Categories

016: Interactive Fiction and Storytelling

After bidding farewell to the village, our heroes spot a castle in the distance. In order to get the caste, our heroes must survive a series of narrative choices, leading them to the castle gates.

Games talked about in this episode:

  • 1:09 House of Ashes
  • 2:00 Until Dawn
  • 5:26 Man of Medan
  • 8:31 Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
  • 15:49 Resident Evil
  • 20:47 Little Hope

Introductory Guy  

Welcome to design thinking games, a fantasy and User Experience podcast. In each episode, your podcast hosts Tim Broadwater and Michael Schofield, will examine the player experience of board games, pen and paper role-playing games, live-action games, mobile games, and video games. You can find every episode, including this one, on your podcatcher of choice and on the web at designthinkinggames.com.

Tim Broadwater  

This episode is brought to you by listeners like you at patreon.com/designthinkinggames.

It is Halloween 2021. Our podcast Design Thinking Games does skew to players and gamers who like horror and mystery and phantasmagoria. That’s definitely apparent from season one. And one of the things we talked about doing for Halloween, playing and checking out the new game House of Ashes, the Dark Picture Anthologies third out of four games for season one. And so I guess the first question is, how many of your five main characters survive?

Michael Schofield  

I got through with three. I had three survivors. We should preface this just for folks who don’t know that, okay, so like, there is a series made by a variety of people but namely supermassive – Supermassive Games? Supermassive is the studio – called the Dark Pictures Anthologies. They now have three of them, and they have promised four for what they’re calling their first season. Supermassive got famous or got lauded for their Until dawn game, which was a PlayStation exclusive.

Tim Broadwater  

And did they make Until Dawn?

Michael Schofield  

Yeah!

Tim Broadwater  

I love Until Dawn. That’s why I love this, you know, kind of genre, like watching a horror movie.

Michael Schofield  

That’s what it is. Right? It’s a choose your own adventure with quick-time actions. Right. And so, you know, Telltale got pretty popular doing this for a little bit. But Supermassive Games did it right. Whereas Telltale is pretty buggy in certain cases. For the most part, these are really well-put-together narratives that have really interesting branches. So they have three games out. They just released House of Ashes.

Tim Broadwater  

And I think the trailer has been out for a year because of what they’ve been doing. And what I kind of like, is that when you beat one game, the reward for beating the game is it unlocks the trailer for the next book. And so you don’t really know until you beat the game. I mean, you could kind of check online after the game comes out. But it’s kind of that nice piece where like, where’s it going next? And so a year ago, when you beat Little Hope, which is the small kind of Salem’s Lot witch village one when you beat that you got a trailer at the end for House of ashes, which is, I believe, set in Desert Storm, right?

Michael Schofield  

No. It’s 2003. This is post 9/11. This is the invasion of Iraq. So House of ashes is set there. You play a number of participants, mostly Marines. There’s a CIA operator. You also get to play one of the Iraqi Republican Guard, which takes place after the fateful announcement where George Bush announced, “Mission accomplished,” there’s even a newspaper lying around where you can see it on the front page. So Saddam has fallen. And it’s almost the immediate aftermath of that when go figure they’re still looking for chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction. And the entire premise is that, hey, satellite imagery has shown that there is an underground facility out here and the middle of nowhere in the middle of next to what they call the Zagros Mountains, and you are part of or the people you play are going to investigate it.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, and I think the other thing is it’s so fresh that the war being fresh or Saddam, all of that so fresh that even members of the Iraqi military, right? They’re not –

Michael Schofield  

Yeah, no surrender has been declared.

Tim Broadwater  

Correct. Yeah. So that’s the environment you’re going into. And, and if you’re familiar with the other games, it’s layers of an onion, right? So you just kind of constantly peeling back, and it gets deeper and deeper and deeper. And if you’ve played Man of Medan or Little Hope, it starts out as like, this is one thing that you think you know what’s going on. And then it kind of goes into like, oh, and expands like what you think is happening at the beginning, where you’re just exploring, like your, what you say Marines, and that you’re exploring a potential weapon site, turns into like, Oh, this is not a weapon site. And then when you think that’s going on that you’ve encountered, let’s say, in an ancient temple, or something of that nature that’s been buried, then it turns out that that’s not what’s going on. And then when you kind of go down that rabbit hole, it again is like, No, you have no idea what’s going on. And I think what I like is I did horrible, you’ve played all three games. And I think I played all three as well. I did so horribly in the first one that, you know, this is now three years old, that you were in Man of Medan. So you can end the game prematurely and lose a lot of your characters and not really uncover the full story. And that’s common. That’s a very common experience. And so, you may not get to the full truth. And then the other thing is the Curator, right? 

