Editors note: We’ve tried to remove most of the story spoilers in this interview.
In Until Dawn, the interactive horror game is what you make of it. Based on the chaos theory of the butterfly effect, where a small change or decision can have a very large downstream impact, Until Dawn forces you to make split-second life-or-death decisions about eight young adults who are trapped at a mountain lodge.
The title debuts in North America today as an exclusive on the Sony PlayStation 4. We think that it’s one of the best collaborations of Hollywood and video games to date, with a lot of different branching stories about each of the main characters. Your job in the game is to make decisions that enable each character to survive the night. It is a very different kind of horror tale than you’ll see at the movies on a Saturday evening.
Hollywood writers and directors Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick wrote the story of Until Dawn, with more than 10,000 pages of dialogue. It took that much writing because any of the eight characters can die. That means each character’s part of the story has to be like a main storyline. We played the game all the way through a couple of times and interviewed Reznick about how he and Fessenden approached the writing and worked with the video game designers at Supermassive Games.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Read our review here.
GamesBeat: One thing I didn’t know about was your background in writing game narratives. Can you talk about that, as it compares to Hollywood work?
Graham Reznick: This is actually the first game I’ve written. We started this project in 2011. Technically the Until Dawn that’s being released is the second game I’ve written. The first one was the Until Dawn for the PS3, which wasn’t released. We started it as a PlayStation Move project, wrote it, and worked on it for about two years. Then it was decided that we’d scrap that version and go to PS4, and we decided to rewrite everything from scratch. The technology allowed us to do far better facial animation, which meant the acting could be more nuanced. We could tell the story through a more cinematic style of dialogue.
My background is primarily film. I’m a writer and director. I’ve done a lot of sound design, music, and so on.
GamesBeat: What was attractive to you about the project? It seems like one of the unique things about this is the butterfly effect. I’d imagine that causes a lot of branching in the narrative that you have to write around.
Reznick: Definitely. That was a big draw for me. This came about because my co-writer on the project, Larry Fessenden – the head of Glass Eye Pix, which is the company myself and a lot of my friends make movie for – had been approached by Supermassive. Larry doesn’t have a history with games. He didn’t grow up a gamer. But he knew I did, so he brought me on.
We wrote a bunch of tests, sample sections of the game. We didn’t know anything about it or what it was going to be. We just had some test specs, assignments to write. We were immediately attracted to the approach Supermassive had, what Will Byles and Pete Samuels had come up with. It was very similar to a cinematic approach, and similar to the Glass Eye Pix ethos. They weren’t making this type of horror game for cynical reasons. They wanted to make the best stories they could in the best way.
As far as the butterfly effect and the branching narrative, as a filmmaker and a screenwriter, you sit down with a character and a story, and then you immediately think of every possible version of that story at any given moment. You’re trying to find the best path for your screenplay. If a character has to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread, there’s a million ways that can happen. Who’s he gonna run into along the way? Does the store get held up when he gets there?
Writing the game is basically the same, but all those different weird little pathways suddenly become additional scenes that you have to write in tandem with the main story. Or what you hold onto as the main story for a little while, until you start realizing, “Oh my God, they’re all main stories.” It’s like writing parallel universes, which is—I’m a big science fiction fan, so that appealed to me.
GamesBeat: The combinations seem mind-boggling. If you have 16 characters, I imagine that the number of lines of dialogue you have to write just multiplies and multiplies.
Reznick: It’s insane. We have eight main characters, and they all can live or die at various points in the game. You can finish the game with them all alive, all dead, or any permutation in between. It’s not just whether they’re alive or dead that changes the narrative. Little choices you make change the personalities of the characters in interesting ways, which then has a ripple effect throughout the narrative. There’s all these things that can completely alter the path through the game.
I don’t know for sure how many pages are in the final PS4 version, but between the two versions there have been more than 10,000 pages of dialogue written. It’s been pretty intense.
GamesBeat: Now let’s bring up the analyst. At the end of each episode, you have a conversation. You don’t know who the analyst is talking to yet. He talks about how you’re playing the game. It made me think that he was talking directly to me, the player, rather than the psycho in the story. That ambiguity was very interesting. It made it suspenseful, but it also layered in different messages. I wonder if you could talk about that a little.
