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Urban legends and modern myths: Supermassive on how The Dark Pictures Anthology ties together

And a few hints on what to expect now that Season One is done

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to visit Supermassive HQ for a hands-on with The Devil In Me, the fourth game in — and season one finale of — The Dark Pictures Anthology. While I was there, I also had the chance to interview three of the series leads: Tom Heaton, creative director on both The Devil In Me and Man Of Medan; Will Doyle, creative director across the whole Dark Pictures Anthology and director of last year's entry House Of Ashes; and Dan McDonald, the studio director for the anthology.

While I was ostensibly there to talk about the upcoming release of The Devil In Me, I couldn't resist the opportunity to probe deeper into the workings of the anthology as a whole, especially since Alice Bee had already dug deep into the true crime inspirations for TDIM when she chatted to Heaton during Gamescom.

But I was able to bring something to the discussion that Alice perhaps couldn't: an excruciatingly — some might say unnecessarily — detailed knowledge of the DPA series, its many branches and little connections and Easter eggs. What the hey, I just really like these games, and couldn't pass up on the chance to nerd out a little in a (spoiler-free!) chat with some of the anthology's major creative forces.

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The building blocks of The Dark Pictures are, of course, urban legends. Man Of Medan is directly based on the (admittedly, probably untrue) legend of the Ourang Medan ghost ship, while Little Hope and House Of Ashes took broader cues from the Salem witch trials and Mesopotamian mythology and folklore, respectively. In The Devil In Me, the series narrows its focus to the story of a single individual: H.H. Holmes, the man sometimes dubbed "America's first serial killer". In true Dark Pictures fashion, though, Holmes is almost as much a mythical figure as he is a verifiable historical person.

A close-up of the face of a corpse that has been turned into a grisly puppet with the use of wires and electronics in The Dark Pictures Anthology: The Devil In Me.
The horrors of The Devil In Me are more grounded in reality than those of the previous games in the series.

I was interested by the lack of supernatural themes in The Devil In Me, or at least in what I'd seen of the game so far. While you can't accuse the first three games in the anthology of sticking dogmatically to the idea that horror has to stem from something paranormal, there's always been some kind of otherworldly element driving the story. The Devil In Me takes its cues instead from a mix of slasher films and true crime, which feels like something of a departure, especially for a season finale. Why not wait until Season Two to change direction?

Heaton, however, feels that to separate the DPA games into simply "supernatural" and "non-supernatural" categories is too reductive. "We saw The Dark Pictures as being an opportunity to explore different genres of horror," he says. "We worked out what the first four games in Season One were going to be a long time ago, and part of the reasoning [was] to make sure that each game was different to the last."

With DPA titles releasing annually, the team didn't want to be accused of reworking the same material over and over. It was important for each game to feel "significantly different", in both tone and subject matter.

"We had partnerships, pairs of games," explains McDonald, "And we've twisted them around a bit for Season Two, changed the order a bit [...] so it was always kind of in our head that this would be a chance for us to reinvigorate at the end of the season."

The five player characters from The Devil In Me sit tensely around a dimly-lit dinner table drinking red wine (left to right: Jamie, Erin, Charlie, Mark, and Kate).
The main cast of The Devil In Me take a well-deserved refreshment break.

I can't pass up the opportunity to ask whether there is a wider overarching story at play in The Dark Pictures Anthology. Sure, there's always been a connection via the framing device with the Curator, but increasingly we're seeing hints that all the stories take place in a shared universe. The Devil In Me itself was first foreshadowed two years ago in Little Hope, in an in-game magazine article mentioning the characters and their show.

"Yes, all the games do exist in the same Dark Pictures world," confirms Doyle, which makes me incredibly happy. "[It's] a world very much like our own, but with lots of dark secrets. And yeah, we always make sure we include — well, primarily Easter eggs."

He kindly even confirms for me that yes, The Devil In Me will feature such hints towards future games in the series, as well as "backwards hints" connecting to the older games… though without going so far as to tell me exactly where to look. (I spotted one big call-back for myself in the demo: many of the paintings you see around the hotel are the titular Dark Pictures which appeared in Man Of Medan.)

"[It's] a world very much like our own, but with lots of dark secrets."

That idea of not just referring back to previous games but even giving small clues to them is important, because The Dark Pictures Anthology is designed to be playable out-of-sequence. This is also why older games like Man Of Medan and Little Hope received significant updates as recently as September. "We know, we've seen the numbers on this," Heaton explains. "People will play the latest game [...] and then they think 'Well, that was good', and they go and play an earlier game in the series, and they can do it in any order. So it's very important for us to make sure that those earlier games are fully supported."

Ensuring that those fun interconnections don't cross a line and end up becoming lore that you need to understand to enjoy the games is another priority. "But there is lore there," Doyle says, to which McDonald adds, "And we're very careful that [the games] don't contradict each other as well. [...] These guys have a lot of fun going into big sessions to hammer out what they're doing for Game #8 right now to make sure that's referenced in this — and beyond that, as well."

The player must choose who to save in a dilemma in The Devil In Me, where two characters are trapped in sealed chambers with no oxygen
I'm not sure my heart can take many more of these stressful life-or-death decisions, but all the same, you can bet I'll end up playing as many Dark Pictures games as these guys are willing to make.

I'm intrigued to hear that the eighth game in the series is already in pre-production to that extent. I've always been curious about the production cycle at Supermassive — a studio which, lest we forget, released another ambitious interactive horror movie just a few months prior to The Devil In Me. Of course, The Dark Pictures Anthology and The Quarry weren't necessarily being worked on at the same time or by the same people, but still, the DPA by itself is clearly a massive undertaking. What do things look like behind-the-scenes right now?

"We're just passionate about making the best games we can and learning from what we've done to keep growing."

"The majority of the team have been on The Devil In Me, [but] Game #5 is already entering production, we've already shot a load of the data," McDonald tells me. "Game #6 is in its early design phase. Game #7, you know, we just started that as of yesterday [October 17th], in fact. But we've known for a long time what that's going to be, we just started kicking off with the game director working on it."

"It's a great model for us, as a company, to keep learning from the last game," he continues. "We look at all the feedback [and] we will learn from that for Game #5." He's keen to emphasise that Supermassive's development teams "aren't crunching or doing any silly stuff like that. We're just passionate about making the best games we can and learning from what we've done to keep growing."

Finally, I wonder if there's anything they can say about the DPA's future beyond the four planned games in Season Two.

"We're having conversations about what's beyond [Game #8]," confirms McDonald. He explains that ideas for a potential Season Three have already been kicking around for a while, but now the discussion has turned to more practical logistics — like whether they should be working hints to a theoretical Game #9 into The Devil In Me. "We probably can't now," he admits with a laugh. Still, there's a definite sense of optimism, a feeling that there are plenty more Dark Pictures tales yet to be told, and that we can expect them to remain a fixture of the yearly release calendar for a while to come yet.

For more on The Devil In Me from Rock Paper Shotgun, you can read Nic's review here. Nic is not quite the supermassive Supermassive fan that I am, so I urge you to give his words a read if you want a more objective assessment of the latest entry to counterpoint my starry-eyed fangirling.