Michael Schofield  

The Curator is this kind of Call of Cthulhu-like keeper character, who there’s not really any kind of narrative sandwich here, where for whatever reason, you are helping the Curator flesh out these tales.

Tim Broadwater  

He’s kind of judging you. But then also prying you at some points, giving you a hint.

Michael Schofield  

there’s something sort of supernatural about it. Right? Because you are not really the characters in the stories you’re telling, you are choosing their fates, you are that meta, you are that player. And the Curator, some sort of, I don’t know –

Tim Broadwater  

He definitely treats you like a reader or as a game. Yeah. Like, if there’s that acknowledgment of the fourth wall, that it’s like, oh, he will say comments. If someone dies accidentally or makes a wrong choice, you will call out your choice and why you let that person kill them. So the tense is not of the character. It’s actually you outside of it. And he acknowledges that omniscient kind of the fourth wall.

Michael Schofield  

I think that’s a really, I think that’s a great way to put it, this kind of like fourth wall framing is, provides like a really interesting dynamic, because you’re right, the Curator judges you like you made a bad choice. And so, and one of the characters dies, and he kind of tsks you could have gone another way he begs that question, and you know, it could have you could have made a different choice.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, so there’s another mechanic that’s similar to this. I don’t know if you’ve ever played some of the Silent Hill games, right? (Yeah.) So there’s one Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. I don’t know if you’ve played that one. But the whole thing keeps going. Yeah, so every so often, you cut back to like, you are obviously sitting, and it could even be like an L.A. Noir thing. Like you’re telling you’re in the with police or a homicide detective and you’re recounting what happens, and then it keeps coming back to that. But in Shattered Memories, you’re with a therapist, and you’re kind of telling them what you experienced in Silent Hill. And they’re like, Well, why did you do that? Or why did you go there or why? And so there was this kind of outside character that frames this horrible experience that you’re going through and this phantasmagoria-like, mystery kind of intense, horrific experience. So it’s nothing new, but what I will say about the Curator is that I think they are pretty hard on the nose, hinting that he is Death.

Michael Schofield  

Maybe! Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t get any of that.

Tim Broadwater  

Every time the lightning flashes, he’s got the skull overlay, or you see the skull behind the face right, really you every time the lightning flashes (wow, I never noticed) the scar behind him. And then the intro music for all three games is the old mountain music, “I am Death,” but they’ve turned it into a rock kind of thing. And then when the credits roll at the end, it’s “I am Death,” but it’s like a punk thing, right? So it changes the flavor, but the song is still “I am Death.” And so he always takes this kind of posturing to where, you know, he’s kind of intrigued and judging it what you’re doing, but then also, maybe will help you, but that he is outside the story, he cannot interfere. And he is just the Curator or the Chronicler. (Wow.) You never got that impression?

Michael Schofield  

In three games now, that never dawned on me. So like, I thought of him more as like a, like a Sandman comic book-like character, where, where I guess Death is literally a character in the Sandman as well. But I think of him as sort of like the librarian or the keeper, like, like a proper chronicler I like that there’s some sort of like, thing, where he expresses that you the player are The Choice-maker, there are rules that he must adhere to, and he is not allowed to interfere. But occasionally, he will bend those rules to offer a little bit of help, a little bit of guidance, but in general, (like he’s a deity or something). Well, I mean, like, you know, and if he’s not the rule maker, he is bound by some other rules. So what I think it really does is kind of interesting, because there’s a layer like, there, there are different layers of agency. Whereas you know, these characters are so well defined that they are, they have their own choices, they have their own personality, makeup, they have a sense of their own direction, their own agency, but the reality is, as a player, you are making these choices for them. Or you are making the choices for some other unspoken unnamed character who is also making choices for them. And you are part of some larger framework with a curator of which there are rules. And you know, the choices that you actually get are quite limited. They’re only like, go left, go right, do this, don’t do that. And there’s this whole, I don’t know, you could probably deconstruct this entire Dark Anthology series as some sort of like a message about how little control you actually have in any given situation, someone’s already making a choice for you, or the path is largely laid out before you.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I guess I’ve always interpreted that way. Because, you know, anytime that you visit him, or cut to him, or begin with him or end with him in his library, where he has all of the books about what’s happened and in and is interacting with you, it is always storming outside, and every time it cracks, the lightning, you see the skull behind his face, every single time and all three games, right? And then the logo for the Dark Picture Anthologies is a skull that has, you know, it changes the overlaid image each time for, you know, Man of Medan, or Little hope or House of ashes, and then also for the one they show at the end, which is the Devil Inside, I believe. And so I’m,

Michael Schofield  

I mean, now that you say it out loud, this totally makes sense, right?