Reznick: The analyst in the game is an interesting device. It came later in the process, but it’s something we were always thinking about. In a sense, the analyst stands in for the video game designers and the writers, that part of our persona as we’re creating the game.
Last year, when the game was shown at Gamescom, or maybe it was more than a year ago, the developers put a little survey in front of the game asking about people’s fears. That was so the demo could get some information to help us understand what we should do as we were finishing the game. But it was so impactful for the player to feel like they were having an effect on the actual tonality of the game, more than just the narrative – as if it were catered to them. Will Byles realized that should be part of the game.
GamesBeat: There was a time, maybe in the beginning, that I felt as if I was the puppet master. And then you find that there’s another character who’s the puppet master. But at various times, especially when you’re doing something like a jump scare, I feel like you’re the puppet master. The writer is manipulating the player.
Reznick: Here’s an interesting way to look at it. When you’re making a movie, everything is very static. You show the audience one specific story, the story the filmmaker wants to show. That’s how the artform, the medium of film, works. It’s great, and there’s a million different ways to explore that.
What’s exciting about games, and specifically narrative-based games, is that you can take that approach from filmmaking, the curated narrative, and then explode it out so that the designers and writers of the game are curating a narrative environment for the player, but the player becomes a complicit collaborator. The interplay becomes very interesting when the player is not sure exactly what all the pieces are. It’s like you’re moving chess pieces around on a board, but one of those pieces can suddenly melt and turn acidic, or one of them can explode and blow up half the board.
It’s kind of like real life in that way. You move through life trying to make your way through your environment, and you think you know what’s going on sometimes, but people can surprise you. Little things you do have impacts on the environment and the milieu around you. Our biggest goal with this was to make sure the player could weave their own narrative through a larger meta-narrative that we created, but that it would always be satisfying, no matter what happened.
That was the biggest challenge. You can get to the end and all the characters will be dead, but it’s still a satisfying story. You’ll still get the full nine-plus hours of gameplay and narrative.
GamesBeat: There are parts where it seems like the choice is not always easy or clear. It almost seems random. How much choice is built in to the game? You could go left or right, and if you go left, you die, and if you go right, you live. That sort of thing.
Reznick: Part of it was we didn’t want it to be super cut and dried at any given point, so you could say, “I’ll be the good guy here. I’ll be the bad guy there.” You just have to make choices. Almost all the choices you can make should be informed, to an extent. There are some more or less random ones in there, but I don’t remember exactly what all the choice points are. The majority aren’t so black and white. Some of them are.
GamesBeat: So it’s more like, if you make a series of blunders, you’ll die?
Reznick: Exactly. There’s a bit of a more traditional gameplay element built in where it’s like, okay, I have to make sure I hurry along this path or else I’m not going to get to someone in time. But then there are a lot of situations where, depending on the conversation you have with someone, it might result in their death almost immediately. You wouldn’t know that going into the conversation.
But there’s also something built into the game that I thought was pretty clever on Supermassive’s part, these little totems you can find. They won’t always help you, but if you find enough of them, or you start to learn the language they’re speaking, they’ll give you information that will help you make more informed decisions. Those decisions aren’t necessarily good or bad, but they might prevent things from happening that you don’t want to happen.
GamesBeat: I’m about halfway through my second playthrough now. When I got to the final episode, it didn’t turn out exactly the way I wanted, so I played that episode over and over until I could get more survivors. It’s definitely replayable.
Reznick: Even as a writer, I haven’t had a chance to play all the way through that much. The little bit I have played, it’s surprising to me, the differences. I’ve seen some of the demo sections played over and over and over again for press reasons, and every time it’s a slightly different story. The characters say slightly different things. I has this weird organic, living quality to it. Even being part of it, it’s still a strange new thing for me to see it in action.
As a moviegoer and a game player, I want more of this in general. I like the idea that a game doesn’t have to be a sports simulator or Call of Duty. That’s great, but I also enjoy evenings where I can sit on the couch and play Life Is Strange or Until Dawn and have a narrative, cinematic experience I can interface with.
