Out of nowhere, Supermassive Games, who you know best for Until Dawn, have released a new game. While they’re right in the thick of developing Man of Medan as an Until Dawn-esque horror game, they’ve more secretively been developing Shattered State, a similarly branching narrative adventure, but with a spy thriller plot and exclusively for Google Daydream VR. It’s out today. Surprise!
But why Daydream, and why now? Supermassive’s Executive Producer Simon Harris explained, “For us, historically we’re known for working with Sony, but we are an independent developer and as we’ve grown and started to spread our wings new opportunities and partnerships have presented themselves. This was an opportunity to take a new story genre – Until Dawn and The Inpatient were very horror, while Hidden Agenda was a dark procedural cop drama – and this felt like the right time to tell this story and the right platform to tell this story. It’s something much more aligned with the Netflix audience, so it’s been very specifically designed for around 40-50 minutes playtime, although we don’t impose a time limit on how you make your choices.”
The game drops you into the role of the head of the National Intelligence Agency of a fictional and very turbulent country. Unrest saw the South gain independence two years ago after civil war, and the government is still wracked by scandal. It seems like just another day at the office when your deputy walks in and presents a hacker with a boatload or emails that he’s about to leak to the public. Will you go hard on him with torture? Or take a softer approach that might see you run out of time? Either way, it’s clear that they’re fans of 24.
Creative Director Steve Goss said, “Yeah! I mean, there are many of those styles of narratives that informed us. So there’s 24 and I think Homeland, which is the other one that really sat in our sights for being ambiguous and intriguing. There’s the underlying fact that, as with 24 and Homeland, it’s a political thriller. The spying part is the underlying thing, but the political thriller is the machinations of the machine.”
And then a bomb is mentioned and the game races through decision after decision as you try to uncover the source of the conspiracy and avert the growing, spiralling threat to the country. It’s fast paced with each scene providing you with a particular choice that never feels like it’s a clear cut call. You can often hedge your bets and give yourself room to back down, but when push come to shove, and it comes to having to try to secure the Prime Minister from armed kidnap, you need to act decisively.
“Not just in Shattered State, but in all of our games, we never put forward a right or a wrong,” Steve said. “It’s about what you choose and do you get the results that you think you deserve? If it’s right or wrong, we could have made a linear story out of it and that’s not very interesting. Hopefully people will play Shattered State and they’ll play it in many different ways and get endings that they think are the result of the choices they’ve made.
“When we look at linear experiences, yes, there’s a certain pace to them. We played a lot with the pacing of the game and experimentation to figure out what would be the right duration, what would be the right story beats to hit, and this is where we arrived at. It builds to quite a crescendo, and you’re there, but have you got enough information to reach that decision? Which is the right one? That’s what we want you to feel, that you’re in the hot seat, the decision maker.”
At the end of the game, a short and sweet 45 minute thriller, you’re presented with your choices along the way, both as the news reports cover everything that’s gone on and the final state of the country, and with a straightforward representation of your decisions. Given the play time, the intent is clearly for you to take a break and head back in to see how else it can pan out, but Supermassive have avoided baring all to the player with a grand butterfly effect visualisation or Detroit: Become Human spreadsheet.
Simon laughed when we mentioned this. “Those are your words, the spreadsheet, not ours!” Steve continued, “That was actually one of our bigger creative conundrums, how we present your story at the end. Because on that story line at the end, you have big decisions, big crisis, and then smaller points that add up to it, but they can move. They move around, so the point at which you tip something over the edge can be quite early or quite a bit later.
“So if we presented something that was a bit more graph-y, that would be quite gamey in many ways and our impulse was to make something that’s a really neat recap of events, but you know what? Have a cup of tea, put the headset on for another go, and you can quickly find out what the other repercussions of decisions are.”
What’s quite impressive is just how good the game looks. Sure, it’s not pushing the same fidelity that PS4 or PSVR can manage, but when this game is running on the equivalent of a high end Android phone – we played on the Lenovo Mirage, but earlier Daydream set ups literally use a phone within a VR headset case – and it’s very effective. You do miss out on detailed shadowing, the environments are fairly straightforward and you’re basically shifting between three rooms within the building, but that works thematically with you as the NIA chief. You can tell that Supermassive have thrown all their motion capture expertise at the game, even if it’s been squished a little to fit on a phone.
Simon said, “One of the most interesting challenges with this was bringing our production value and believable characters, our cinematic aspects and branching narrative to a mobile device. It’s not as powerful as a PS4, it’s as simple as that, but what was interesting was we shot it with all of the performance capture and everything like that in exactly the same way we would do for Until Dawn or any of our high end games.”
This and Man of Medan seems to show Supermassive getting back to their best after a tricky few releases. Putting platform choices to one side – obviously it’s a shame that PSVR, PC VR and other mobile platforms are missing out – a spy and political thriller like this strikes a lot of the right notes for their brand of branching narratives. We’ve been through the story once so far, coming out relatively unscathed, but will definitely be heading back in to explore different options and the more extreme, darker fringes to the story.