The Dark Pictures Anthology: The Devil in Me
‘The Devil in Me’ feels like a dead end for The Dark Pictures Anthology
The mechanics remain the same as “Until Dawn,” placing us in control of multiple characters who can all die during the story due to a missed button press or a bad choice, at which point the narrative changes and continues without them. Even the framing is similar, with a host character to address the audience and mark breaks in the story — for The Dark Pictures Anthology, we return time and time again to a man known only as the Curator, the series’s Rod Serling-type narrator.
The Dark Pictures Anthology has always been so much smaller, in terms of pure scope and ambition, than Supermassive’s other games. The games are consciously more modest efforts, with fewer story branches and recognizable actors. “The Devil in Me” serves as a finale for the first season of the series as well as a more focused, cohesive and experimental alternative to Supermassive’s bigger efforts.
It follows a true-crime film crew, headlined by Jessie Buckley as its vain, dissatisfied presenter, Kate, and Paul Kaye as its temperamental director/producer, Charlie. Initially, we find them agonizing over how to spruce up the crummy early cut of an episode on H.H. Holmes, the real-world 19th-century serial killer whose booby-trapped hotel has long since enshrined him as a figure of American myth. Luckily, a mysterious benefactor has the perfect opportunity for them: He’s built a painstaking re-creation of Holmes’s famous “murder castle” on a remote island, and all they have to do to film it is come visit and leave their phones behind.
It’s a setup that’s all but begging for trouble, and thus a terrific idea for a horror game whose generic title belies influences that range from “House on Haunted Hill” and “Psycho” to “Saw” and “Halloween.” Navigating a maze of death traps, trap doors and secret chambers, the crew finds themselves facing down the purest expression of our culture’s fascination with serial killers: a masked stalker who has taken Holmes’s mustachioed, bowler-hatted image for his own silent, fearsome persona in a kind of H. H. homage.
The game’s opening flashback of the “real” version of Holmes all but twirls his mustache, greeting guests with double entendres that would make Hannibal Lecter roll his eyes. It’s goofy, but Supermassive’s work requires us to accept a certain level of goofiness. Character models that look great one moment will look unspeakably wooden in another. But here, as in Supermassive’s other games, they serve their purpose well enough as avatars whose deaths we’d prefer to avoid while we nose around a game laden with cheap shocks meant to make us jump and then laugh at the fact that we jumped.
Not for nothing has Supermassive’s work emerged as a multiplayer fixture, perfect for couch commentary. It’s the “fun” brand of horror rather than the genuinely harrowing kind, and the studio consciously plays around within those parameters. For instance, the spooky animatronics that populate the re-created Holmes hotel are easier to confuse for real people when the characters themselves are computer-generated mannequins rather than human actors.
The yearly output of The Dark Pictures Anthology series makes such self-reflexive touches more visible, alongside slight tweaks and changes to each new installment. The last game, “House of Ashes,” featured a more adjustable camera than previous entries, for example. “The Devil in Me” furthers the inclusion of more “traditional” game elements, like giving individual characters inventories for equipment. For example, one of the characters, Mark, can use his extendible camera mount to nudge objects in high places, and he can light up the area in front of him with a brief, bright flash. Charlie relies on his cigarette lighter and can jam his business card into drawers to get them open.
In practice, though, the inventory mechanics feel bolted-on at best, meshing awkwardly with Supermassive’s long-established formula. Because we’re constantly shifting characters, the game doesn’t want to disorient us by having to track too many details across too many inventories. Pickups in the environment are primarily keys for use in the immediate vicinity through an extra button press, which is functionally just another way to visualize actions that have traditionally happened automatically in these games. If these new ideas accomplish anything, they suggest something potentially more experimental and fleshed out down the line for Supermassive. As is, they certainly don’t ask us to consider which character we’re playing or which tools they have for more than a few seconds.
Also new is the presence of more traversal options, similar to the interactive busywork of environmental puzzles in a Naughty Dog game where we climb around and push objects that all conveniently have wheels and handles. Rather than deepening our identification with the characters, these mechanics actually call more attention to the on-the-rails nature of the game. Before, we might have accepted that the “interactive movie” approach requires players to surrender some of the control we’re accustomed to in other games. Now, the interactivity only clarifies the hard boundary between walking-around segments and the actual, pivotal scenes that involve quick-time event button-pressing and choice-making.
From a narrative standpoint, it’s tough to tie up all of a story’s threads when any one of them can end at any time, and “The Devil in Me” exhibits the usual flaws of that approach. Characters tend to be awkwardly sidelined, and motivations don’t quite coalesce. Even the hulking murderer who can kill every character begins to feel a little inept when we spend so much time dodging his killing blows.
These issues are not unique to “The Devil in Me.” “The Quarry” often felt uneasily patched together, struggling to reconcile all of its plot threads. All of this raises a question that haunts the experience of Supermassive’s games: Amid players’ expectations of visual fidelity and complex narrative, how sustainable is a format where, at any point, any fully voice-acted, motion-captured character can die and be cut from the game in an instant?
Steven Nguyen Scaife is a Midwest-based freelance writer whose work has appeared at Slant Magazine, Polygon, Fanbyte, Vice and BuzzFeed News. For however long it lasts, his Twitter account will be @midfalutin.