’re taking part in some kind of treasure hunting expedition paid for by two rich siblings, accompanied by one of their boyfriends and his brother, and a no-nonsense boat captain who seems to know more than she’s letting on.
Captain Fliss was interesting, but the others seem to be a very familiar clutch of horror movie clichés, much like the cast from Until Dawn. As Supermassive CEO Pete Samuels explains in our interview, it’s vitally important to the game that you get to know and like the main characters and that’s something we’re not yet convinced about. Although since we only saw them before they encounter the Man Of Medan it’s hard to say how their characters will evolve.
The opening also involves a deep sea dive to a Second World War bomber, or at least it did for us. While we were busy desecrating war graves the other player was dealing with would-be pirates who take control of the boat and start beating everyone up to try and find out about sunken treasure. That may sound fairly straightforward but all this is filled with important decisions that could literally be the difference between life and death.
For example, a decision on whether to ignore proper decompression procedure when coming up from the dive could, we were told, lead to one of the character’s deaths if it’s followed up by other bad decisions. While a plan to steal the pirate’s motorboat can end with main character Conrad (played by Quantum Break’s Shawn Ashmore) dying just an hour or so into the game. And those are just the big decisions, there are many smaller ones that subtly influence your relationship with other characters (tracked by the game as a fluctuating bar chart) and set-up situations for later on.
Man Of Medan has the same excellent graphics as Until Dawn, with some of the best facial animation around – although that does sometimes clash with the more ordinary quality of the body animation and other graphics. The overall sense that you’re playing a horror movie is fantastic though, even if it seems a bit more PG-13 friendly than we would’ve preferred. We’re not sure we’re going to be scared by any of it, but it’s clearly going to be massively popular on Twitch and YouTube.
Beyond playing online there’s also a five-player couch co-op mode called Movie Night, where each player gets to play the role of a different main character and a single controller is passed around as needed. This was a little disappointing though as characters didn’t switch anywhere near as often as we expected and rather than the manic game of hot potato we were imagining it ended up rather dry and uninvolving. Although it still has potential if tweaked.
Overall though we were very impressed by Man Of Medan, especially by the mechanics themselves and their enormous potential for future games. Apart from the multiplayer options Man Of Medan seems very similar to Until Dawn, but as we discuss in our interview the scope for expansion beyond simply horror is almost infinite. Although that will certainly do fine for starters.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: Supermassive Games
Release Date: 30th August 2019
Age Rating: 16
GC: So, congratulations on coming up with a genuinely new idea.
PS: [laughs] Well thank you.
GC: I don’t like to be so positive at the start of an interview…
PS: [laughs] Well then, it’s even nicer for you to say so. [laughs]
GC: [laughs] I could see how proud you were when you were announcing it and how happy you were that the news hadn’t leaked out.
PS: Yeah, I was.
GC: I guess it’s pointless to ask where the idea came from, because it’s obviously an evolution of people playing together ad hoc in Until Dawn. But was it a surprise to you that that caught on and became such a social experience?
PS: It didn’t surprise us that it happened. I mean, going back to Heavy Rain… [we hate Heavy Rain and Samuels knows it – GC]
GC: Oh please don’t do that.
PS: [laughs] There was a lot of talk in the press about how people enjoyed that as a group…
GC: Well, you need all the help you can, to get through that game. Drink, drugs…
PS: [considerable laughter] But, it didn’t surprise us that it happened. The extent that it happened, with Until Dawn, surprised us. And the way that the streaming community got hold of it, the amount of views that it had on YouTube. Videos of Until Dawn… I think they’ve surpassed a billion views in total.
So yeah, to some extent it did surprise us, but actually the concept of it being two-player co-op – if you want it to be co-op – is something that happened before we really saw the height of that with Until Dawn. It was kind of a little experiment, to be honest. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if… and how would that work and can we manage that?’
We did a little prototype in the studio and it’s rare that you do a first prototype and it proves what you wanted it to prove. We did this one simple prototype and we knew straight away there was something there. And then we had to do a lot of figuring out and design about how to manage that and how to manage the potential for the branching to get out of hand and undeliverable, with two players making decisions where every decision has to change something, has to influence something at least. ‘Cause that’s kind of a rule that we have.
And so, yeah, we took a little time to develop that. But like I said, we found it very hard to describe what we had imagined for it when we talked to potential publishing partners, very difficult. And we were getting frustrated that they didn’t seem very interested in our descriptions.
So we went away, we spent six months, a fair amount of money, and we built a demo, a two-player demo, 20 minutes long. We took it to E3, three years ago, we had a room at the back and invited every publisher in the world to come and play it. And we got a tremendous reception. So we knew, ‘Okay, we’re onto something here.’
GC: So this was always the focus of it? When you were showing it off at Gamescom last year you were secretly thinking, ‘Ha ha, you haven’t seen the USP yet!’
