The Devil in Me Interview: Game Director Tom Heaton Talks Dark Pictures Twists, Serial Killers, and Fan Feedback

The Devil in Me Interview: Game Director Tom Heaton Talks Dark Pictures Twists, Serial Killers, and Fan Feedback

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Matt Lorrigan

The Devil in Me is the fourth game in Supermassive Games’ anthology series, The Dark Pictures, and will also serve as the Season One finale. While previous games tackled supernatural horror, foggy towns, and demonic creatures, this newest instalment looks to take inspiration from films like Saw and Hostel instead, inspired by the infamous murder hotel of HH Holmes in the late 1800s.

Ahead of the game’s release in November, we sat down for a chat with Tom Heaton, game director on The Devil in Me, to discuss what the team at Supermassive Games has learnt from previous entries in The Dark Pictures Anthology, and what we can expect from the season finale.

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Matt Lorrigan - Each game in the Dark Pictures anthology has been a bit different, with House of Ashes, the previous entry, leaning more into action. The Devil in Me, however, looks to be a smaller scale story about a serial killer. Was that shift in genre purposeful?

Tom Heaton - Yeah, definitely. The idea has always been that we would shift genres as we did new instalments of The Dark Pictures Anthology. They were always about exploring different types of horror. And the plan was always to make quite big shifts in genre between instalments that sat next to each other so that they didn't feel like we were retreading old ground.

House of Ashes was kind of vast in scale, really, when you got to the end of the story. This is a lot more grounded, more intimate, smaller scale. It's a group of people that are relatable, you know, they're essentially professionals, they're concerned about their jobs.

They've got difficult working relationships, they're trying to work well under pressure. So yeah, it's a deliberate shift. It's a shift into serial killers as a genre, maybe a little bit slashers, which is one of my favourite genres. It's to keep things fresh, to keep things different.

It's amazing actually how many people are into serial killers. People who aren't interested in horror or aren't violent in any way will read the most horrific books and watch podcasts and stuff because there's serial killers in it. And I think that's because they're fascinating, you know? They're the dark side of humanity and what humans are capable of - it's an interesting question to tease yourself with.

HH Holmes, he's a fascinating character. He's really amazing, partly because he comes at a point when America's really quite young and growing very, very rapidly and he applies the method of America expanding - the mechanisation, the industrialisation that that was behind that big American growth - he applies it to murder. So it's kind of a metaphor.

And he says he's associated with the World's Fair Columbian Exposition. At a point where America's very outward looking, [it] wanted to look at the world, wanted to bring the whole world in. And he creates a hotel to use that and to lure people in, and to kill them.

And he does it  in the most outlandish and extreme way, of creating these hidden rooms and traps and trapdoors and killing rooms. It's like something out of a novel or a film, you know, the acid vats in the cellar. It's industrialised, he's dissolving the corpses [and] selling them. 

And his character is also striking. He's handsome, he's repeatedly extremely charming. He's very successful with women. And then he murders them. So he's a very interesting and vibrant character from history. There's a lot of myth around him. 

He was a myth-maker himself. To some extent he enjoyed being caught. He did a very dramatic confession, so he's really good raw material for what we're doing.

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ML - What has Supermassive Games learned from creating the previous entries in the Dark Pictures Anthology?

TH - Well, it's always a huge learning process. I mean, the Dark Pictures started with an experienced team already, but we've learned in all areas. Production has been a big thing - we’re hitting a high cadence of releases.

And that requires the production to be absolutely on it, and so we have to get everything ready. We've got multiple games in production at the same time, we have to have a very robust pre-production. We've got very good at the performance capture, both the technical stuff on the mocap and the face capture, but also just getting the best performances possible. For example, this time around we hired a performance director, Aletta Collins, who has a lot of experience in theatre, film, and TV. And she's been really helpful with just having experience in casting, in working with scripts, rehearsing with actors, directing actors on the shoots, and that's given us this improved quality of the performance.

Everything feels tighter, so that's one area. And then just all the way through the games, we've looked at how we can improve the games with every new release. We're looking at what the fans are telling us. There's quite a big community now that likes to talk about our games.

They certainly like to complain about things they think could be improved. So quality of life improvements, we switched up how the camera works, added new features. So yeah, it's something we're always looking to do.

The Dark Pictures Anthology has become an annual release. What positives and negatives does that bring, and are you looking to take a break before a possible second season?

There's definitely gonna be next season, and we're very excited about it. I can't really say anything more about the next season.

I mean, yes, it's a challenge. You know, getting a game out every year is, of course, a challenge. We've got better at it. And yeah, it does have benefits there because you genuinely get fan feedback, you get reviewer feedback, and you can action and address some of that feedback.

So there's a fairly rapid iteration of ideas game to game.

