Is it possible to be genuinely thrilled that a game exists, while also thinking it’s not, well… actually very good? That’s the question raised for us by The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, the second game in Supermassive Games’ ongoing efforts to translate the “playable horror movie” conceit of its 2015 hit Until Dawn into an episodic, manageable, and, frankly, cheaper format. The first Dark Pictures game, last year’s Man Of Medan, succeeded despite embracing many of the worst qualities of the low-rent horror movies Supermassive seems to love cribbing from—lousy and dull characters, cheap scares, sometimes aimless plotting—on the strength of a few ambitious technical leaps, and a keen grasp of the fact that the people playing these games desperately need a way to share the shivers (and eye-rolls) they provoke with another human being. Little Hope operates on those same principles and tensions—except with a lot more eye-rolling to go around.
Introduced, once again, by “The Curator”—a.k.a. Preacher’s Pip Torrens, whose horror host persona runs far closer to a generically menacing Rod Serling than the wonderfully hammy performance Peter Stormare gave in similar shoes in Until Dawn—Little Hope hands players control over the survivors of a bus crash that occurs in its opening moments, stranding collegiate types Andrew, Angela, Taylor, John, and Daniel somewhere deep in rural Blair Witch country. This five-headed hydra of bickering, bad decisions, and general unpleasantness—led, in acting billing, if not actual practice, by Midsommar’s Will Poulter—is forced by spooky circumstances to investigate the titular ghost town, where they find themselves subjected to a whole host of jump scares, familiar horror setpieces, and impressively gross demons that want to take their lives. (Provided they fail one too many button-mashing quick time events, at least.)
In terms of refinements on Man Of Medan’s play, Little Hope has none. You’ll spend your time doing the exact same things as you did in the previous game: Investigating ruined structures, choosing dialogue options, tapping along to the weirdly frustrating “stay calm” minigame. The only difference is that now you’re doing it in a creepy little town with a healthy dose of Salem Witch Trials hysteria in its background, and you’re playing as a very sleepy-sounding Will Poulter while doing so. Also the same: The dedication to the principles of direct-to-video moviemaking, from the rote jump scares, to the unlikeable protagonists, to an ending of almost mammoth stupidity.
Because if Little Hope is a horror movie, it’s a B- or C-grade one, at best. It can’t be easy to write dialogue that flows naturally while taking into account a whole Excel spreadsheet’s worth of past and present player decisions—and that’s presumably why the game isn’t, in fact, very good at doing that, instead generating moments of irritating repetition or jarring character beats in nearly every conversation. Furthermore, the fact that players have control over some, but not all, of how the game’s five leads (all of whom you control at one point or another) respond to various situations makes characterization inconsistent bordering on deranged; it’s also probably why Poulter gives a performance that’s nigh-catatonic, since his character Andrew has to make sense of all the players’ various choices funneling through him. But despite the narrative jank, it’s all vaguely workable, as you poke around various locations in the town, alternating between investigations of its various mysteries, and action sequences that test your judgment, your reflexes, and, sometimes simply the moral character of the assholes you’ve been forced to embody.
Here’s the (nearly) damning bit, though: Hypothetically, you have control over how this whole semi-cinematic story plays out. But in two playthroughs of the game—one played alone, and one run online using the game’s Shared Story feature—the plot hardly diverged at all, despite one run ending with total survival, and the other a complete wipeout of the cast. Given that the idea of “telling your own story” is a huge part of The Dark Pictures’ appeal, seeing things play out with such aggressive similarity between two separate runs is a genuine let-down. Branching narratives—i.e., whole chunks of game that you’re paying to create, but which a large portion of your players will see only on a second or third playthrough—are expensive, to be sure, especially when you’re working on an episodic scale like this. But in Little Hope, the only thing you seem to have control over in most of its major moments is who lives and dies, and the untimely demise of most of the games’ “main” characters has as little impact on the plot as if they were disposable cannon fodder in any other quickly knocked-out monster flick. It’s possible I just missed something, and a third run would drop the scales from my eyes and reveal the depths of the cleverness of the game’s storytelling. But it feels like a pretty blatant violation of the franchise’s key selling point to have a branching story that never actually bothers to branch.
So: Given this laundry list of complaints, a litany of unforced errors that run their way from its writing, to its gameplay, to the very bones of its structure, it’s immensely frustrating to admit that I still had a ton of fun playing through Little Hope. Partly it’s a symptom of the game’s length, which nails the sweet spot for a single (extended) play session. Anything longer would wear out its welcome, while anything shorter would push the game’s brevity into pure inconsequentiality. But getting a new, complete horror story like this—even one with all the flaws on display here—on a semi-regular basis has the feeling of a sudden and welcome event dropping into the heart of horror season. It’s genuinely refreshing, and the basic read, watch, run rhythms of the gameplay work as well here as they have in all of Supermassive’s other games.
The real appeal, though, is people. Little Hope uses the same online functionality as Man Of Medan, and it’s no less compelling here; rather than force players to switch off control of the story one-at-a-time, the game allows both connected players to control a separate protagonist simultaneously, navigating Little Hope together. Besides giving you someone else to laugh with at the game’s numerous goofy facial expressions, this decision sometimes introduces real tension into the mix, like when two player-controlled characters get into an argument with each other, firing their chosen dialogue responses back and forth. It’s a fascinating idea that would probably benefit from a fuller, more focused implementation. But the version here is still interesting enough to absolve the game of a heavy handful of its sins. For this review, I teamed up with A.V. Club Assistant Editor Alex McLevy—who had to endure my deliberate efforts to see what happens when every character under my control suddenly became the worst versions of themselves. Alex, how did playing through the Shared Story mode work for you?
Alex McLevy: This is now the second one of these we’ve played together, William (after Man Of Medan). After running through the bevy of problems inherent to the game with you upon finishing our story (reader, I played the version where nearly everyone died), I, too, have to confess that the general shittiness of the writing and jankiness of the gameplay didn’t negate my enjoyment at all. If anything, the bad dialogue can be a real boon to online co-op play, because the sound of your regular laughter through my headphones was infectious, as our shared scorn for the one-dimensional nature of these odious characters lent the proceedings a festive vibe. I generally dislike horror movies this lame—the common error of assuming that unlikeable characters make for a better horror experience is dismayingly pervasive on the part of filmmakers—but for the purposes of a game, it’s surprisingly delightful to mock.
Oddly, there’s almost nothing actually scary about Little Hope. The closest the game comes to scares is in the hints of something sinister, the fleeting glimpses of beings on the periphery of your vision, the occasional feeling that something’s about to appear. Once they reveal themselves, that unease dissipates. Still, I have to commend the game for actually creating a decision-making process that genuinely determines the outcome of the characters, rather than just tweaking the relationships among them while still relying on some quick mashing of the buttons during action sequences to decide if you lived or died. So the bountiful criticisms I have don’t actually wind up making me want to dissuade anyone from playing it; this thing is fun.
WH: Little Hope is a mess. Some of its flaws are imposed by its structure; choose-your-own-narratives are inherently harder to land satisfyingly than ones where every sentence of the plot is under the author’s control. But the things it does manage to get right are so strong—and the potential for what could happen if a really talented writer got hold of this concept so alluring—that I can’t help but have fond feelings toward it. Supermassive may have stumbled onto a truly bulletproof concept here; as with the first game, it ends with a promise that there’s another installment to come, and despite myself, I can’t help but be excited for the news.