The Dark Pictures season finale, The Devil in Me, looks set to bring one of the most ambitious setups yet across all four games. The broad pitch is 19th century serial killer H.H. Holmes meets Saw, whereas the previous games have always been based on something ‘real’ – first came the legend of the SS Ourang Medan ghost ship, followed by the Andover Witch Trials and then the ancient Mesopotamian Akkadian Empire. Both Holmes and Saw, however, feel closer to home, with countless books and records covering Holmes’ murder spree and eventual execution in 1896. While Saw’s traps permeate popular culture whether you’ve seen a movie or not. Combining the two is obviously going to get interesting fast.
Only murders in the building
The Devil in Me sees a struggling documentary company offered a mysterious opportunity to visit a reproduction of Holmes’ so-called Murder Castle – a hotel where most of his murders took place and which ‘accidently’ burned down during his trial. Legend has it, the building was full of traps, secret rooms and more, used by Holmes to kill and dispose of anywhere between 20 to 200 victims, depending on who you ask.
Now, no documentary crew is turning down the chance to visit an allegedly accurate reproduction of the most famous house in true crime, but it’s obviously not going to end well, and the team soon realise they’re trapped in a hotel filled with devious traps and death rooms while someone unseen manipulates them. As for the Saw connection, as director Tom Heaton points out, if you set a Dark Pictures game in a place like that “you end up with Saw fairly quickly”.
“There’s things we definitely know about Homes,” Heaton explains, “and there’s also a lot of mythology around him”. During his trial the press went crazy for the ‘Murder Castle’, with all sorts of a rumours catching the public eye: “The blackout rooms that have no light, the gas pipes [used to flood rooms and kill poeple] and the acid [to dispose of bodies],” he highlights. “Those things may or may not be true, but they definitely exist in the collective imagination so this is good material. There’s a fine line between the facts and what we think might be the case, and things that probably aren’t the case but are fun to think they might have been. So we had fun with that.”
Would you like to play a game?
In the game that “fun” manifests as Saw-like traps, like one where two people are chained either side of a pillar with a central spinning blade, playing a deadly tug of war to not get in ripped half. There’s a room-sized incinerator you can get caught in. Noxious gas makes an appearance with a dual chamber where two team members can get trapped, forcing you to choose who to kill so the other one can get out. I initially felt that seemed a little unfair for a game where you’re usually trying to save the entire cast, but Heaton assures me that “one of our promises to the player is that you can save everyone.” So, pro tip – avoid the gas chamber. Heaton also claims that the deaths here are “the most gruesome and extravagant and over the top we’ve ever done”.
This is one of the longest Dark Pictures instalments yet, packing in a host of new features in its seven-hour run time.The new abilities and open exploration feel a lot more like a traditional third person game, and are mostly available thanks to the hotel providing the ability to move around between different areas. You can physically run and explore far more freely now compared to the previous games’ more linear, walking-speed story progression. You can squeeze into gaps and hide or move objects around to uncover things or open up new routes. There’s also a new inventory system that lets you pick up items to use or pass between characters.
“Puzzles might involve moving to different locations to find bits of a code or assembling the things you need,” says Heaton. “That requires a bit more moving around than earlier Dark Picture games, so the running really helps with that. So if you want to quickly walk around, maybe go and look for some item that you haven’t picked up, it isn’t too slow and you can go at your own pace.” This won’t be a passing need either as Heaton explains that “there’s more puzzles than we’ve done in previous games”, adding, “they’re not really difficult puzzles, they’re kind of like early Resident Evil or Silent Hill – something that will entertain you for a couple of minutes. They’re not going to have someone stuck on them for an hour”.
While some of these puzzles and other problems might require finding the right tools or gear, each of the five characters also start with a specific item, which is another new feature for the series. “We’ve got puzzles like the fuse box,” Heaton highlights, “And Jamie has this multimeter which allows her to hack into the old hotel fuse boxes, override them and open up new areas”. Other members of the team all start with a character-specific item, like a lock-forcing business card for Charlie Lonnit, owner of Lonnit Productions; Mark the cameraman can use his camera; Erin the intern has a directional mic that can locate sounds while, finally, presenter Kate (played by Academy Award nominee Jessie Buckley) has a pencil you can use to shade paper and reveal hidden messages like door codes.
All of these items can be lost, broken and passed around, adding a whole new layer to the usual decision-making crapshoot of keeping people alive – getting someone killed because you kept or gave away a vital item is going to probably hurt more than yes or no-ing someone to an early grave.
All of these new gameplay features feel like a major progression for a series, and proof that the devs seem to learn something new with each instalment. “Whenever we ship a game we look at review feedback, what the fans are saying and we develop solutions based on that, explains Heaton.” Often, we can’t get it into the next game, but we will get into the game afterwards. Or the game after that”.
For the Devil in Me, that review feedback seems to have shaped one of the most interesting instalments yet, mixing more freedom and puzzles to give the player greater agency over the usually story-led gameplay. And, while this is the season 1 finale for The Dark Pictures, it’s not ending there: “In terms of seasons really I can’t elaborate,” says Heaton, “Season two is coming for definite. Improvements we’ve made from game to game will continue into Season Two [but] we’ll talk about it when we’re ready to talk about it”. From what I’ve seen of The Devil in Me, it looks like The Dark Pictures has grown considerably since its first ghost story outing, and I’m really intrigued to see where The Dark Pictures Season 2 eventually takes things.