Supermassive and the Spectrum of Horror
I am a man of patterns and predictability: Supermassive Games drops a new interactive horror experience, I get it, I play it, I love it, I play it again, I wait until the next one. Even in that process, I am predictable, despite my best efforts: in my first run of a Supermassive game, I lose characters to death and downfall, despite my best intentions. This has never diminished my love of the experience, despite my constant pursuit of ideal endings (ie, everyone lives). I enjoy the story fresh for my first run, and as the credits roll, I get excited to start all over, to try new paths, to experiment. To use what I’ve learned what I know about the game’s story to do differently…maybe even “better,” by my definition.
That’s what I love the most about interactive horror, and Supermassive’s library specifically, against cinematic horror: I’m in it. I’m the one making choices that might save (or kill) characters, and I get to own that, good or bad. I can’t yell at the TV if the character was a dingus because it’s my own doing. If someone survives a close call with death (by cliff-fall, or mishandled gun, or monster), then it’s due to my input.
Because of this, and because of how these experiences are designed, I can enjoy them multiple times in wildly different ways, depending on what experience I’m looking for.
The Tragedy entails almost anyone’s first run: not everyone lives, but neither does everyone die. Someone has to live with what happened and who didn’t make it.
It’s an experience that is often only felt once in the run, as players enter blind to the world. There’s a true unknown to dread, piecing together the story’s mystery in real-time, making snap life-or-death decisions, and hoping for the best as you stumble through the nightmare.
By Supermassive’s design, the game makes players feel bad for falling short at every turn: players are the connective tissue between all characters, who might know what’s best for the characters, even if that character would have no reason to know what terrors still lurk around the corner. Having seen something from one character’s perspective, we might be inclined to use that to try and help or protect another, making a downfall all the more tragic when it comes to a head.
Additionally, Supermassive gives glimpses behind the curtain, like the tragic muses of old going on about how a play was fated to end. Premonitions dot the playscape, showing eagle-eyed players a single outcome to a single character’s myriad choices, fatal and not. Maybe a warning to not use a certain item or to avoid a certain path, assuming players can glean enough from a two-second snippet of information. Knowing is what makes the downfall worse, knowing that you had some inkling as to survival, and it was out of reach, or you didn’t think about the consequences of your actions…or, you just failed. That makes the tragedy the most effective: despite your best efforts with the information you have, someone still doesn’t live to see the sun rise.
As credits roll, you are filled with regret for what could have been, for misinterpreting a vital clue, or for making the wrong decision in a moment of panic. But in the pursuit of something better (or more comically terrible), players are filled with the cathartic potential for another run.
Depending on who you ask, ensemble horror movies might have been comedies in their own right. Terrible teens doing dastardly deeds getting what they deserve, often in gruesome and comically bloody fashion. Supermassive’s library doesn’t disappoint: a violent and gruesome demise awaits every single one of their characters, assuming inaction or the “wrong” decisions are made at the right times. Sometimes, it lines up with traditional horror’s more seemingly-religious underpinnings, punishing the premarital-sex-obsessed and lustfully-gazing characters, but looking deeper, the comedy transcends the old underpinnings.
Perhaps the experience becomes a comedy of errors, or a play where everything goes wrong. Button prompts are missed, quick-time events are failed, and the characters are already beaten and bruised by the time their final judgments come rolling up.
Perhaps, it becomes a comedy of ignorance, of the fool (and maybe the fool-controller) stumbling through a mystery without uncovering a single clue. A tale of ignoring all of the signs and missing the evidence, both obvious and hidden, in favor of barreling forward unto the unknown. Or, maybe more accurately, it becomes a comedy of trope-fulfillment, of leaning into character archetypes that favor obliviousness. There was always a reason that horror movies have been saturated with “Final” characters, after all.
Viewing the interactive horror as a comedy plays into traditional horror: so many characters, if not all, are predestined to die. Might as well go out in a spectacular fashion.
The Triumph is what I strive for. It feels like the realization of hope, grit, and determination that can only come from (and be appreciated through) interactivity. But it also depends on the player. My Triumph is everyone surviving the night as unscathed as possible. Someone else’s triumph could be killing everyone at the last possible second, or tearing apart the relationships between characters, or creating a new tragedy, or something. But that’s the beauty of the Triumph: it is what the individual makes of it.
Its most important and defining element is that it’s achievable. Through all the trials and learning, the previous failures, the knowledge gained and retained in hindsight, the experience is set to be mastered and conquered in the face of what was unknown. The story is finally yours and mine to craft however we see fit.
With every new installment in their library, Supermassive keeps opening the door wider and wider, allowing more people to seek their own Triumph via accessibility features. Maybe rapid button tapping just isn’t your thing, but you really want to pass that Quick Time Event to see what happens, or what can happen. Maybe you want to learn from your mistakes more quickly and rewind a recent (and unexpected) character death to preserve your intended run; go for it. By giving players more Director-level control over the experience, instead of the more “standard,” challenge-based approach, that allows more and more people to experience the game’s twists, turns, and intrigue, and doesn’t roadblock anyone from seeing what they want to see. A story’s only as good as what you’re able to experience, after all, and horror as a genre is proud of every frame it puts to screen. No need hiding it all behind difficult challenges.
The horror experiences of Supermassive are still games, fundamentally interactive in nature. Games are meant to be played, and enjoyed, and, in time, overcome by all sorts of people. The Triumph looks different for everyone, but the Triumph remains the peak experience all the same.
I love my own share of cinematic horror, and I love the many forms it takes and has taken throughout time. I love how written horror plays with sentence structure, rhythm, and description the way no other medium can. But at the end of both, a film and a book can only ever be that one thing: one path, one finale, static. But interactive horror? That is great, and I love it so, because it can be so many different things. It’s dynamic.
That is where it will always supersede traditional horror media for me. Interactive horror is malleable, fitting for both the player and the story-seeker. It is so many things, depending on how many times someone has (or hasn’t) experienced it. It is so many more things, depending even more on the user’s goals, pursuits, and their playstyles. It can be anything from a tense mystery, to a gory comedy, to a triumph of humanity over monstrosity, and so many other experiences in-between. It’s not a switch, not even a dial. Interactive Horror is a spectrum.
All images courtesy of The Quarry’s Steam page.