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Until Dawn’s 5-step Formula for Successful Scares

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Until Dawn’s 5-step Formula for Successful Scares

Admission: I’m a bona-fide horror nut. I love it. Can’t get enough. You name it, I’ll watch it: past-their-sell-by-date franchise sequels, grotty Eastern European video nasties, creepy found-footage indies, cliché-ridden teen slashers, and everything in between. So, PS4-exclusive interactive horror Until Dawn is right up my alley.

Duly, last month I sat down with Jez Harris from developer Supermassive Games to pick his brains about the science of scaring poor innocent folk like you and I. He happily obliged, talking me through a few of the strategies the Guildford-based studio is employing to ensure you’ll need to keep a clean change of underwear close at hand when the game hits the shelves later this year.

1. Bring in the experts

“We have Larry Fassenden and Graham Reznick as our script writers,” explains Jez. “They are horror encyclopaedias in human form and have worked on all sorts of acclaimed horror movies, like The Innkeepers and Stakeland.”

He’s not wrong – these two know what they’re doing. If you’re curious and of a hardy disposition – check out The House of the Devil and The Roost too.

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2. The element of surprise

“What we’ve tried to do is ensure that if you’re a fan of horror movies it will feel familiar – and that’s absolutely deliberate,” says Jez.

“What we want to do is put you in a playable horror movie. We want to make you feel like you know what’s going on and that you’re in your comfort zone. Then we can yank you out of it extremely hard as the twists and turns play out.”

3. Always have willing test subjects

“One of the things we realized very early on is that once we’ve been scared by something, that scare quickly diminishes every time you play,” Jez explains.

“And of course we play the game an awful lot, so you start questioning whether something is scary, forgetting the fact that it scared the life out of you six months ago. So we do a lot of user testing. We get players in that are completely fresh to the game, so we can check that we’re still making an impact.”

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4. Harness the science of fear

“We do a lot of work with galvanic skin response,” Jez continues.

“We have testers strapped into apparatus that monitors their temperature and the level of moisture in their skin. We’ll sit and watch the data as the person plays the game, and if we get a good spike we know we’re doing our jobs right. And if those spikes correlate across a number of separate players then we can be confident we’re on the right track.”

While these poor test subjects help the developers deliver on their promise, Jez – with a sadistic glint in his eye – is happy to acknowledge the team enjoyed a little schadenfreude too.

“We’ve had some great fun seeing the video output of our user testing – guys who are sat there, playing the game peeking through their fingers, not being able to look at the next scene, telling themselves to ‘man up’. We haven’t induced any heart attacks yet, but I think we’re getting close!”

5. Throw out the rulebook

The best horror movies keep the viewer guessing, eschewing cheap scares in favor of atmosphere and the unexpected. And that’s a rule that Supermassive seems keenly aware of.

“We were aware from early on that we didn’t want the game to be an endless stream of jump scares,” Jez insists. “People just become numb to it.”

“To make the horror as effective as possible you need to telegraph in some of the scares and then obscure others, otherwise players get wise to a formula. So a lot of Until Dawn is about the quiet dread of not knowing what’s going to happen next. You might think there’s a jump scare coming any second, and then there’s nothing for five minutes – when you’re not expecting it. It has more impact that way.”

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While I love the genre, I’ll freely admit to being a bit of a coward when push comes to shove. No matter how many horror movies I inflict upon myself, and how familiar I become with the genre’s structures and rhythms, I still watch them with the lights on, squirming, with a cushion close at hand. And having spent some time with the game, I’m happy to report that’s exactly how I’ll be enjoying Until Dawn too.

“We’ve seen people at events playing with the full headphone set-up, and they’re literally falling over at what they’re experiencing!” says Jez, when I ask for permission to play the demo build like a lily-livered wet blanket – with the volume down and headphones off.

“What we’re doing here is making a playable horror movie. How you’d sit and watch a horror movie at home is probably how you should play Until Dawn. For me personally, that would definitely be with friends – I wouldn’t want to do it on my own. I’d be too scared!”

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21 Comments

  • Will this use the PS Move at all?
    There isn’t that many games that use it on the PS4.

  • Can’t wait. I was lucky enough to do a few voices for this game last year. Can’t wait to see how it comes out. Looks awesome, guys!

  • Looks great! I’m not much of a horror fan, but this game looks interesting, especially knowing there are a lot of different endings to play to. Very interested to see what it’s all about.

  • This game keeps getting more and more interesting as the release date draws closer. Looks like I am going to finally need to dusk off the PS4 camera.

  • And there’s no Vita version I mean a downgrade version?!? Well it’s kinda shame,what is Sony really doing?!? Just making games for PS4?!? Even there’s not 1 title from SCEA or SCEE?!? Yes you know that feel, it hurts.

    I hope to see the game on Vita one day and portable.

  • Easily my most anticipated 2015 title! Love the horror aspect of Until Dawn, but no one seems to be talking about how decisions you make affect the story (much like Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, and the TellTale games). This has emerged to be my favorite genre, so naturally Until Dawn will be right up my alley!

  • I don’t have a PS3, so I had not ever heard of/ taken notice of this game prior to the PS4 announcement last year. But the announcement and what I have seen since has me intrigued. This wasn’t on my planned list of AAA titles to buy this year *, but I am thinking I will buy it now, after all that I have seen. It looks really cool.

    The only AAA games I had planned on buying this year:
    The Witcher 3
    Bloodborne
    The Division
    The Order: 1866
    Batman: Arkham Knight
    Uncharted 4
    Mass Effect (if available)
    Mirrors Edge (if available)
    A time travelling action game /tv show hybrid for a competing system.

  • Every time I hear about this game I get more and more interested…

    Interestingly enough, I prefer to watch horror movies with friends, yet I usually like to play horror games by myself (at night in the dark of course!). I’m debating which way I’d play if I were to pick this up.

    Also, same question as comment #1, move support (or any plans for it in the future)?

  • Probably my most anticipated PS4 game by far. I love the horror/slasher movie genre, and seeing the same elements be put into a game that I have full control (in terms of character choices), it sounds extremely appealing.

    And from the sounds of the shear quantity of variety in choices, and outcomes, I think this game is going to have me hooked! Great work Supermassive!

    Also; Hayden Panettiere.

  • RELEASE DATE!!!!!!

  • Cool blog post. This game is in my top 3 most anticipated games of 2015. I just have one question, how long will the campaign take to complete? I know it varies depending on your choice but a estimate would be nice.

  • Until Dawn is looking good…I just hope the game is truly scary instead of the crap “horror” movies we have nowadays,we’ve been having some nice scary games on PS4,dat cool terror…and Until Dawn must not disappoint.
    I also hope for a demo available before launch,please make it happen.

  • I had been wanting the Heavy Rain /Beyond Two Souls team to make a horror interactive game but instead these guys decided to do it . It was a nice demo at the PlayStation Experience I can’t wait until the game comes out . Please don’t give us an early release date.

  • Looking forward to playing this with my girlfriend. Should scare the crap out of one, or both, of us.

  • @5 what are you even talking about only making games for PS4 ??? theres nothing but ported garbage on the ps4 nothing new and exclusive and vita is a POS get a job and buy a ps4 and quit complaining simple

  • Great 5-step formula. This game really seems to be shaping up! It would be interesting to see a cooperative or versus variant added down the road.

  • This game just keeps looking better, and better. I have had it pre-ordered on the PS Store since it became available. Looking forward to launch, hope to be sleepless for a couple of nights.

  • hope it delivers the best expectations.

  • release date

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for making this game. The genre is sadly neglected. I can’t wait to fire it up in the middle of the night!

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