Tim Broadwater  

Well, no, I also think I know what you’re talking about with Sandman. So he does seem like, okay, he’s the deity as well as a curator, and you get appearances behind that he is his Death, you know, and that’s how I’ve taken it. And you can find pictures online where it actually has the skull, flash lightning kind of overlay. And it’s, it’s happened in all the games. So

Michael Schofield  

yeah, I’m gonna go back and like I’m gonna do I’m gonna, I’m sure there’s like a YouTube cut of like, all the who was the curator kind of conspiracy theory because now it’s super interesting, but I love the framing. And I love the idea that it’s ultimately like, you know, these characters are hopeless because no choice they make is their own.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, and all of the tales, it doesn’t matter. You know, there’s only three out now, but they’re all tragic. All of them have Death, like in the first and the second game. There’s so much Death in the beginning. So that I mean, it just sets the pace of like, there’s no way that you can save the people in the beginning, you know. It’s the same thing here, like your whole team who goes in and everyone you know, maybe there’s 10 or 12 people. Still, five are really all you potentially can save, and to your point, like you save three, I only save two, and mine came down to where I thought it was doing really well. They were surviving longer, but then it was one of those Gosh, darn freaky horror? What did you call it? It’s like a skills check (a quick time action). Yeah, like a quick time action jumpscare or a skill check kind of thing where you’re running, and you’re trying to, you have to hit something at a certain time. And you’re literally like, oh, no, I was scratching my face or I went, I was reaching for my drink, or I was eating a chip at the end here, and they’re dying. And so it’s like, oh, so it does keep you. So at the edge of your seat. And we’ve talked about this before in the horror mechanics method like you cannot run in the game. You have to walk through everything. So it forces you to experience it. It forces you to pay attention. And, and all it takes is one second. And you could, and everything could change.

Michael Schofield  

The biggest thing I clocked here was that this felt like Resident Evil controls because you’re over the shoulder, or a little bit behind, you’re piloting the character. You’re slow. It’s dark,

Tim Broadwater  

you’re enclosed, tight, enclosed,

Michael Schofield  

And so sometimes the camera is actually really quite difficult to control. And, you know, we’ve talked in the past about like, well, you know, in another circumstance, these could be pretty annoying controls. But in this case, they force you to pay very careful attention. Pan the camera very deliberately, right? Check your corners, right? Because oftentimes, you’re walking around in a cave with a flashlight, so you know, you’re going bit by bit, and it just forces you to take it at a certain pace so that ultimately the game can control the narrative and scare you or worry you with a quick time action that you weren’t prepared for.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, I think that totally contributes to the creep factor on it. But then you can’t shoot. You’re not like, like, you can just unload. Yeah, you could never really unload

Michael Schofield  

until it let’s see if it gives you an option. Yeah. You had to give this a rating. You recommend people like, how did you like this?

Tim Broadwater  

I liked the game series because I like it and I didn’t know. Or at least maybe I forgot that. The same studio made Until Dawn. Now until Dawn takes about nine hours, eight to nine hours to play through it. And so it is doable in a day. But what I like – a movie is too short, right? A movie is like your hour and a half or two hour kind of movie. But I feel like they have this just right. Like they have this to where you are watching a mystery, drama, horror, whatever action or whatever. But that’s the genre, right? And they keep it to like roughly five to six hours, the game will be over no matter what, at the max Yeah, five to six hours, like it could be definitely premature. I mean, you can kill all the characters and be done much sooner. But like, whatever the ending is, whatever you’ve chosen, whoever you’ve protected, or you know, or like, whatever choices you’ve made, or whatever paths or secrets you’ve uncovered, it’s set to that time. So it’s kind of like you are watching this scary horror drama movie. And you are making choices and doing skill checks through it. And so it is passive, but you are on the edge of your seat. And so I say in general if you like scary movies, or you like survival horror, or you just like mystery books, I think this type of game, this game series is for you. And what I also like about it, and we’ve talked about this before, social media is very popular in telenovelas and soap operas. And we’re also seeing like an American Horror Story is that you have characters coming back, real actors coming back every season, right? Who played just different characters, doing different things with different names. And I strongly believe now I can’t say this for certain, but I strongly believe that is what the Dark Picture anthologies are doing with their characters.