GamesBeat: It could be very broadly appealing, but it’s also the kind of game that people might dismiss with, “I’m not a horror movie fan.” How do you communicate that there’s something more going on here?
Reznick: The idea that it’s only for horror fans—It’s essentially just a narrative. One of the ways that slasher-style horror movies often fall into a trap – though the better ones don’t – is that they don’t spend a lot of time on character development. They’re just setting up teenagers to be slaughtered, and so everybody starts as a stereotype and ends as a stereotype. They’re around for a few minutes, or at most an hour if they’re lucky.
In Until Dawn, that can potentially happen, but–We wanted to set up a game where it starts very familiar. It feels like a slasher film. As soon as you start playing with it and making choices for the characters, though, all those stereotypes and clichés start to get whittled down into reflections of the personality of the player. They might not be reflections of the player’s direct personality, but the choices reflect the player’s personality. That will help players engage with and empathize with the characters a lot more than they would in a 90-minute slasher movie.
That will also have the effect of creating much higher stakes. You start associating with them a lot more, because they become extensions of yourself. You vicariously empathize with characters in horror movies, but in a game like Until Dawn, you literally worry about them, because it’s your achievement to keep them alive, keep them from harm. Or it could be your goal to get them horribly murdered. That’s a valid playthrough as well.
GamesBeat: It seems like the characters are steered in some way to either be likable or not likable. That makes a difference in how you play with them.
Reznick: Yeah. There’s that effect, and then for certain characters, depending on how you play, they can end up really surprising you. Some of the characters who start as the most unlikable have the potential to become the most interesting.
GamesBeat: There are some major twists that turn it into something else. I had some choices where I didn’t quite realize what would happen.
Reznick: Some of those types of situations are meant to be—In the moment you have to make a decision where you don’t know what the outcome will be either way. When you watch old slasher movies, old horror movies, everybody’s yelling at the screen – “Don’t go in the basement! Look behind you!” But when you’re in the moment and you have to make decisions quickly with no idea what’s going on, the adrenaline is running—You just can’t know what the repercussions of your choices will be. Sometimes you can have an inkling, but you have to just make a decision and roll with it. Part of the fun of Until Dawn, too, is that you have to roll with it and see what happens.
GamesBeat: There’s a small lesson there in that — you could very quickly save yourself, but you could also save a larger number of people if you think about it a bit more. That’s a life lesson, I guess.
Reznick: We’re trying to keep morality realistic in Until Dawn, if that makes sense. In the past, a lot of games have dealt with very black and white choices. Save someone, don’t save someone. We’re trying to make it less black and white. But there is a theme of thinking about your choices when you can, or thinking about the repercussions of your actions when you can, and trying to deduce the best way to operate and conduct yourself.
GamesBeat: Now that you’ve done this, do you feel like it’s something repeatable? The quality of the human faces in this was top-notch. The writing was good. It seems like this formula is applicable to many different kinds of stories.
Reznick: All of us, Supermassive and Larry and myself, learned a lot of lessons about how to put this kind of thing together. I know we’d all be excited to do more work like this, whatever form it might take.
GamesBeat: Maybe every TV show you watch could eventually be like this.
Reznick: I’m a big believer that mediums don’t replace each other. They just become more options. I hope that’s the case, anyway. I’m a big fan of VR. I’m excited to see what happens there. I was a big fan of 3D and I feel like it was a missed opportunity, the way it was handled with so much material coming out post-converted as opposed to being properly shot in 3D. I feel like that turned the public against it. It was sold as a replacement for movies, when it should have just been an option. It’s nice to have the ability to choose among all sorts of forms of entertainment and interaction.
GamesBeat: Were you aware that attempts to do interactive movies or make games more movie-like have this long history of really not working out? Did you go into this thinking a certain way about how to pull it off?
Reznick: I grew up on games. I’m 34, so I feel like I literally grew up with games every step of the way, from the earliest consoles on. I played pretty much everything as I grew up as much as I could. I played a lot of computer games, a lot of Sierra games. That was my bread and butter when I was a kid, almost more so than console games at first. Then CD-ROM games with a lot of FMV—We weren’t quite ready yet. Some of those were a lot of fun, but we weren’t ready to interact as deeply as we can with a story now, because of the technology.
