Developer Supermassive games, best known for developing choose your own adventure horror games such as Until Dawn, have over the past few years been creating an anthology series of shorter horror games called the Dark Pictures Anthology. From Man of Medan, which saw a group of reckless teens explore an abandoned military ship, to Little Hope, where a lost group of students tried to escape a town with a history of Witch Trials, each game in the series explores a different genre and tone of horror story.
At some point later this year, Supermassive are releasing the newest game in the Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes, a choice based horror adventure set 3003, where US troops and one Iraqi soldier find themselves fighting monsters in an underground mesopotamian temple.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to talk a little about House of Ashes, and some of the new accessibility features that set the game apart from the previous Dark Pictures Anthology titles. We’re going to talk about some accessibility improvements, some downsides, which console is best to play the game on for accessibility, and some concerns I have about the game’s narrative conceit.
I’m going to start today’s video by giving a little context on the accessibility pros and cons of some past Supermassive Games, to better contrast what is new and different when we get to house of Ashes.
All of Supermassive’s past interactive horror games, dating back to Until Dawn, rely on a degree of fast reactions, fast decision making, and repetitive button inputs as standard. While you can explore environments and find clues, most of the gameplay boils down to responding to quick time event prompts, and making decisions under time pressure.
Until Dawn featured one minigame, not present in the Dark Pictures Anthology, where players had to hold their controller perfectly still to not alert monsters to the presence of the player. This was an accessibility barrier to players with motor control disabilities, and has not returned in later Supermassive games.
Both Man of Medan and Little Hope feature options for players to turn off timers on quick time event prompts, so that they have as long as they need to hit the correct button, but this has always been an on / off accessibility toggle, you’re either timed or you are not, with no options to extend the time limit but keep it in place.
Players can also turn button mashing segments into button holds, and limit QTEs so they will only ever ask you to press the same single button when a prompt comes up, with are both useful features, but very all or nothing.
Alongside that, the games feature a variety of subtitle customisation options, including the option to switch to a dyslexia friendly font option, though only one is offered, which means it will not be useful to every dyslexic player.
While Until Dawn was a PlayStation exclusive game, The Dark Pictures Anthology games are all multiplatform releases, which open up a couple of different accessibility options to players. Perhaps most importantly, being available to play on Xbox consoles allowed players who struggled with certain aspects of gameplay, such as button mashing, to make use of Co-Pilot mode, an Xbox feature where two controllers can be registered as one by the console. This allowed for two people to play through the games together, with one person taking over any gameplay elements the disabled player struggles to engage with.
With that groundwork set, let’s move on to talking about the newest Dark Pictures Anthology title, House of Ashes, which I was able to learn more about from a recent press preview event. There are a few changes that are undoubtedly going to make the game more accessible, and a few things that are going to be potential accessibility barriers for some players.
House of Ashes takes place in 2003 Iraq, and features a cast of five player characters, four of whom are US military, and one of who is an Iraqi soldier. The US thinks there are weapons of mass destruction in a big underground complex, an earthquake causes all the characters to fall down into an underground mesopotamian temple, and everyone has to survive an attack from monsters. It’s apparently heavily inspired by movies like Aliens, Predator, The Descent, and unfortunately for those of us who know about Lovecraft’s background, The Mountains of Madness.
Just so everyone is on the same page here, there were never any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but that sure didn’t stop the US assuming there were, so searching for WMDs and not finding any is at least historically accurate.
In terms of accessibility changes, let’s start off with the positive ones. Where previous Dark Pictures Anthology titles allowed players to turn off the timers for Quick Time Events, House of Ashes features three difficulty settings, allowing for some customisation of QTE difficulty rather than only offering the option to turn timers off entirely. Easy mode will give players more time to mash buttons and hit prompts, normal is the original difficulty, and No Holds Barred exists for people with lightning reflexes who want extra challenge.
By offering an option to make QTE timings more forgiving, without turning them off completely, House of Ashes should offer players greater control over the level of challenge that’s right for them. Not every disabled player needs timings turned off completely, and this should help solve that a little.
House of Ashes also features a dedicated Flashlight button, which lights up environments pretty well at the expense of some maneuverability. While this is designed for finding secrets, anything that allows for increased targeted brightness in a visually dark horror game helps make it more playable for players with eyesight difficulties.
However, on the less accessible end of the spectrum, House of Ashes will be moving away from the fixed camera angles of Supermassive’s previous titles, in favour of a fully controllable 3D camera.
I will be the first to admit the fixed camera angles in previous Supermassive games were sometimes a little wonky, and this change will likely improve the game for many players, but it’s one extra aspect of the game for players to manage. If you found previous Supermassive games easier to control because you didn’t need to manage controlling camera angles, this may be an additional challenge for you.
While I am overall pretty positive about House of Ashes from an accessibility perspective, I’m going in pretty wary of its plot. The press event video I saw for this game focused very heavily on the adventures of our four US military characters, at the near total exclusion of the one Iraqi playable character Salim Othman, and given the time and setting I have some concerns about potential handling of his character.
While I think the addition of difficulty modes is a positive step for this series, assuming that the options to turn QTE timings off completely has not been removed, I feel it’s important to warn players who struggle with 3D camera control that this will be something they need to handle.
House of Ashes looks very much like past Dark Pictures Anthology titles, for both better and worse. I’m excited to give it a try, even if I will be bracing myself waiting to see how Salim is treated by the cast of US military dudebros.