House of Ashes is a frantic underground horror set beneath the Iraq War
"A lot of movies can dehumanise people and nations."
After a teen movie on a haunted boat and a historical horror featuring witch trials, Supermassive Games will serve up something very different again for the next entry in its Dark Pictures Anthology series, House of Ashes.
Set in Iraq during the latter days of its most recent US invasion, this third standalone horror chapter is a claustrophobic monster story with a modern war backdrop: The Descent by way of Zero Dark Thirty. Its cast of characters is led by CIA operative Rachel King, played by Ashley Tisdale, who arrives in Iraq as part of a bungled raid to find chemical weapons. Another playable character, Salim Othman, is a local Iraqi soldier.
Snippets I've seen from the game's introduction show Tisdale and crew touch down in Iraq only to find they've screwed up. Military radar had shown something underground which US intelligence, desperate to find WMDs, decided was a chemical weapons factory. Instead, the company simply finds Iraqi farmers and local soldiers. A firefight breaks out and, in the chaos, both sides find themselves tumbling down into the real source of those radar results. It's here House of Ashes is mostly set - in an impressive set of subterranean ruins, remnants of the Akkadian Empire, dating back 2200 years to the reign of king Naram-Sin.
Like previous Dark Pictures Anthology games, House of Ashes' spooky side is based on a real-life truth - there was a Mesopotamian king named Naram-Sin and he really did spark myths of a curse. But it's also based on a very real - and very recent - conflict, something Supermassive wanted as a setting to explore various conflicts between its cast, and the need to overcome these together in order to survive. Other playable characters include King's estranged husband Eric, plus US soldiers Nick and Jason, who seem to share something of a fractious bond. All face the threat of the unknown in the ruins and, of course, all have their own notions of what to expect from Othman, the Iraqi soldier they become trapped with.
"A lot of movies can dehumanise people and nations. We wanted to tell and show both sides of this particular conflict," House of Ashes director Will Doyle tells me, when asked about the decision to ensure an Iraqi soldier was also an active protagonist in the story. "[Othman] is a brilliant, brilliant character, in all of our user testing he has come out really, really well.
"What we're telling is a war story in one respect, but the main thing we wanted to do was set these people up against a terrible inhuman threat. The important thing for us was that they were enemies, and also that they're human. We wanted to show human aspects of their personality and put those aspects under strain. So, when faced with this absolutely implacable, hostile foe, it naturally brings out the humanity in the characters."
In one scene I see, Nick and Jason respond very differently to the first sign of something being supernaturally wrong, and the pair struggle to save a fallen comrade in an interaction which feels like it will have long-lingering results. The two are of different backgrounds, different military rank, and Doyle hints there's something else going on there as well we are yet to see. Another conflict will come from Rachel and Eric being forced back into the same cramped spaces after months apart, though in my demo I don't get to see much of these characters interacting - or properly meet Othman.
Clearly the main threat here, though, is of whatever else is lurking in these ruins - the result of that mythological curse left behind by Naram-Sin after he took action against his own gods. "We came across this story of king Naram-Sin, and the moment we found it we were like, 'Oh, wow, that's, that's like something straight out of a movie or a book'," Doyle says. "This king is waging war against the gods themselves because he thinks he's kind of a god. He attacks this temple and according to the mythology, he brings down plagues, pestilence upon his kingdom, and demons - the curse at the heart of it.
"It's cool to find a story about a 'real life' curse, you know, that supposedly afflicted this kingdom," Doyle continues, "and it tied in with a story we wanted to tell about conflict, a sort of war story. We had this idea of characters from rival factions, thrown together by confronting this terrible threat, and what that would do to people."
Mechanically, fans of Supermassive's past horror work should find themselves at home again here. The usual array of modes will be on offer, including the popular Movie Night option for couch co-op where you can play different characters as a group. New for House of Ashes is the ability to set difficulty level, which will affect the series' QTE events, and set this individually for different people when in multiplayer. Other tweaks move the series' evolving camera to be freely controlled - so no more fixed angles - while your flashlight can now be used to sweep surroundings for nearby collectibles.
House of Ashes still lacks a firmer release date than a vague "2021", making it the third in the series to launch over a three year period. Supermassive had previously planned for a faster release schedule, but has had to work around various disruptions over the past year. This story required a greater number of stunts and action work than previous Dark Pictures Anthology tales, with proper stunt artists needed and an audition process which tasked actors to show off their skills in sword fighting.
"Obviously, the film industries around the world have been badly affected," Doyle says. "For a short period there was no filming going on at all, which we had to deal with. It's been challenging, you know, doing social distance stuff. For a game, it's actually a little bit easier because we're mapping stuff onto characters where it doesn't matter they're not so close together when you shoot them, because we can kind of stick them together in the software."
Beyond House of Ashes, Supermassive still has its sights set on an eight-game arc for the anthology overall. "We definitely have strong plans for eight," Doyle says. "We would love to carry on going, we'd love to do more. But yeah, eight is what we're shooting for." Keen-eyed fans may have noticed a newspaper clipping in the series' first game, Man of Medan, which mentioned missing archaeologists in Iraq - a hint to House of Ashes. Several more carefully-hidden hints to future games also lie buried, waiting like Naram-Sin, ready to be discovered.