The PS3 version of Until Dawn would have been very fun, but we wouldn’t have been able to present it as an interactive cinematic experience. It was something different. Only now, with the PS4 version and the facial capture technology and the ability to have these lush environments and top-notch acting talent, can we finally start to do that in a really believable way. There are other games out there now that are also doing it very well, like Life Is Strange, and to an extent games like The Walking Dead. That does an interactive narrative very well.
To your question, though, as far as what we did to try and avoid that, we approached it like we were making a movie. That’s what we know how to do, Larry and I. And we hoped for the best with Supermassive. They’ve held up their end of the bargain pretty well.
GamesBeat: The biometrics — I saw that bonus content video that was in there, about how they used the biometrics. I happen to have an Intel Basis watch that monitors my heart rate. It’s normally around 70 beats per minute or so. There was one scare, I can’t remember which one, but it got up to 108 when I looked at my watch.
Reznick: I need to look into that, because I feel like I’ve been ruined by movies, working on lots of movies. Particularly sound. I just shut that part of my brain off. But I know I’ve jumped a few times during Until Dawn. That one girl who folds herself into the cushions of the chair, that’s pretty hilarious.
GamesBeat: The hard thing is, it’s meant to be replayable, but you no longer get in those surprises that give you the heart attack.
Reznick: There are two layers to that as far as replayability. It’s a fun game to play with friends, to show somebody the game and relish in their fright. When Pete Samuels demo’d the game at the PlayStation Experience last year, that was the moment I knew this was going to work with groups of people. He was showing the level with Sam running from the psycho in front of 2,000 people. He got to the first choice point, where it’s run or hide, and the whole audience started screaming. “Run!” “Hide!” He couldn’t get a word in edgewise for the next 10 minutes. He literally let 2,000 people play the game through him. It was fun to see, and I imagine people will have a really fun time getting together and doing that in their living rooms.
The second thing is, because there are these wrinkles and twists in the game, we approached it like—We never wanted to directly lie to the player, but we wanted to give the player perceived truths. The characters can lie to the player. As you learn new things, you rethink things you’ve seen before. It’s like Usual Suspects or Sixth Sense or any other movie that has that kind of paradigm shift. On the second playthrough you’ll notice things that are very different. We’ve tried to give them multiple levels of enjoyment in the dialogue and the writing.
GamesBeat: What else are you looking for as far as the kinds of choices people make? I don’t know if you guys will eventually get feedback on all the metrics of how people do certain things.
Reznick: I’m very curious myself. As a filmmaker, you put out a movie into the world and it’s so static. It’s just one way. It’s very gratifying to see people get it, or have their own interpretations of it, but with Until Dawn, it’s like we were saying before. It’s this framework. Everybody will have their own distinct story within it. It’ll be interesting to see the stories people carve out based on how they play the game.
GamesBeat: Do you play Telltale’s games, like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones?
Reznick: I played Walking Dead, yeah.
GamesBeat: The interesting thing they have at the end of every episode, it shows the percentage of people who made a certain choice and how your choice fits in. You can see if you’re in the majority or minority.
Reznick: Life Is Strange has that too, which is fun to see. I don’t know specifically what Supermassive’s plans are in that area, but I believe there’s some version of that. I’m just not sure offhand. I’ve only seen preview builds that don’t have that stuff in there. I know that the butterfly effect thing traces out your path through the game, though, and you might be able to compare it to other people.
GamesBeat: After all of this, do you believe in that theory of the butterfly effect?
Reznick: Had I not accepted Larry’s proposal to help him write a video game that I didn’t know anything about four years ago, I wouldn’t be here talking to you today. It was just a whim. I had a free week. We had literally 24 hours to turn around a 90-page screenplay. I said to Larry, “This is crazy.” But I got a bottle of whiskey and stayed up all night writing a rough draft. The next day Larry and I punched it up together and we sent it off. Sometimes little things you do on a whim can mean a lot later on.