Michael Schofield  

Until you mentioned it in a tweet to me, like I think you’re right. I think the Marine Lieutenant you play with is Jason. His face looks like the main character whose name I forget in Little Hope, who is ultimately responsible for the events of that series. And who grows up to be that bus driver at the end. Their faces look identical. And I think Rachel is –

Tim Broadwater  

That’s also Joe from Man of Medan. Joe from Man of Medan is the same person you’re described. Yes. And so I love it. There are these. So I think that it’s kind of a nod. Either they’re trying to get away with it. But I don’t think that’s the case because gamers are smart, and they know that. So I honestly think that they are kind of aligning themselves with this telenovela, soap opera, American Horror Story kind of thing to where we have, hey, we can use, we can use the same actors, it’s the models, right, but we can change the voices and change their personalities. Because a lot of people I think, are making these connections between, you know, the main character in House of Ashes and Joe for Man of Medan, or the girlfriend or the scientist, you know, the girlfriend from, you know, Little Hope, or the scientist from House of ashes. I mean, they’re the same kind of thing. So, I find that that’s kind of, that’s cool. That’s interesting. And that is what keeps people in the series, and when you beat each one like we said, it shows you the trailer for the next one. So that’s kind of the cliffhanger. Within a year, it’s gonna come out. I don’t know when the next one’s gonna come out, which is The Devil Inside. But I feel like that’s the appeal. Like it’s like, I’ll come back to it’s like Jessica Lange, like for American Horror Story, like people will keep coming back if they keep using Jessica Lange or, or Lady Gaga, or, you know, Angela Bassett, or whoever.

Michael Schofield  

It’s a really interesting mechanic, right? I guess they did do that with telenovelas, the, you know, I think of it as an American Horror Story trope. And it’s really neat to see that applied to a game. I can’t think of anyone who has done that. And I also would hazard a guess, although I’m happy to be wrong, that it has no bearing on the narrative. So I have this like, like, high-level theory, that’s only like that I only 10% by myself, but I think there’s a potential here or like, oh my gosh, like, all of these characters are all the same, like reincarnations, like something like this.

Tim Broadwater  

Well, the Curators are the same. You’re the same. And then when you’re in the curators’ library, and he has four books there that all have these golden symbols on them, and one is of a boat, and one is a little doll, and one is, have you know that it keeps you wondering, like how are these four related and why they encapsulated in a series? And then you know, and then this is not an I don’t think this is a stretch by anyway because if you look at the characters of House of Ashes – who was Rachel, not her husband, but the one that he was in a relationship with? (Nick. Sargent, Nick.) Nick, literally, is the same face as Alex from, you know, the first game Man of Medan. So like what it is, it’s the same thing.

Michael Schofield  

Alex is the kind of nerdy character who went along with his brother on the boat, right?

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, but in this one, he’s a Marine. He’s been through some trauma, and then is exactly, and so Dude, it has to be there. They have to be building up to something. The fanboy in me is like geeking out because it’s like what is and then when they also the big drama bomb that they also dropped at the end was not just you know, the trailer for the next game, but then also the announcement that this is part of “season one” that’s like what right so so that actually season one does put parentheses around the first floor right exactly promises that there will be something different coming.

Michael Schofield  

How strange, right, especially because these are about like a year apart. Right? They’ve taken a while to come out, and I’ve never considered them as part of a singular whole, I guess. I guess when you think about it makes sense. Because these are part, this is an anthology series, but I never thought of them as part of a singular tale. Until they’re like, bam, the next episode being or the next game is like the Devil Within, I think (The Devil Inside or something like that.) Yeah, like you know, the season one finale and I’m like, Whoa, okay, so now you have to kind of like think back on the three games that you have just finished as some part of a whole. One thing I wanted to point out that really struck me is that House of Ashes to me was the least scary of the two and there, but there’s a framing that is true about Man of Medan – (let me ask of the three which one was the scariest for you?) I think maybe Little Hope was the scariest.

Tim Broadwater  

It was for me. Yeah, I agree with you. It was creepy. Those ghosts were super creepy.

Michael Schofield  

For real, man. Well, and even a Man of Medan like the ghosts are creepy as well. Right?

Tim Broadwater  

You Can only if you prematurely end the game, you’re left with like, Oh, this is what I think’s going on. And this is what I meant by the onion peeling back, like the layer. Yeah. But if you make it through the game, you will see what’s going on. And you can never really replay it. I mean, it’s really, not to get the story will not have the same impact, right? Like the onion story, like a metaphor. It’s like the first one, you’re like, Oh, we’re gonna go explore this abandoned ship, we can get it for treasure. And then you’re like, oh, it’s haunted. And then you find out something else is going on behind it that explains it. But at some point, you may not even make it to the haunted ship. You could die before you even get there. Right? And then you could also die when? And you’re like, Oh, my God, I got killed by ghosts because the ship is haunted. And then you don’t realize, oh, what’s real? You know, the story behind it? That happened to me, right? Now the second game, same thing, you’re like, I’m going to this witchy cursed town. It’s like Salem’s Lot. And then you kind of find out after a while. It’s like, oh, wait, I’m kind of getting the feeling that why are these ghosts specifically like, the vices of these people? And then you kind of figure out like, Oh, this is not happening at all, what’s happening is actually this same thing for, you know, kind of House of Ashes.

