Since its debut in 2019, Supermassive Games‘ The Dark Pictures Anthology has been slowly carving out its own unsettling space in the gaming world. To the uninitiated, it might seem like just another horror franchise – but like all the best horror stories, there’s something delightfully uncomfortable about even trying to define its mercurial nature.
House of Ashes is no different, but to understand what Supermassive is doing, you have to understand The Dark Pictures Anthology.
With a new ‘chapter’ released annually, the series hews closer to classic TV series The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, or Tales from the Crypt than it does the likes of Resident Evil. Much like those cult classics, Dark Pictures delights in delivering a different fearsome fable with each instalment, each one twisting in ways audiences never quite expect.
The first entry, 2019’s Man of Medan, tapped into teen horror tropes, with a group of too-attractive friends whose summer vacation plans of sun, seas, and sex descends into a cold, wet, hell of lost legends and drowned ghosts, while 2020’s Little Hope channelled Silent Hill with its own approach to the “haunted village” concept. This year though, Dark Pictures is looking further afield, both in terms of geography and influences.
The upcoming House of Ashes abandons the Americana of its predecessor to turn its attentions to Middle Eastern myths and demonology. Taking place in Iraq in 2003, early in the Iraq War, the new entry not only provides a fresh approach to its brand of horror, but offers some of the best writing, dialogue, and character performances the series has yet delivered – and from playing an early preview build, it’s shaping up to be potentially the series’ best chapter to date.
As with previous entries, the game is a tense character drama first and foremost, with a cast of five to follow – US Marines Nick and Jason, Iraqi soldier Salim, and Rachel and Eric, a separated couple working in the country on an unrevealed military project. The preview build provided quite literally dropped us into what turns into the worst day of their lives, as a skirmish sends all of them plummeting into a long-buried temple and its catacombs, penned into labyrinthine tunnels and pitch blackness, where something ancient and hungry scurries in the darkness…
In terms of terror, House of Ashes packs in masterfully timed jump scares, but more powerfully taps into some truly primal fears. The narrow confines that much of the game takes place in, often deliberately restricting movement or view, creates a clinging sense of claustrophobia. Glimpses of holes in the walls, too high and small for humans to use, only deepen this, making players feel like rats in a sadistic maze.
There’s no relief when the tunnels give way to cavernous temple rooms though – almost unnaturally large, these architectural paeans to long-dead gods feel sinister and overpowering. The fact that this dark temple has sunken into the deepest pits – or was it always there, built in the mire, far from the light? – is the other base fear that the game taps into; that of something ancient, beyond time, lurking down in the depths.
The actual history and mythology that House of Ashes is tapping into is that of Mesopotamian antiquity – the same source as humanity’s oldest known story, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Again, that sense of deep time aids the creepiness of the game, as if we’re disturbing something best left forgotten, but it’s made all the worse by the fact that this temple isn’t to actual gods such as Anu or Enlil but rather to Pazuzu, a king of demons and bearer of famine and plague. Trapped underground in a profane temple? The cast is not set for a good time.
As the preview’s story slice weaved between the game’s protagonists, it gave a good insight into the relationships players will mould in the full game. Rachel is torn between rekindling her marriage to Eric, himself perhaps a bit too obsessed with his ex, and her new relationship with another member of the cast, while Nick and Jason offer different takes on military men – the latter very much the archetypal gun-happy, “OO-RAH!” marine, while Nick possesses a bit more sensitivity and humanity.
The most interesting though may be Salim. Supermassive seems to be doing an excellent job of humanising him, rather than lazily painting him as a villain simply because he’s on the opposite side to the Americans. Like many soldiers, he’s just been drawn into a conflict by men far above his pay grade, and simply wants to get back to his wife and son.
While Salim doesn’t encounter the rest of the cast in the preview build, how they all interact seems set to be the pivotal source of conflict in the final game. Given some of the other personalities involved – particularly hyper-aggressive Jason – it could be a chance for Supermassive to explore themes of colonialism and racism, and how militarism influences or even cultivates these to justify wars. Of course, that could also lead to some problematic turns depending on where the wider story goes, but it all seems to be being deftly handled at this point.
Mechanically, much of House of Ashes feels the same as past Dark Pictures. Supermassive’s patented approach to choice and consequences returns, forcing decisions at pivotal and potentially unexpected moments that can steer the course of events or relationships, interspersed between moments of exploration and quick time events. Sometimes these will be direct choices, where players have to commit to a definitive option, but others will be more subtle – whether or not to cut a rope when given the prompt, for instance.
Given the military and war themes, House of Ashes does make some moves towards action – those QTEs feel a bit more fraught this time around, testing reflexes just that bit more, along with a few moments of shooting or struggles when things from the darkness pounce, but make no mistake, this is a game where the real challenge is emotional, testing how you’ll respond in desperate circumstances.
Interestingly, those choices aren’t often as obvious as you’d think – there’s rarely a clear good or bad decision. For instance, one moment sees Eric rewarded with a positive boost to his relationship with Rachel after showing concern following their fall into the temple. However, choosing “I’ve got your back” when discussing how best to explore the ruins will anger her, as she perceives it as fussing over her. Other decisions, usually over which path to take or how to react in a survival situation, can be purely binary, forcing you to react with either your heart or mind, and each can have unpredictable outcomes.
As with the cult anthology TV shows that seem to inspire it, the latest Dark Pictures Anthology doesn’t change much about its framing. From the sinister Curator acting as horror host – rather than the Cryptkeeper or an omniscient Rod Serling – to set dressing such as collectibles and secrets to be found, or brief cinematic premonitions to uncover, House of Ashes slots in perfectly as the latest episode. Yet it also represents an evolution for the series, both in terms of technology – the lighting in particular looks next level – but also in ambition. There’s a deeper, more complex tale burning in this house, one that could reveal monsters more mundane yet more horrifying than any Mesopotamian demon, if Supermassive nails the landing on this.