When you watch a horror film, it’s not uncommon to find yourself yelling things like, “Don’t go down that corridor!”, “Pick up that weapon!”, or “Look out behind you!” at the characters fumbling around in the dark. Despite the fact that you’ll never be able to affect what’s happening on screen, horror in particular is the most interactive film genre. It is precisely that level of interactivity and agency that makes video games that fit into the horror mold so appealing. There’s something supremely satisfying and terrifying about actually going down that corridor, controller in hand, and investigating the footsteps, bangs, or shadows that quickly dart out of view. Despite seeing my fair share of stellar entries in the horror genre, it’s Supermassive Games’ latest title Until Dawn—which was originally intended to be a PS Move exclusive–that intrigued me the most. It takes the very choices you’re so intent on shouting at the protagonist, puts them in front of you, and conditions you to panic when they appear. I think “Pavlovian Panic”, which was uttered by one of the characters toward the end of my playthrough, is the best way to describe it. The developer’s ability to harness this idea and effectively execute it renders Until Dawn a must-play for lovers of the horror genre, despite its flaws.
The game starts like any other slasher film: a group of teens head up to a cabin in the dead of winter on the one year anniversary of a tragic event. Much like the The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, the location is isolated, forcing visitors to ascend the mountain in a rickety old cable car. The general assumption with this type of scenario is that things are going to go wrong, and boy do they ever. Before you know it, the cast splits up, with one horny pair sent off to their own cabin, another to look for a Quija board, and two into the basement to turn the hot water on. Luckily, the predictability of the set-up itself is intentional, taking advantage of the player’s assumption that they know where the plot is headed, and then contorting that idea, forcing them to second-guess their decisions for the remainder of the game.
“Until Dawn takes a different approach, forcing you to either accept the often fatal repercussions of a mistake, or value the good fortune of making the right decision.”
The thing that makes the game so great is that the decisions themselves, which can be as simple as choosing to continue on your trajectory or veer off to the left, are final. There’s an aggressive auto-save system in place that completely disables the ability to go back and retry a scenario. This feature goes hand-in-hand with the butterfly effect, which is defined at the beginning with the phrase, “A tiny butterfly flapping it’s wings today may lead to a devastating hurricane weeks from now.” While games like DONTNOD Entertainment’s Life is Strange allow you to immediately go back and alter history, Until Dawn takes a different approach: you are forced to either accept the often fatal repercussions of a mistake, or value the good fortune of making the right decision–which, might I add, could still screw you over in the long run.
There are a ton of these decisions that, if chosen poorly, will get either the character you’re controlling or one of their pals killed later on. As the developers have pointed out, there is a way to save all 8 teens, as well as a multitude of individual ways to get each of them killed. In case you’re wondering, it is possible to get them all killed–but hey, at least you get a trophy for it. On my first playthrough, all but three survived. Despite being impressed with myself, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would be able to save the other three on my next playthrough, without putting any of the original survivors at risk. The menu has an entire screen dedicated to some of the choices made over the course of the game, showing some of the things that led up to the fates of the characters. The interesting thing is that some deaths are tied to multiple decisions, which makes it difficult to discern the right path without unknowingly unleashing a hurricane. Because of this, there are tons of different outcomes, cutscenes, and gameplay that you will only be able to uncover by completing the game several times. This shoots the replay value through the roof.
“Some deaths are tied to multiple decisions, which makes it difficult to discern the right path without unknowingly unleashing a hurricane.”
Making the decisions themselves is done in a variety of different ways in terms of gameplay. While some force you to either move the right toggle in a particular direction or activate the DualShock 4’s gyroscope by tilting the controller, others come in the form of investigating your environment, finding items, and deciding how to interact with creatures and fellow characters. There are also quick-time events attached to decisions which can affect the preceding choice and outcome depending on whether or not you hit the correct buttons in time. Failing at executing the chain of commands can easily mean your life or that of the person you’re chasing, despite making the right decision originally.