Michael Schofield  

Have you gone and looked at the other endings? Because I haven’t. But I didn’t get the sense that there was one of those things in House of Ashes. I get the sense that what you think is happening is really happening.

Tim Broadwater  

No, it’s just like how far you get Gotcha. Because what I’m saying about the onion metaphor now, and it’s horrible. And I keep saying again, but what it is if they constructed the story, in such a way that it functions layer by layer to a core, so if you don’t make it like in House of ashes, I will say, Man of Medan has been out for 2019 since 2019. So no real spoilers there, but the thing is, it is like you can die before you even get to the ship. So it’s just like, Oh, it’s a bunch of kids partying, and they have a diving accident, and it’s over.

Michael Schofield  

Wait, what? There’s an ending that’s that early?

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, no, no, it’s not like an ending. What I was saying about the UX here (amazing) is of a pick-a-path story, like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. And if the listeners at home probably know what those are. But they have pick-a-path as a name brand or choose your own adventure as a name brand. But essentially, it’s this book that you start reading on page one for those who don’t know it. And then it says, like, Hey, make this choice. And if you make this choice, go to page 42. If you made this one, go to page 387. And then you kind of keep jumping, so you’re just kind of, you start out, all the same, you start out at the base of the tree, right? When we say this kind of tree, kind of pick-a-path kind of narrative system. So they’ve been constructed, so it’s better probably as a tree than an onion because I think of it more like layers, right? But at any point in that story of Man of Medan, if all of your characters die, or you come to a halting stop, for whatever reason, and maybe some characters survive, you know, you didn’t go to the full extent of the branches of the tree. And you don’t really know what all’s possible that’s given with pick a path stories, because you can’t figure out like, Oh, I didn’t even interact with the dragon, or I didn’t even see the knight or didn’t go into the base, you know, but with these, it is you didn’t, you have to make it through. And part of the mechanics of these Dark Anthology games is finding they have these little pictures that are, you know, spread out through the game or tablets, or artifacts or objects or whatever, but they actually show you a potential future you have a premonition. And then when you do that, it creates like a branch, which lets you mitigate and stop. Now, if you didn’t find that picture, that branch end would be your end. Or you wouldn’t know who’s coming and that could have been your head. But you kind of have to, and I don’t know if you agree with this or not, but I feel like those games are structured in such a way where you are trying to find all those pictures to try to mitigate all of the potential premature endings or short endings, so you can make it through the longest tree out to the tiniest branch. And that is what you find out. Like at the very end, that’s the only way that you will find your survival. And mitigating those and navigating these branches or tree systems is the only way you’ll find out what’s really, really, really going on. Because if you do not, you think you’re just a bunch of kids who died like partying on a boat or you encountered a ship and were killed by pirates, or you’ve encountered ships you got away from the pirates, but you did not use the ship was haunted, or you know and so on. 

Michael Schofield  

It really is a masterclass of game design. You can tell that they playtested the shit out of this. The timing, the feel, the unraveling stories, the way House of Ashes literally is about descending through layers, and the story gets weirder and weirder. And first, that’s got very big exorcist vibes with like Pazuzu the demon right which is a spoiler because I think that’s literally like the like one of the symbols on the in the like the trailers or whatever, and it continues to go back and here’s digging through history and history the weirdness unravels in such an impressive way.

Tim Broadwater  

I feel like there’s also this there is these weird kind of nods and connections that are actually in like American Horror Story right that is like, oh wait, Freak Show’s connected to Asylum, and we now know that because we saw a Freak Show which happened two seasons after Asylum and the character from Freak Show was in Asylum right. And then we found out later that oh Hotel is connected to Coven because they actually go to it. 

Michael Schofield  

And even that, like post-apocalyptic one, is connected to Coven as well.

Tim Broadwater  

Yeah, and so it’s these little pieces that are put together, but the thing about these games is like if you didn’t see that stuff, pay attention or choose the right path. You probably didn’t get the connections.

Michael Schofield  

What a design choice, man, that just makes its replayability. Again, this is narrative layering that is impressive, like it is just impressive.

Tim Broadwater  

Very impressive.

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