Little Hope is the latest installment of Supermassive’s line of Dark Pictures Anthology cinematic horror games. The game’s formula remains similar to Man of Medan and Until Dawn - a group of folks explore spooky environments, uncover secrets, and try their best not to die. It’s a good entry to the series, and fans of Supermassive’s work will enjoy Little Hope as well.

You play as a group of college students and their professor out on a field trip. Their bus crashes in Little Hope, Massachusetts, a ghost town haunted by the victims of a witch hunt that took place centuries ago. The player’s job is to try to keep this disparate group alive while they’re being stalked by supernatural monsters. It’s an original take on a familiar story that’s worth playing, especially with a group of people.

The game also screws with you via the eponymous Dark Pictures. You will find items laying around that provide a decontextualized vision of a future that might take place in-game. They can help you, throw you off, or just fill you with dread. They’re a series-defining aspect of the game, and they’re cool.

The Dark Pictures Anthology also has two multiplayer modes. Movie Night is a couch multiplayer where a group of friends chooses a character to play as, and the game has them pass the controller back and forth. Shared Story allows two players to play online, exploring the town of Little Hope simultaneously.

It’s worth playing both modes, as well as the single-player mode, to see everything the game has to offer. Each mode hides little bits of the story from you as the group splits up and comes back together. Even though the game is only about four to five hours, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than an actual night at the movies for a group of people, if you have access to that during a pandemic.

Double double, toil, and trouble

You do this by engaging in various Quicktime events. Some use a simple “press/mash X to not die” mechanic. Other challenges involve stealth section rhythm games where you have to press buttons to match the character’s heartbeat to avoid freaking out and drawing a monster’s attention.

There are also “aim and shoot” challenges where you have to use your analog stick to put a reticle into a small circle and pull a trigger. The game weaves a pretty decent tutorial into the beginning of the game, so even new gamers will be well-acquainted with the mechanics by the time that accomplishing them becomes a life or death issue.

These mechanics have been around for a long time; the first time I saw them was in the original PS2 God of War series. I don’t love them, but they work for these sorts of cinematic games. They allow you to suffer a fail state, but they’re simple enough that they don’t require years of gaming experience to play well, like say, an FPS. They’re accessible to non-gamers, and I think that’s intentional on Supermassive’s part.

My main issue with them is that once I get into a QTE sequence, I get very focused on getting my inputs correct. I get tunnel vision and can’t watch the game’s cinematic action sequences which can make the following scene harder to parse. I didn’t love this, but I was just glad to save a character from the danger zone.

Little Hope is not as out and out frightening as previous entries in the series. You never feel hunted or claustrophobic. Little Hope is a slower burn - more It Follows than Friday The 13th. There are several jump scares, but there’s one in particular that they reuse, and it stops being scary after the third time.

Motion capture, photorealism, and narrative necessity

Supermassive Games are known for photorealistic graphics and motion capture. I’m not a fan of this technology. It often slams into the uncanny valley and fails to convey the emotional nuance of an actor’s performance. Little Hope’s character models are more convincing than Man of Medan’s, but they still feel wooden. The weak voice acting and sometimes-awkward writing makes matters worse.

Supermassive Games have photorealistic graphics in the most literal sense of the word. In a screenshot, they’re stunning. But as soon as they move, they stop being convincing. The animation lacks human warmth. This game has way too many close-ups of neutral-faced blank stares. See that screenshot of Will Poulter’s face? He makes that same face for the whole game.

Until Dawn looked great in 2015, but technology has moved on. Games like the new God of War and The Last of Us 2 have photorealistic graphics that capture every nuance of an actor’s performance. Look at this video (major spoilers for TLOU2) at around 10 minutes. You can see every emotional beat of Ashley Johnson’s shattering performance as she struggles with the horror of what she’s doing versus the rage she’s feeling.

Graphics like these create a truly cinematic experience. They draw you into the character’s intense human drama, whereas Supermassive’s wooden character models constantly remind you that you’re playing a game, not watching human beings live through a story.

I always advocate for stylized graphics with good art direction over photorealism, but at this point, this look is part of Supermassive’s brand. They probably can’t move away from it without alienating part of their fan base.

At the same time, they seem incapable of keeping up with folks like Naughty Dog who are working with budgets that dwarf the GDP of small countries. It’s a tough position to be in. They’re locked into an aesthetic that actively detracts from the stories they’re trying to tell.

And that’s a shame because Little Hope has a pretty neat story. I don’t want to say anything that might spoil it, but I will say I enjoyed it a lot.