Set at the end of the Iraq War, you'd imagine that House Of Ashes would be telling a very similar story to the other games that use the country as their backdrop. Instead, developer Supermassive Games is mixing Mesopotamian mythology and modern influences like 80s sci-fi films to produce a visually exciting horror that aims to provoke questions about our identities when faced with a terrifying, unknowable other.
It's the third entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology, a collection of eight planned games that explore a certain genre or trope in horror and offer an extremely cinematic and interactive experience. The first is Man Of Medan, following friends on a diving trip who are forced to board the abandoned SS Ourang Medan after their boat crashes into it in a strange storm. The second is Little Hope which sees a group of students and their lecturer stranded in the titular town and at the mercy of the wronged spirits of victims unjustly killed in its historic witch trials. Though every story, setting, and cast of characters are individual to each of these games, they connect as part of the anthology and to encourage replayability to discover all of their secrets and possible endings.
To all appearances, House Of Ashes is already very unlike its predecessors. This time, it's set about ten years ago, towards the conclusion of the Iraq War. A group of soldiers from the CIA, U.S. Special Forces and the U.S. Air Force are tasked with the investigation of an underground chemical weapons depot discovered in a rural area of Iraq. When they arrive, they find that this location is only home to shepherds and make to move out. Local militia then open fire on the soldiers and both sides are hit heavily by the fallout. The conflict comes to a sudden stop when an earthquake ruptures the ground beneath their boots, plunging this group into the depths of the caverns below.
What happens next? Check out this snippet of gameplay below, featuring the differences between the Theatrical Cut and the Curator's Cut of House of Ashes.
CIA officer Rachel King, her husband Colonel Eric King, the Marines Nick Kay and Jason Kolchek and an Iraqi officer named Salim Othman gradually gather together in the darkness and try to work out how to reach the surface again. But, it becomes clear that they aren't alone in the forgotten ruins of a temple built by a despotic ruler - something is stirring in the shadows.
(And yes, it is actress Ashley Tisdale of High School Musical fame playing Rachel.)
What strikes me first and foremost about House Of Ashes is its stunning environments and the potential these have for serious scares. The soldiers are trapped underground, where the only light sources are the sunlight filtering through the gaps in the rock, their flashlights, fire or flares. Seeing the dusty detail in these natural corridors of stone and the more majestic elements of the ruins, it's evident that those of us with an Xbox Series X or a PlayStation 5 will spend some time sightseeing while surviving. Speaking to series producer Dan McDonald, he elaborated on the opportunities that next-gen hardware has offered Supermassive Games.
"The nature of the thing we make is so cinematic, you know, we're aping movies," said McDonald. "We've got very similar cameras and lighting and all that kind of stuff. The character models that we use, that we've had for a long time, we have never been able to display all of the texture maps that they have, the detail that they have on the characters faces. The PS4, low end PCs and Xbox Ones couldn't display that stuff."
The tension between artistic choices and the technological advancements within the medium was another thing to consider during development. "We record all the face data and the performances that we have at 30 frames a second, and we're trying to do a quite cinematic presentation of that in the same way that all movies traditionally work 24 frames a second. We wanted to stick to that lower frame rate, but we know that gamers want to have a higher frame rate," he continued, adding that there will be performance settings on the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 that unlock 60 frames per second for those who want that.
Graphical fidelity is the core change that players will notice between the generations, and McDonald was gleeful when he explained how these visual tweaks allow the team to set up all kinds of scares. An engineer on the team "spent a long time looking at the HDR settings" that are possible across all platforms to make the most of these dark, dark corners in the caves. "We didn't push [HDR] far enough on the last games," admitted the producer. "But that's something we've spent a lot of time focusing on... I love having those really dark parts on the screen because we can hide stuff. You know, we can put the threat there."
"As soon as you see the monster in broad daylight, it's just a man in a suit," he continued. "So we have to work out ways to hide it and skew it and give a sense of it. Then hopefully, when you do see it, we'll make a big deal about it and make you scared because it's coming at you quickly, or there's loads of them and you've got to run away."
In the snippet of House Of Ashes that I saw, the creature leaps out in front of the beam of a flashlight that cuts through the dark and disappears just as quickly. With the camera cramped into this claustrophobic over the shoulder angle, it was giving me an action-horror atmosphere, not unlike Resident Evil. Moreover, director Will Doyle cited films like Aliens, Predator and The Descent as influences on the game, as well as H.P. Lovecraft's novel At the Mountains of Madness. Doyle counts House of Ashes under the category of exploration horror: where the characters are on a critical mission with no way home, cut off from allies and facing an inhuman threat. In bridging these more modern inspirations, I wanted to know why the developer looks to folklore and mythology for the foundations of The Dark Pictures Anthology.
"We start with those historical facts," started McDonald. "But we also start with an idea of what the threat would be and the theme that we'd want." Doyle and the team have pored over texts on Mesopotamia as well as consulting with experts in this specific sphere, and "happy accidents" come to the fore in their research. "This thing which happened 4,000 years ago, we can easily link to this thing that happened in Iraq less than 20 years ago," he explained. "Sometimes you're really surprised." In House Of Ashes, the temple that the soldiers fall into is one from the reign of Naram-Sin, a self-proclaimed god king who incurred the wrath of the Sumerian pantheon. The myth goes that Naram-Sin's people suffered devastating war, famine and plague as a result of his actions, so he built this structure to show his regret and repentance to the gods.
Aliens and a poem retelling events of the 23rd century BCE. Two sources that are like chalk and cheese, yet McDonald assures me that the crux of House Of Ashes' story is something that will stick with players long after they put down the controller. "It's about humanity, and what it means to be a human, and what that means for me, and for you. In my story, I'm the good guy, you know, this is my lived experience," he explained. "It's about family. Everyone is someone's mother, or father, or brother or sister or son or daughter, they've all got some part of goodness in them. And then you're going to come up against this thing which isn't, which is different, which is other."
When drawing from mythology, he said that there is a "basis of reality" within which the player is offered these divergent paths born from complex choices to ensure that these experiences are more than cinematic. "We don't give you a binary choice where it's a good or a bad choice, and we've played on that a lot in this game," added McDonald. "Is there something wrong with [a character]? Is there a theme of betrayal? Do you trust them? Should you bring him with you? Or you know, you leave them behind?"
Though myth is specific to specific cultures, it's a reliable well of spooky stories for fiction. However, fear is subjective. I wondered how Supermassive Games aims to deliver a coherent horror experience when we all have different limits with what we can handle. McDonald told me there are a "whole bunch of tools and tricks" in horror as a genre, and the developer has the stats to back up the ones that chill your blood... literally. "We've had people user testing our games with biometric sensors, and we were recording their video, we've got sensors on their heartbeat, on their sweat levels, and we can see how stressed they are throughout it," he explained, though the team isn't interested in putting you through the wringer and there are narrative "moments of lightness" that tell you it's time to relax again. And, just because these characters are soldiers, don't expect them to charge into the action like Arnie.
"The minute you put a gun in someone's hand in a game, they suddenly become more powerful," said the producer. "And our games have been about running away. You know, the threat is too large, you can't deal with it, you have to go. But we've still got that with this because how many are there? Is it one or two? Because it will be at the start. Or is it thousands of them? And, are your bullets effective against them? Or do you have to work together to figure out a different way to kill them? ... They're resourceful people. They've been through hellish situations before but this should take it up another notch. It takes it beyond what they've dealt with in their past lives."
Well, fingers crossed that they've brought extra pairs of underwear in their backpacks. House of Ashes is coming to PC, Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 in 2021.
Featured Image Credit: Supermassive Games
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