When the Dark Pictures Anthology was announced, it looked to be the main way that Supermassive Games would deliver its narrative horror experiences. However, The Quarry was released and made separately - is this something we might see more of?

Well, we're a big studio now, we've got over 300 employees, we've got multiple teams. So The Quarry I played as a fan, [and] although I know people working on that game, I was pretty much in the dark. So I was able to play it as a fan, I loved it, I really enjoyed it. But it's a different team to the dark picture.

Yes, they're [both] in narrative horror, but they're exploring in a different way, and they're doing things a little differently. The Dark Pictures, we built up a set of rules, a set of ways we present the story. So ours is a little different.

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Is there any desire within Supermassive Games to work on games outside of the horror genre?

We're always looking at opportunities, but we've got very good at horror.  There's a lot of passion for it in the studio, and it tends to be that the people that come to the studio are also into doing horror. As I say, I can't really talk much outside my brief of The Devil in Me, but it's an interesting and highly creative studio, and we certainly look at a lot of options.

There’s been rumours that The Dark Pictures started life as a Silent Hill pitch, is there any truth to those reports?

I absolutely can't comment on that at all, but you should not read anything into me not commenting! Just not commenting on it.

Do you have any interest in working on other IP, or do you prefer creating your own?

I love working on new IP, and that's one of the great things about The Dark Pictures, actually, because you can come to a story like The Devil in Me, where we've got an inspiration who's a historical character, which is very rich and has its own lore, its own myth. But then everything else is up for grabs.

And you're not having to worry about treading on different bits of the IP or working within a set of rules created by someone else. Often with IPs they're quite old rules and they're quite inflexible. So original IP gives you great freedom, and as a director, it's really, really nice to work on that.

Do you have a personal favourite game in The Dark Pictures Anthology?

Well, that's a difficult question for me because I've been on board with all of them in some capacity. So no, it would be like picking a favourite of your own children. I have to say, because it's about to be released, I'm very excited about The Devil in Me. 

I've been personally working on it for a long time. We're feeling confident about it. We think it's looking really good. So it's exciting to think that in a couple months time it's gonna be in people's hands and we're gonna be playing it.

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There’s been a mixed reception from players to the way that the twists have been handled in The Dark Pictures games. Is that something you’ve taken onboard as player feedback when creating The Devil in Me?

Not so much because of player feedback. You're right about the twists, but the feedback is not unilateral there. Some people like them, some people don't, so we need to be very careful about that. What I would say is that we work through the needs of the story that we're creating.

One of the things we did on The Devil in Me, we have a kind of quite drawn out production process. So first of all, we had an idea, a very loose idea, and we kind of kick that idea around, and we have a brainstorming [session] and things like that to just try and pin down what it is.

Then someone wrote a script for us, someone in the studio wrote a script really quickly, just a film script. Just to get something down on paper, to get some characters and things like that. And then from that film script, I mean, we were brutal with our script. We tore it up and we ripped out this, but we like this, but we don't like all this, but we don't like this setting, but we do like this setting, and we just kind of used it as mulch to kind of try and get a story.

And we looked at building key beats in the game, and then we looked at horror films as well, you know, serial killer films, slasher films, and worked out what the key beats you might expect in this genre are. So when you say twist, sometimes it doesn't have to be a twist.

Sometimes it can be a beat, sometimes it can be a turning point in the story. And if you look at the structure of how films are made, to how they're created, they are highly structured in terms of the break into act two, the midpoint, these are quite well known structures in film.

So that was more important than necessarily having a big twist. It's more about what are the needs of the story and how do we tell this story really well? That's what's important. There's not a necessity to have a big kind of ‘tada’ moment.

The Dark Pictures games are cinematic in the very literal sense of the word. How difficult is it to look at traditional horror films, and their structure, and translate it to a video game?

Yeah, I think that's a work in progress really, and not just for us, but for everyone working in narrative games. Because all the really hardcore work that's been done on narrative has been done in linear forms like films, or novels, or TV. They're all linear, you know, you watch it from A to B and it doesn't change.

And, if you've got a writing course, they will talk about a linear form. So we're having to do a couple of things. One is we're bringing that into a non-linear interactive form and that has its challenges. And also we're bringing it over longer form.

So a film is 90 minutes, whereas The Devil in Me is seven hours, and that's significantly different. You can't just map the beats onto that. Nevertheless, you can make an attempt and you can find similarities in the narratives, in the plot, that allow you to import some of those structures.

And you can create some yourself to try and get what that structure is doing. When you watch a film that's highly structured, that's using the three act structure, say, it's trying to give you an entertainment product that works in a certain way, that keeps the viewer of the film entertained, and surprised, and engaged.

So our aims are the same, really. We just have to find out how we do that a little bit.

Well, the Dark Pictures games are extremely non-linear, so that must cause issues!

