Created by Supermassive Games, The Dark Pictures is a new horror-adventure anthology series that serves as a spiritual successor to 2015's Until Dawn. Hosted by the enigmatic Curator, an omnipresent and unnerving narrator who consistently hints at the inevitably grim circumstances of each tale, your choices will decide the fate of each story's key players. The first episode of the series is called Man of Medan, and it focuses on a group of twenty-somethings who find themselves trapped on the high seas with a crew of pirates on board a haunted ship.
The original Until Dawn was a notable success due to its way of reworking mostly tired horror film tropes and cliches into a choice-driven narrative that felt all your own. Whereas the previous game felt more like a self-aware Wes Craven-style take on the slasher sub-genre, The Dark Pictures feels more in line with horror-anthologies like Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt. These separate episodes are stand-alone in nature, yet are tangentially related in some way thanks to the ever-curious Curator. However, there's one significant change compared to Supermassive's previous game. In addition to the traditional solo story, you can now experience the plot with a friend online or in a Movie Night mode that allows for local play with two to five players.
In Man of Medan's prologue, which is set during World War II, you and a friend take control of two GIs on shore-leave in the South Pacific. What follows is a grim encounter on their battleship with supernatural forces, setting the stage for the main cast of characters decades later. This cold open serves as an ominous intro to the spooky story, yet it's also an effective introduction for the pacing and approach to co-op play. Just like in Until Dawn, you'll control one character, engaging in dialog sequences and quick-time events. However, The Dark Pictures puts a greater focus on the perspective that each character has. So while you're focused on what your character is doing, your partner in the story will have their own interactions and events happening in the background.
After our hands-on with the opening hours of Man of Medan, we also spoke with Supermassive Games executive producer Pete Samuels about the making of the game, and how Until Dawn's reception led to the decision to include multiplayer. According to the dev, including co-op play in their follow-up to Until Dawn felt like a natural evolution of their approach to the adventure genre.
"We already wanted a wide co-op element, but certainly [after] seeing the way people played Until Dawn in their groups as couch play, we would feel kinda stupid not to support it," said Samuels. "The co-op play we have in place was based on all the lessons that we learned from Until Dawn and how much we enjoyed making it. We wanted to go down that road, again, but change it up this time--make it different. We weren't sure how it was going to work either. So, we developed a prototype, just two characters, just a conversation, over a network with one player controlling the choices of each of the characters. And what we were trying to figure out was could we make the conversation feel natural, be dramatic, unbelievable, yet both players feel like they were influencing it, pushing it in a direction like in real life. As soon as we left that prototype, we knew we had something and we that we could build a game around it."
Once the main cast of characters come into the story, things take a significant turn. Starting with the two brothers Alex and Brad, one a confident med school student and the other a timid introvert who's often called a nerd, you'll make several choices that will ripple throughout the plot. Choosing to spend more time with your brother over your girlfriend, or simply partaking in drinking beer can result in a noticeable change in tone and pace to some scenes. When more characters enter the picture, you and your partner will switch control over to others as the necessary story beats unfold, sometimes this means dealing with what's been set into motion by other characters.
Just like Until Dawn, the overall writing and characterization of the characters can quickly descend into horror-film cliches and setups. The jock, the rich kid, and nerd archetypes are all present and accounted for, and the conflicts that often ensue when those three characters are in close proximities also occur. While that is mostly by design, which Until Dawn subverted by introducing some surprising character moments, The Dark Pictures tends to focus a lot on those cheesy encounters. In some cases it made me want to defy those expectations--which were to the detriment of my co-op partner. While several twists can catch you off-guard, the developers stated that each choice has a particular purpose, and it won't be possible to sabotage the story thanks to an unruly co-op partner.
"The biggest thing that helps protect us [from griefing] is that you only play the story with a friend, said the executive producer. "It's not matchmaking, and you're never going to play with someone you don't know. It has to be someone on your list of friends. We were very concerned that if people walked out of the story half-way through and didn't carry on and you couldn't find them again to finish the story, the one person is left hanging not knowing how that particular version of the story pans out. We've said before, but there's so much branching in the plot. There's much more than we've ever done."
This first episode served to be a nice teaser for what's to come. What's interesting about this different approach to an adventure game is that the genre itself has traditionally been solitary. In the case of Until Dawn, you were in control of the story, and at the end of the day, the choices you made were your own. While that's still the case in The Dark Pictures, as you can still play solo, co-op adds in an unpredictable variable into the mix--which can result in several different permutations to the story. The narrative can go in several directions, and the developers stated that Man of Medan and the upcoming episodes in the Dark Pictures series feature more tangents and twists compared to Until Dawn.
It'll be interesting to see how things play out in the full story when it releases on August 30. At the end of our demo, the choices made by my co-op partner and I led to certain members of the group being separated. Of course, a variety of different decisions could have resulted in the gang still being together, or with some not making it at all. That sense of anticipation is what Until Dawn reveled in, and The Dark Pictures can ratchet up that anxiety with the addition of another player, who may put their own self-interests first when it comes down to it.
For more on The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan, check out Adam and Tamoor's breakdown of co-op and our full interview with the developers at Supermassive Games.