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Afterwords – Dissecting The Bloody Carnage Of Until Dawn

by Jeff Marchiafava on Oct 18, 2015 at 12:00 PM

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With Until Dawn, Supermassive has abandoned the Move-based gimmickry of its previous work in favor of a teen-horror adventure laden with life-or-death choices. We talked with creative director Will Byles about the game's major development challenges, twist-filled narrative, and what's next for the up-and-coming studio.

Until Dawn didn't have a ton of buzz going into release, but the positive critical and user reviews have some calling it a sleeper hit of 2015. How have initial sales been?
We've been blown away by the community's reception of the game but cannot comment on sales numbers. [Editor's note: Until Dawn was the seventh best-selling game (not including digital sales) in August, according to NPD.]

Until Dawn started out as a first-person Move title for the PS3. How far were you into development when you decided to shift the perspective, platform, and control methods?
Originally, the PS Move controller represented the flashlight that you'd be carrying throughout the game. We had already shot everything, white-boxed out the entire game, and got a level to publishable quality that we showed at Gamescom in 2012. Several things then happened then in a kind of "perfect storm." Firstly, there was a massive positive response from the PlayStation community, who were overwhelmingly in favor of us making a non-Move version. Secondly, in development we had noticed how great the game looked in a third-person view when we were using the debug cameras. Thirdly, the PlayStation 4 was peeking its head over the horizon, and fourthly, we had a great story.

How did Sony react when you told them you basically wanted to rework the entire game, given they were the publisher?
With all of these factors coming into consideration at the same time and with the success of Heavy Rain, the conversation with Sony was very collaborative. We all wanted Until Dawn to be as good as possible and to reach as wide an audience as possible. Serendipity.

Given how much changed, what elements remained the same during the transition?
The fundamental story remained the same but we worked very carefully to add in meaningful branching. Conversations became choice-based and consequential, and character development was in large part down to the player. We had to rewrite the entire script with Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick to make it all a little darker but still keep the charm that they had brought to the original.

Coming Up Next: What the actors bring to the table and one surprising plot twist that was left on the cutting room floor...

Did the actors have to come back and do any reshooting?
We reshot everything after the changing to the PS4, bringing some of the original cast back, recasting others, and adding the Analyst. We had to get going with them as early as possible because of the amount of time it takes digitizing them and their performances.

Until Dawn's story is rooted in some classic horror concepts, but halfway through, the narrative takes a major twist. What were your goals for the story?
We were keen to try some story-telling techniques not often used in games. We wanted to use a narrative perspective shift in order to keep the story vital over nine hours. Narrative perspective shift can only be done in a branching storyline if you cannot go back to a previous save, effectively undoing your last decision. We wanted the decisions you make to be based on what you "think" you know without being duplicitous with the player, as discovering a pertinent fact after the event that completely shifts your perspective has a very powerful effect; it's a bit like the end of The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense. We also wanted to make sure that, like them or hate them, the characters' safety was very fragile and entirely in your hands.

Can you share any ideas or plot twists that didn't make the cut?
At one stage one of the characters was pregnant. I won't say who or with whom, but ultimately it proved too distracting from the main story line.

Did any of the actors help shape their character's personality or dialogue?
Working with great actors is a real joy as they bring so much to the production and their characters. I'm a great believer in letting the actor own the role, bringing to it their own personal lenses and filters. You end up with much deeper characters than can be written because an entire life has gone into the making of that actor.

One of my favorite lines was an ad lib from Brett Dalton when he finds Josh: "Come on then, you f---ed up son of a b----!" It adds a level to Mike's character that we hadn't seen or written.

Traditionally in games, getting the subtleties of a performance across has proved very limiting. However, we were working with a very new (to game) technique that allowed us to record and render in a much more detailed way. Capturing every expression of the actors as separate models before blending them together in the final performance. This allowed the actors much more freedom to explore the subtleties of their characters.

Coming Up Next: How Supermassive kept track of all the possible outcomes, and what's next for the developer...

A lot of story-driven adventure games present a player choice, and then resolve it rather quickly in order to get all players back on the same path. How was it trying to create long-lasting consequences? How did you track all of the different branches that are possible?
As I was saying earlier about the narrative perspective shift, we wanted the decisions that you make to have far reaching consequences and to allow the player to see the chain of events that had led to that consequence.

We came up with the idea of the Butterfly Effect to let the player know that they had done something significantly consequential, and to allow them to follow the subsequent knock-ons that would lead to an outcome.

We used a program that let us put everything from the story and script together with interactions and gameplay into individual nodes, all linked both to a branching network but also vertically within a stack so that we could follow any thread to any consequence.

What decision most surprised you in terms of how the majority of gamers reacted/selected?
In the testing environment, we were always surprised by people's choices. One that we were often told was a pointless dilemma was the Ashley/Chris choice with the gun. Everyone internally said that players would choose to shoot Chris. But in playthroughs that proved very wrong. It was much closer to 50-50. Don't forget to check out the global stats feature after your first playthrough of the game where you can see a percentage breakdown of choices from the community.

Emily seems like the only irredeemable character – I tried being supportive of her and she was still horrible. What were you going for with that character?
Ha ha. Emily is my favorite character and has, depending on your choices, the best character arc of them all. She starts off appearing very superficial and irritating, but consider for a moment her position in the group. She was part of the "alpha" couple the year before but is now rejected by Mike in favor of Jessica; she has some unfinished business with him. So Matt may be not her ideal guy and maybe she's trying to put a strong face onto things. She ends up, despite getting a hard time from everyone – and if she survives – one of the saviors of the night.

Until Dawn is a huge leap forward in terms of depth and production values compared to Supermassive's previous games. Do you want to continue making this style of adventure game, or is Until Dawn another step towards something bigger?
Thank you. Yes, we've been going all out to make Until Dawn the best of its kind across the board and we are definitely going to develop that theme with our next projects. It was very encouraging to get such a good response from the gamers and the critics and it seems that the space is there for more. I love horror, but there are many other genres on which we think this kind of treatment would work beautifully.

Will there be an Until Dawn 2?
We have nothing to announce at this time.

Anything else you want to tell fans of the game?
The best result for us is that the fans took the time to engage so deeply with the game. It's incredible if you go and look at YouTube or Tumblr or Twitter to see the amount of positive reaction Until Dawn has garnered, but most of all, they gave it a chance. The majority of fans seem to have ignored any doubters and completely "got" what we were trying to do. And for that we say a big "Thank you!"

An abridged version of this interview originally appeared in issue 271 of Game Informer.