Absolutely, yeah. And that definitely presents challenges that don't exist in traditional writing. In fact, when we get our writers on board - Seth is the writer for this, Seth Sherwood, he’s a Hollywood writer, and a very experienced one, and also a TV writer - it's very difficult for these guys because they've never experienced anything like it. Again, they're used to the A-to-B and suddenly you say, well, this may happen, but you have to understand in this scene that so and so may be dead, or it's taking place in a slightly different location, and they have to write the scene to cater for that. Or they have to write a couple of versions of the scene. And we have to help them with that. 

Usually they enjoy it! It's just a struggle at first.

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It seems like The Devil in Me is more traditionally videogame-y, with puzzles, items, and exploration. What’s the reason for that change?

So we're always looking to shake up the formula and we're always looking to add new features. And because we decided this was a season one finale, that therefore we were going to go a bit large on that, and add in a load of features. We've got three major new features, so yes, it was definitely intentional.

We've grown an audience for these sorts of games. It didn't really exist before Man of Medan, Little Hope, and House of Ashes. We've grown an audience, we've grown a fan community, which we love, and now we want to continue growing that audience. So we need to move the games a little bit closer to get some of the gaming audience that might be put off by some aspects of it, to give them things they're familiar with.

Improved exploration, the ability to really get to know these environments we've created, and the ability to create more interesting and more detailed environments, full of secrets. You can crawl under things, squeeze through things, shimmy across ledges to find your way through the environments. All of that is appealing to a traditional game audience, and we're hoping to bring them into the fold. 

And we're hoping to do it at the same time, but keeping our core mechanics, our choices and dilemmas, our emphasis on narrative, the strong relationships, all of that is still really important. The drama, the twist and turn of the plot, the branching, all of that is still key. That's still gonna be there. We don't wanna lose the audience, but we do want to bring other people in. 

And yet the inventory system, you know, giving characters tools, partly it just fitted with the story. We've got a story about documentary filmmakers, [and] they've got a lot of tools, they turn up with bags full of stuff, and it's an opportunity to use that, but it's also fun. They've got very distinct roles - cameramen, audio person, chief grip, all these - so therefore you give them something symbolic of that role that you can actively use in the game.

It's just playing with the formula a bit. I think because we've created this formula, and now we know how it works pretty well, we can start to play with it at the edges and test it, and see how that works.

Did the new gameplay features end up influencing the narrative of The Devil in Me?

Absolutely, yeah, because otherwise it wouldn't be a Dark Pictures game. So if you've got a particular tool in your possession at certain points in the narrative, or how you choose to use that tool, can be very influential on the narrative, [it] can be life or death! And because it's Dark Pictures, again, you probably won't know, when you make decisions, the importance of the decision you're making.

So yeah, it plugs into that whole branching narrative, and it's a big part of it.

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The Devil in Me is set in the modern day, but will we see anything from HH Holmes’ era? How do you visualise that?

Yeah. The prologue is set in Holmes' hotel. So you get to meet HH Holmes, or our version of HH Holmes, and you get to be some of the guests going to his hotel. So that was really great fun. It allowed us to dig into the lore.

No one really knows what the inside of the hotel was like. I mean, there's some drawings and things, but they're not very reliable. But the exterior of the hotel, there are photographs surviving right through to the 1930s. And there are also photographs from the time [in the late 1800s], right from the start of photography.

So we know what the outside of the hotel was like, we know where it was. So that was fun, looking at the photos, trying to match that, creating something that would be familiar. I'm just imagining what it would've been like going into this horrific place, really.

Was part of the draw of choosing Holmes as a character being able to add to the lore that has built up around him?

Exactly. And we got John Dagleish, who plays Holmes, [and] he did an amazing job. He's quite soft spoken, not threatening. He's very light, and suave, but with this undercurrent of menace, which is just amazing.

Was HH Holmes a difficult character to cast?

He was a difficult character to cast, yeah. But partly because lots of people did it differently. Lots of people did it well, but we were very happy with John. He's a really good actor, an Olivier Award winner, and he just really got a hold of it and he did a great job.

Is there anything you’d like people to be most excited about for The Devil in Me?

Well, that's a more difficult question than I expected, really. I'm not quite answering your question, but for me, the exciting thing is someone playing that through for the first time. And it's the whole experience, it's not any one little bit, because, for me, it's a very compelling story. It's a really good villain. There's great performances from the actors, especially from Jesse Buckley. The environments look great. We've got great new features. All of those things, we think people are gonna love, but it's the whole package.

I think it's when you put everything together, and people are playing it and they don't know what's gonna happen next, I think that first playthrough is very special. So I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to watching people stream it. I'm looking forward to people playing for the first time and commenting on it and talking about it.

I can't wait for that. It's the whole thing.

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