The horror video game Until Dawn, which released at the end of the August for Playstation 4, is garnering lots of positive reviews and excitement in the community. VICE Gaming calls it the “Sleeper Slasher Hit of the Summer,” and YouTube names it the most-streamed video game of the month on their service. The game is being lauded for its impressive facial motion capture but specific attention is being paid to its sprawling, branching storyline.
The game follows a familiar horror movie conceit: eight friends go to a remote mountain getaway and soon realize they might not be alone. The twist with this game? The story is massive, and every choice a player makes impacts events later on in the game through a mechanic called, appropriately, the “butterfly effect.” So, what does it take to write such a big script? To get an idea, The Creators Project talks to Larry Fessenden, writer, director, actor and head of the indie horror production company Glass Eye Pix who, with writing partner Graham Reznick, crafted the story for Supermassive Games.
“I was interviewed by the company Supermassive because they heard about Glass Eye Pix and the kind of movies we make, and there are some themes in the game that overlap my interests so they asked me to have a meeting,” Fessenden explains. “When it was time to submit a spec script, I called Graham Reznick. Graham and I had been writing scripts together for a while and we really had a good flow. And also Graham was a gamer, and I wanted to bring on somebody who had a sense and a love of the genre. I’d never played a video game before.”
So, how long is the script for Until Dawn? “There’s an Easter Egg in the game that’s called ‘1000 pages’ and Graham and I were laughing about that, because all in all it ended up being around 10,000 pages that we wrote. That number’s derived from the fact that we wrote the game twice, once for Playstation 3, and once for Playstation 4.”
News of the game originally made waves when it was announced as a title for an older gaming system, the aforementioned Playstation 3. But Fessenden explains that, after the original script was written, “They had the inspiration to try and up the ante, and move it to a more sophisticated gaming tool. There are much more detailed performances because the motion-capture technology is improved.”
The bulk of the original plot, Fessenden describes, was created by Supermassive, “and then they would work with their game designers to make sure that the branching patterns would work. So we would get a blueprint, and that’s where Graham and I would refine the characters. Honestly, the whole thing was checks and balances. I would check Graham, Graham would check me, and we would check what they sent to us. So it was really a collaborative effort between all of us."
It makes one wonder, how do you even approach a project this large? “Once we would get these blueprints for a chapter, we would split it up. We’d say ‘You write the first half, I’ll write the second half.’ And then we would Skype each other and read each other’s work. So what you’re hearing at the end has really been combed over by both of us. And then we’d submit it back and they would have notes, based on technical things. So it was a very, very organic back-and-forth.”
Fessenden seems intrigued by the narrative differences between a horror film and this branching horror video game. “There’s a very specific approach when you’re doing a story like this. In a narrative film, you’re putting the perspective of the character out there and you’re saying ‘The character makes this choice and that leads to this unfortunate end.’ There’s a moral implication, and that’s a filmmaker or an author saying ‘This is how I see the world.’ And the audience walks out with a sense of that, with a message to contemplate. That’s very different from inviting the audience to write the script with you. Or to tell the story, and make those choices. It’s a different thing. It’s not as presentational, it’s invitational.”
When we ask how Fessenden feels about this level of audience participation, he raises a great point, “I mean... a lot of people watch horror movies that way. They yell at the screen ‘Don’t go into the basement!’ And now they have the opportunity to make those decisions for the characters.” And he’s right, instead of yelling "don’t go into the basement!" Players finally have the control to turn that character around and shoo them out the front door. Let’s just hope there isn't something worse waiting on the lawn.
Until Dawn is out now for PS4.