When Will Byles was young, his older sister would often wake him in the middle of the night and drag him downstairs to watch horror movies. He was only seven years old, and the sight of slasher flicks and monster movies was terrifying. He says he was “scared witless" — and he couldn’t get enough. “I’ve been obsessed ever since,” Byles says.
Now Byles is putting that obsession to use at Supermassive Games as the creative director on the upcoming PS4-exclusive horror game Until Dawn. “It’s really frustrating watching horror [movies] and thinking ‘literally no one would do that, that was a stupid thing to do, and you deserve to die,’” says Byles. Until Dawn will give you the power to keep them alive.
The game takes your yelling at on-screen characters who are about to die because of a stupid decision, and makes it the interactive hook: here’s your chance to stop Monday morning quarterbacking all those dumb teenagers, and actually save their lives.
Until Dawn is, at least on the surface, incredibly cliché. It’s a story about eight high school friends who head up to a remote cabin in the mountains for a night of debauchery. They’re mostly obnoxious stereotypes, from the blonde cheerleader to the promiscuous jock. Their vacation just so happens to take place on the anniversary of the mysterious death of two close friends. As you’d imagine, it’s not long before things get spooky; a trip to the basement to fix the electricity turns into a terrifying chase, while some fun with a Ouija board brings a haunting message. There always seems to be an axe-wielding maniac in the periphery of your vision.
Early on it feels like every moment in Until Dawn is something you’ve seen elsewhere, whether it was in Evil Dead or Scream. And Byles says that’s on purpose. "What we wanted to do was get that going as a starting point, because it’s comfortable," he explains. "I don’t mean that in a not scary way, but we all know what’s going on here. And then very, very soon, after an hour or so, things should start to get a little more dangerous, and then it really turns." I’ve played the first four chapters, and while there haven’t been any Cabin in the Woods-style shocks yet, there are definitely hints of twists and mysteries to come. "We’ve taken a sub-genre of horror and subverted it, and we’ve tried to subvert it in a way that’s unexpected and genuinely scary," explains Byles.
Until Dawn looks like a blockbuster game, with some of the most realistic characters I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t really play like one. It’s more like a high-end riff on the Telltale Games formula: an interactive drama where the focus is on choices and character interaction, instead of flat out action. You’ll control each of the eight characters at various points throughout the story, and much of your time will be spent navigating dialogue choices and making quick decisions. Moments of action are relegated to relatively simple quick time events, where you have to hit a button at just the right time to jump over a ledge or slip away from a crazed killer.
The game employs a "butterfly effect" system, where even small choices can have a huge impact. Early on I decided to rifle through someone’s bag to answer a ringing phone, and that changed the way the two characters viewed each other for the rest of the game. And unlike most choice-driven games, Until Dawn doesn’t leave you guessing as to how your actions have influenced the story; there’s an explicit menu option where you can see how choices, big or small, alter events. According to Byles, the outcome can change dramatically depending on how you play. It’s possible for everyone to make it through the night alive, or for all of them to die, or any combination of survival and death. I only played a few hours and have already lost a few people, and Byles believes this set-up will help encourage multiple playthroughs. "I think that you’ll play it once, and hopefully you’ll have a full, compelling, and complete story," says Byles. "However, if you play it again, you’ll have a different story if you make different decisions."
Until Dawn is one of the most gorgeous console games I’ve played, up there with The Order: 1886, but it also looks quite a bit different from the original version that was revealed at the Gamescom trade show in 2012. Initially in the works for the PS3, Until Dawn started out as a game designed around the PlayStation Move, Sony’s answer to Nintendo's motion-sensitive Wii remote. It was played from a first-person perspective, with gameplay that revolved around using a flashlight to find your way around, and Byles describes the early version as "much more tongue-in-cheek" than the relatively serious game I played. Fans really seemed to be into the concept, and the response showed Supermassive that the audience for the game was potentially much bigger than they originally thought. "We realized that this is a stronger title than just a Move title," says Byles.
The PS4 game is played with a regular Dualshock controller, though there are still some motion controls thrown in; the controller’s touchpad can be used to flip through pages of a book or swipe to unlock a phone, and at one point you have to keep perfectly still so you don’t scare off a squirrel. The studio also hired writers Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick to revamp the script, and enlisted actors like Heroes and Nashville star Hayden Panettiere to give it some added emotional weight. What started out as a game to show off a new controller slowly turned into something much bigger. Until Dawn is Supermassive’s first big original game — its previous releases were primarily ports for existing franchises like LittleBigPlanet and Killzone — and it’s one that’s grown organically. If the studio had originally pitched a big-budget teen horror game, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have happened.
For Byles, who has worked in the games industry for more than a decade after years spent in theater and animation, it’s a chance to remember what it was like to be a little boy, scared to death while watching movies with his big sister.
"I’ve been desperate to do this from the day I entered [the games industry]," he says.
Until Dawn launches on the PS4 on August 25th.