The Dark Pictures Anthology - House of Ashes joins E3 with an exclusive interview with the Executive Producer
Dan McDonald: Hello!
Lauran Carter: Thank you for joining us! Really cool! Right, so, let's start at the very start. We're going to be talking about "House of Ashes" for most of the interview, but for those that don't know, tell us about the Dark Pictures Anthology.
Dan McDonald: The Dark Pictures is a series of narrative, story-driven, branching, horror stories. Each one is standalone, they each tell a different story, completely separate from the others, but within the same universe, so there is connection between them all. House of Ashes is set at the end of the Iraq war in 2003, with links four thousand years ago that set the story up.
Lauran Carter: So, tell us more about the theme and themes, I suppose, within "House of Ashes".
Dan McDonald: It starts off with a military unit, they've got some new technology that can look for weapons of mass destruction underground. They think they've identified something in the Zagros Mountains in Iraq. And then as part of that, they come into conflict with an Iraqi unit and there's a pitched firefight and then the two groups are plunged underground, there's an earthquake of some sort and it's revealed that there's a hidden temple underground, these big, massive structures.
Dan McDonald: But these different groups, they're all separated, radio contact is lost and they're submerged in this black darkness. And then they're going to start hearing things and seeing things, and people are going to start disappearing. So this time, it's a very real threat!
Lauran Carter: All of the Dark Pictures games, they all pull something from real life or from history, from fact. What's the case with the myth or historical part of "House of Ashes"?
Dan McDonald: So, we love looking at and reading myths and legends and stories and doing our research. And we know our fans love it as well because there's something that they can link into afterwards. And I love doing that when I'm playing games and watching movies myself.
Dan McDonald: So, this one's set four thousand years ago: the Akkadian Empire and this terrible evil that happened. We have this self-proclaimed God King, Naram-Sin, and he essentially cursed his people. He sacked this temple, and brought famine and devastation to his own people. And so a lot of the history is lost, but we've done a lot of research about it. And then we had a lot of happy accidents that linked into the story we wanted to tell. And the fun thing for us is we get to do our own take on it, we get to twist it, and obviously, we've made our own truth from it.
Lauran Carter: At the end of the sneak peek, the trailer, we saw ... monsters! Tell us a bit more about what's going on there!
Dan McDonald: The military unit that you're playing as, they don't really know what they're coming up against. They're not human: they're bigger, they're larger, they’re faster. The team aren't going to know if there's one or two of them, or hundreds or thousands of them. And that's the threat with this. You know, they've got guns, maybe they could try and take one of them down, but maybe there's another one around the corner or maybe there's a group of them and maybe they're going to get ambushed.
Lauran Carter: Maybe they're like a cluster!
Dan McDonald: Exactly, yeah! And they all pop out all at once!
Lauran Carter: A nest, as it were!
Dan McDonald: Yeah! And it's been really fun to work on and see these things move around and how horrific they can be. They’re different to us, they perceive the world in a different way. Getting little snippets of it in the darkness, and "Was that...? Did I see that?" Was it something that moved, or is it actually just one of the other soldiers that's stuck in the catacombs? We like to try and misdirect people on things, you know that "Did you see something, did you not?" And that's a great thing within horror that you think you're going to be scared right now and we're not going to scare you now, we'll scare you in a minute...
Lauran Carter: It’s coming!
Dan McDonald: ...when you’re not expecting it.
Lauran Carter: It's always coming!
Dan McDonald: Yeah, always!
Lauran Carter: So, should we expect a huge amount of peril in the game?
Dan McDonald: Definitely! We love to do it, you know, it's fun for us to work on, as horrific as it is and we know that our fans love it as well. So, yeah, there's at least 60 unique deaths and there's a whole ton of variation on that as well. So, Merwin and some of the others, you're going to see different things happening to them, depending on how you play it out, you know, getting ripped and shredded and torn. And because there's a firefight, there's going to be bullets flying as well, and all kinds of stuff. And it's not just the deaths, it's the gore that goes along with it, and, you know, lots of blood.
Lauran Carter: Wicked! It sounds absolutely terrifying, I'm in! What differences have you made, or changes have you made to the gameplay and mechanics for "House of Ashes"?
Dan McDonald: We're always evolving the Dark Pictures, we listen to a lot of the feedback from our fans and also our team, what they want to do, how they want to push things forward. So we tried some stuff in "Little Hope" with more camera control, 360º cameras in certain parts, and we’ve really leaned on that again, and it really works well. In "House of Ashes" lots of the game is set underground, and so these corridors, which are really tight and oppressive.
Lauran Carter: Creepy!
Dan McDonald: Yeah, indeed! So, we've had to learn because you take away the fixed cameras and that takes away some opportunities for horror. But we've had to learn new tricks to scare people and ramp up the tension and the chance for jump scares, which we know some people love. We've also got a new torch mechanic. So, it's military-themed so these guys can be walking around with weapons, with torches mounted on them. We love the lighting that we do: this really inky black darkness that we have and the contrast to the bright areas. And so you're going to need to lean on that torch to allow you to see where you're going, what the threat is, and that kind of stuff.
Dan McDonald: We've also done things like added difficulty settings to this game. So, in "Little Hope", we added QTE warning icons, as an example, and we've got some really good positive feedback about that, but also some people want to turn that off. We want to allow you to play the game in your way. So, with our accessibility settings and difficulty settings, if you want to have a more casual experience, you can change those settings. Still, most your characters are going to end up dead, but you know, that’s what ...
Lauran Carter: Spoilers!
Dan McDonald: Yes, indeed!
Lauran Carter: But that's what we come here for, that's OK! We can deal with it! So I've got to ask, what was it like working with Ashley [Tisdale]?
Dan McDonald: So, Ashley was fantastic! She researched Rachel [King]. She understood her when she came on the set, which is so refreshing! She knew her inside out. And Rachel is a flawed character, so, she brought that through so fantastically. The rest of the cast were fantastic as well! We want you to connect to these characters and understand them as humans, we want them to seem real because they're real to us. You know, we spend a long time designing them. And I don't mind if you hate any one individual character because you don't like everyone in real life, but maybe you'll like them when you see the journey they go on.
Lauran Carter: Maybe you like them once they're dead and you feel bad about it!
Dan McDonald: And you feel bad about it, definitely! But also, we want you to save them. We want you to try and save them. We know that some people want to get everyone killed straight away and that's fine: that's their playthrough, that's what they want to do. But can you get everyone out alive and save as many as you can?
Lauran Carter: That's a lot of replayability there!
Dan McDonald: Indeed, yeah.
Lauran Carter: Goes on forever, I like that! So, last question: favourite scene?
Dan McDonald: Favourite scene? So, Salim [Othman], our Iraqi soldier and Jason Kolchek, one of the Marines that's there, there's a way that that can play out and a sort of, contest between them and you can make it go in a number of different ways. It's really emotional. Seeing them film it, I was lucky enough to be there and then seeing that come through in-game, I think we’ve got something there. I think, that's gold!
Dan McDonald: And then, of course, I love scaring people! So I love the jump scares, I love the the moments of tension that we bring. We can't hold you in that moment, so we've got some fantastic jokes in there as well to allow you to relax for a moment before we scare you to death!
Lauran Carter: To take your mind off the imminent threat. I like that! Dan, thank you so much. This has been really cool to talk about, and I'm sure, you know, I'm excited and terrified in equal part and everyone else is just excited, I'm sure of it!
Dan McDonald: And it's been a real pleasure to speak to you and I can't wait to get into people's hands!
Lauran Carter: It's going to happen!