PS: Absolutely! Even though we subtitled it Don’t Play Alone, which we found hilarious… [laughs]
And actually we talked a lot about when was the right time to announce it, ’cause there was one argument that said we should announce it early on, because obviously you want people to follow what you’re doing and get excited about it. But we were really nervous about it falling flat if we weren’t in a position to show people like yourself.
GC: I was immediately dubious when I saw voice chat wasn’t being used in the demo. I wondered if you were trying to hide something, because that seemed like the best way to play it at first. But now I’ve played it once I don’t want to play it with the microphone, because it’d ruin the atmosphere. Which is presumably what you found.
PS: That’s interesting, yeah.
GC: I mean, I’m sure it’s fun with the microphone, but the chance of the other person ruining everything is obviously very high. I imagine that’s something you were experimenting with a lot, in terms of whether to allow or deemphasise voice chat?
PS: It is a good question. We’ve been round that block a few times. At one point we were seriously contemplating deliberately disabling voice chat for some or all of it. And we decided not to do that. And what we decided is people own the game, they have a right to play it however they want. So there’s no disabling of voice chat. We’re not gonna say the best way to play it is without talking to the other players.
GC: Well, you can say that, surely?
PS: Well… it depends. But I don’t even know what the right answer is. ‘Cause on one hand you can say it’s better if someone isn’t chatting over the top, but you’re playing with somebody and you’re both taking it seriously and you’ve been split up and all you hear is a scream in your headphones… that’s gonna be quite unnerving!
GC: I like you don’t know what the other person is doing. Until I had a go on Movie Night I didn’t realise they were doing all these other things that I didn’t see before. But now that I know something complex is going on at the same time, that’s kind of all I want to know.
PS: Yeah, I understand. Absolutely.
GC: But the immediate worry most people would have, I think, is what happens if the other player messes up? Like, my partner messed up the breathing QTE in the prologue. So how exactly was I punished for that? Because it wasn’t obvious.
PS: Well, because that is the prologue and we don’t punish people in the tutorial.
GC: I’m sure. But I assume that comes up again. Actually, it was on the boat, wasn’t it?
PS: Yeah. And there are instances that come up again that require both of you to succeed. Where if both of you don’t succeed, then much worse things will happen to one or both of you. So yeah, it’s kind of added responsibility, responsibility for your own character and you’ve got some responsibility for your friend’s character as well.
And it’s interesting that, again, we’ve very much focused it on the friends list, not matchmaking.
GC: There’s no matchmaking at all?
PS: No, no. You play with a friend. Because we just think it’d be too disruptive for people…
GC: Well that’s it, because my next question was going to be what if I want to purposefully ruin someone’s game?
PS: Yep, yep. Then I won’t be your friend any more.
GC: The other thing I assume everyone will be thinking – or maybe it’s just me – is how easy is it to get them killed? Could anyone have died in just the bit I played? I think they could die fairly early on in Until Dawn?
PS: If memory serves me right the first event where someone can die in Until Dawn is… two hours in? Apart from the prologue. We just kill people in prologues, that’s what they’re for. We remind you of the fragile nature of human beings. But somebody could’ve died in that bit you played.
GC: Oh really? So within the first hour and a half or so.
GC: Actually, one of your devs mentioned that if I kept mucking up Conrad’s QTE fights then he can die then?
PS: Yeah, well I’ll tell you that the star of the game can die after an hour. [laughs] And I tell you, I think he was as shocked as anyone. When he died on the shoot and he turned to us and said, ‘Am I dead?’ And we said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘But I’m the star!’ [laughs] He was joking but…
GC: So they’re doing all the mocap as well then?
PS: Ah, all the face performance, yeah.
GC: I’m not suggesting this is a negative at all, but did you specifically design the game with Twitch in mind? I know that’s what they did with Sea Of Thieves on Xbox.
PS: The community’s important. I think that’s the best way to summarise it. It’s that the community is crucial, nowadays. We don’t want our stuff to be too skill-based, too dependent on gaming skills, because we want a broad audience to enjoy it and interact with it. And the more games you play, the more likely you are to get a different result than playing less games.
GC: But it’s not just that. The game is perfect for people watching and interacting on Twitch, or YouTube or whatever. I’m curious as to how widespread that is as a consideration nowadays, and if you’re designing specifically for that.
PS: No, genuinely, we didn’t. I mean, it’s great that it works in that way, but we think it works that way because it’s good entertainment. It’s very watchable entertainment and we want it to be watchable. We want people sitting at home and playing it with their friends watching. That’s what drives our decisions rather than, ‘Oh, we’ll do this cause it’d be great on Twitch.’
GC: Did you mention Twitch when talking to publishers? Is that what attracted them to it?
PS: I think one of the attractions is when we talk about Until Dawn videos getting a billion views on YouTube, that suggests that there is a good commercial proposition.
GC: Now wait, hang on. You said that before. A billion?
PS: Over a billion.
GC: You do realise I can check that don’t you?
PS: [laughs] But what that says is there’s an audience for this, there’s people that enjoy it. There’s a lot of people that will enjoy it.
