The mystical Man of Medan has actually lastly launched, and like Until Dawn prior to it, it boasts some remarkable visuals and a substantial branching story to begin Supermassive’s brand-new Dark Pictures Anthology.

One of the series’ primary focuses is to bring more film-like cinematography to video games, to bridge the space in between scary movies and scary video games, and possibly even function as a entry indicate fans of all things scary.

Last month, I overtook Robert Craig, art director at Supermassive Games, following his talk on cinematography for narrative based video games at Develop Brighton. He informed me about his cinematic motivations, the difficulties of lighting and ‘shooting’ a scary video game, in addition to what he believes the future of video games like this will be.

Mood lighting.

In Man of Medan, the gamer (or gamers) go through scenes from differing viewpoints – often in very first individual, often in 3rd. While some may discover the swap rather disconcerting, it assists offer a much better concept of what the characters are going through, making it so you see the story from their perspective, in addition to a larger viewpoint.

“I truly enjoyed that modification when they would change from this extremely directed storytelling, to putting the audience in the location of the characters in action scenes. I figured that would work truly well for the story we were attempting to inform, so although it can seem like 2 different things, often the contrast it draws can be truly helpful,” Craig described.

“When the electronic camera’s directed, it’s a bit of hand holding – it’s stating ‘hey do not examine there, I’m gonna reveal you what’s taking place over here’. Whereas when it’s portable, it’s someone who’s simply shooting browsing, you do not understand where they’re going to go or what they’re going to take a look at next, and you get a much better sense of hazard and panic.”

Horror is a category that works well with cinematic strategies like this, especially in a video game that plays off a worry of the unidentified, and the changing viewpoints keep you simply out of the loop enough to keep a level of stress throughout. This specific cinematic design wasn’t motivated by a scary movie, nevertheless. Craig lists the Netflix series Godless as a major inspiration.

“Godless is a western, and that was one of my main camera and lighting references. I think artistically for me, I really like to look at stuff off genre, because like attempting to look at what the horrors do and how they’re working their cameras and setting their scares, looking around other genres helps develop creativity as well.”

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An example of some great cinematography in Godless.

While Man of Medan has a lot of differences to Until Dawn, the design of the game will be consistent throughout the Dark Pictures Anthology. From the cinematic style to the actual gameplay itself, it’s designed to be somewhat of a barrier breaker to allow those who aren’t as experienced with games get their horror fix.

“We tried to design the game to be compelling and fun by making it so you don’t have to spend twenty hours nailing the mechanics to be able to progress. There’s not really a lot of failure in our games, so even if you miss Quick Time Events, even if you get a character killed, that’s just the movie that you’re gonna get, we don’t punish that.”

So if you play Man of Medan and kill all but one character, that’s just the story you’re going to get. In Man of Medan it’s actually possible to get characters killed extremely early in the storyline, which I may have learned the hard way. But that’s the beauty of games with so many branching paths, there’s not necessarily a wrong way to do things, just a different way.

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Choices, choices.

Supermassive isn’t the only company working on games like this, of course, and this week’s captivating FMV thriller Erica is another example. Meanwhile, in Netflix’s Bandersnatch, which released earlier this year, we can see an example of a movie that pulls motivation from games. Of course it could be debated for hours as to what category Bandersnatch falls into – technically it’s labelled an “interactive film”, but then to what extent is any choice-based story-driven game not a film? Craig told me it’s about the level of control it provides to the player (watcher? consumer?).

“We have exploration mechanics where you can actually move the character around the world, pick up clues, explore, shine your torch around, and see what’s there. What we’ve found is that really connects the player to the environment, so when the cinematic stuff starts it’s kind of hitting all the harder.

“The good thing about games is that you can give the player that agency, you can give them that connection. When you start to direct things and start to show cutscenes, hopefully you’ve built up that connection to the character that they’ve been moving around first hand.

“We did a lot of work on cameras for live exploration in Man of Medan, in which I had to make it feel like you’re walking through and the cameras are cutting, shooting that scene like it would [appear] in a film. Exploration is really important, I believe it does truly connect the user to it, but it’s definitely interesting to see how films are incorporating choice-based into the work also.”

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Man of Medan gives you narrative options throughout the game, not just letting you choose what you say but also how you act.
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Bandersnatch offers a similar branching narrative.

There’s a section early in Man of Medan that puts you in the shoes (or, wetboots) of characters exploring a plane wreckage under the sea, and the atmosphere these sections build is incredible. The scenes are dark, as you’d expect miles underwater where the sunlight can’t filter through, so as the diving party you have to use torches to explore and guide your way.

This exploration manages to not be so dark as to make it annoying to get around, but just dark enough to justify the use of the torch and provide that sense of unease from the shadowy background. According to Craig, this effect wasn’t easy to achieve.

“In CG terms it’s very hard to simulate light coming from the sun in the sky, dispersing through all this water and eventually diffusing at the bottom of the ocean,” he said.

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Without those torches the characters would be pretty hard to see.

“We looked to treat it like a film set, as we did with other sets, and we looked at how we would light it if we really wanted to shoot there and how much [light] we would go for. Initially we actually lit quite a lot on the plane wrecks, and for a long time production would’ve gone with that. But quite close to the game being finished, we decided to go back and ended up making it much darker and giving the characters these really strong torches to explore with.

“We found that kept the realistic feel to the light, but still gave the player the ability to search around and discover things. We actually did a little documentary about all the water that’s in the game that we put up in a dev diary where it kind of starts off with me complaining about it (laughs).”

Craig has a background in lighting for games, so as far as making the game too dark or not dark enough goes, he says it’s all about making sure you understand your audience.

“When you’re doing horror and you’re utilising a great deal of darkness, you’d never want there to be no information there – that’s the wrong kind of darkness. You want to hide things sometimes, but you still want enough in the image so that people can perceive it and understand something by it, even if it’s just a dim light on a character that shows you their shape.

“You do not want to obscure everything, or not for too long – maybe for a few seconds or something to work as a scare or a surprise. It’s type of split between the technical side and the artistic side, we definitely have our arms full with both.”

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It’s not all dark and gloomy, Man of Medan has its moments.

If you want to experience Supermassive Games’ impressive cinematography for yourself, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is out today for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Bertie called it a “promising begin” to the series in GamingOverpowered’s Man of Medan review.