GC: …one billion? Why were you having to court publishers? Why weren’t they knocking down your door asking you to make games for them? Publishers are weird, aren’t they?!
PS: [considerable laughter – including from the PR guy and publishing producer that are also in the room]
GC: Well, I’m sure Bandai Namco will be very happy in their investment.
GC: But I do have some concerns, although playing as Triss just now has, I think, satisfied one of them. One of the many things I hate about Heavy Rain is that you’re playing characters that know things you don’t know. Which is ridiculous. You don’t do that, do you?
PS: [laughs] No. It’s an absolute rule that we have, we talk about it a lot. We have one particular game that we refer to as a really bad example, but I’m not gonna mention what it is.
GC: Do you think I’d know that game?
PS: Dunno. [laughs]
GC: [laughs] But the other concern, and I think I mentioned this at Gamescom, is that I’m worried that for a horror game it doesn’t seem that scary. But more than that, after now being convinced that the multiplayer mechanics work so well, I wonder whether they’re actually being best served by a horror game. At what point did you become certain that that was the route you should take?
PS: I think it’s a good point, that they would serve other genres, definitely. We always say we love horror, but we really do. There’s a bunch of us that get a kick out of horror, out of scaring people, out of building tension. The other great thing about horror is you expect people to die. That’s largely what horror is. And what we found is, I think, a really great way of having a narrative, a very strong narrative driven game where you can have a score at the end.
Now we won’t tell you what the score should be, but out of out of eight people in Until Dawn, how many survivors did you have? What’s your score? Same as Man Of Medan, what’s your score out of five? I’ve seen people play it to try and get a score of zero. So I’m not saying that five is a win but there is a way of comparing. So that’s why horror particularly suits these mechanics.
GC: Okay, I get that. But the other thing is I worry about is the pacing. Obviously it’s only the beginning I’ve played but that whole bit in the boat is the sort of set-up that in a movie would only take five or 10 minutes, but here it was half an hour or so. I worry that the pacing of the game is running quite a bit slower than the types of movies and sequences it’s trying to emulate. Was that a concern?
PS: It’s always a concern, pacing is always a concern. And the job that we have to do is to get you to care about the characters, which is I feel more important in a video game than a film. You’ve got to care.
GC: It’s more difficult as well.
PS: Oh yeah. And it takes time. And we know, from the feedback that we’ve had, that a lot of people that play our stuff, they talk a lot about the relationships between characters. They talk a lot about how much they care about characters… kind of obsess about the characters and who they are. So we kind of have to give them that. We have to give them that building and understanding of who characters are, what the relationships are, and an opportunity to influence those things early on. And all of that takes time. But it is – you’re absolutely right – it’s a really difficult balance.
GC: A couple of times I was thinking, ‘I totally get what kind of scene this is’ but it just felt like it was dragging its feet a bit at times.
GC: But I guess from what you’re saying, you felt there was no way around it. Even though there are plenty of horror films where you don’t care about the characters and they’re just cannon fodder.
PS: Yeah, I know, but that’s not what we want to make.
GC: That’s absolutely fine. But the other thing is just how scary, generally, the game is going to be. Because Until Dawn was already more the PG-13 end of the spectrum and given the mechanics I wanted to be scared of this, but I’m not sure I’m going to be. I know you’re purposely avoiding gore, but it almost seems like you’re fighting against the genre.
PS: Genuinely, we make the story that we want to make and that’s what we’ve done with Man Of Medan. Now that’s not to say that the second game in the anthology won’t have a different tone.
PS: Or the third. I mean, they are tonally very different anyway. Because we want to surprise you every time.
GC: Is scaring people your primary goal in these games? How far down the list is it, if it’s not? And again, I’m not saying it should be number one.
PS: It’s fairly high up. But not having them scared all the time. We want them to remember how scared they were and when they were scared and what scared them. I think that’s high up our list and you don’t do that just by throwing five hours of constant terror at somebody.
(The PR guy starts trying to get us to wrap up.)
GC: Would you consider doing other film genres using these mechanics? An action adventure style story would work really well, I think. Or just anything where you’re constantly making decisions?
PS: Maybe there’s another analogy we can do that isn’t horror.
GC: Well, quite. Oh, and how comes I was the only guy to see the Curator on the boat? When I mentioned that to a dev he seemed to get very excited. [The Curator introduces each chapter of the game in his own cut scene set in some kind of library, but who and what he is remains a mystery – GC]
PS: Really, was he?
GC: Don’t give me that!
PS: [laughs] Well spotted, well spotted. I’d be surprised if many people saw that.
GC: Is that explained in the game?
PS: In time, in time.
GC: I think you said already he’s in all the games? He’s the link between them?
PS: He is, he’s in every single game.
GC: (To PR guy) Right. Okay. Sorry. This is absolutely the last question.
GC: Is there a Mass Effect type thing going on here, where the game knows if you’ve played the previous titles?
PS: [Hesitates] To an extent.
GC: Okay. Well let’s leave it there.
PS: Always a pleasure, David.
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