The only time I had an issue with the controls was when I selected motion controls. They worked well for the most part, but it was hard to be precise while racing against the clock and panicking about making the right decision. Because of this, I opted to play the game without them on. There are several features tied to the controller’s gyroscope, however, that remain available while using normal controls. For example, there are moments during game that prompt the player to keep the controller completely still while the phrase “Don’t Move” remains on-screen. Even so much as a breath counts as moving, so you have to be careful. I often found myself holding my breath, which added to the game’s immersion unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I’m going to risk sounding odd here and admit that it was one of my favorite features of the entire game.
“I often found myself holding my breath, which added to the game’s immersion unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
As I pointed out earlier, the menu allows you to track your progress through the game with a page dedicated to the butterfly effect. But, that’s not all. I’m going to be bold again for a minute, and say that I really like the game’s menu. In it, you’ll find a catalogue of clues you’ve uncovered, which are sometimes individually updated after finding other clues. I don’t want to get into specifics on this — just know that it not only helps you understand the big picture, but changes how the plot will develop. Whether a character decides to conceal information they’ve discovered or whether they connect the right dots can either save or hurt them. This makes wandering around in the dark absolutely crucial to survival. Plus, after finding what are known as totems–which offers a players a sneak peek at a character’s death, impending danger, or good luck–they appear on the totem page in the menu. Once they’re all located, a video explaining the story is unlocked.
Unfortunately, many of the issues I had with the game stem from how it actually looks. For the most part, the game is stunning, but there are indeed issues when it comes to facial animation. Despite having advanced facial recognition technology, there are times when characters’ mouths (their teeth in particular) looked bizarre. On top of that, because the developers shot the actor’s faces first, and then captured body movement later on, things didn’t always match up. It is the actors’–including A-listers Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek — impressive performances that carry the game, and makes the issue easier to overlook. It also helps that the environment itself — which includes the likes of an abandoned sanitarium, treacherous mine, and the surrounding wilderness — is so well done. When coupled with creative camera angles, a chilling yet thematic score by Jason Graves (Dead Space), and a complex story by well-known filmmakers Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, it’s easy to get caught up in the world, which consequently leaves you open to jump scares.
“This feature had a lot of potential to create a game that preyed even more so on individual fears, and I’m sad that it wasn’t better taken advantage of.”
Another area where the game sadly fell flat were the sections featuring a mysterious psychiatrist named Dr. Hill (Peter Stormare). He’d often appear between episodes, curiously trying to figure out what scared the player, and commenting on the decisions made and overall progress. While his discoveries that some of my fears centered around clowns, cockroaches, and storms were implemented into the game in their own way, the sharp left turn the plot took and fewer appearances on Hill’s part didn’t keep up that intriguing momentum that the first few episodes had. This feature had a lot of potential to create a game that preyed even more more so on individual fears, and I’m sad that it wasn’t better applied.
While not perfect, the features that Supermassive Games brought to the table in Until Dawn were effective in creating a game that was not only complex, but refreshingly terrifying. It successfully took advantage of our knowledge of slasher film tropes and twisted it into an unpredictable thrill ride that won’t be fully understood until you’ve played the game several times, collected every last clue, and made every possible decision. The somewhat wonky motion controls and character animations are unfortunate, but are somewhat mitigated by the stand-out acting, and creepy environment. Despite the segments with the psychiatrist not panning out, everything else in the game has purpose, down to every last object you find, how you treat a fellow character (or animal), and the minor decisions you make along the way. Because of how many outcomes there are, you’re sure to spend countless hours discovering how exactly to keep your characters alive “Until Dawn”.
- The butterfly effect, uncertainty and finality of decisions is an effective way of conditioning you to panic when faced with a choice.
- Every choice, item, and the way you treat fellow characters has purpose.
- The story is complex, with something new to discover with every play-through.
- Highly immersive thanks to the “Don’t Move” feature, haunting score, and great acting.
- Graphical issues took away from how great the game looks.
- Dr. Hill sequences trailed off at the end, failing to reach potential.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Burritos
This review was completed using a PS4 copy of Until Dawn provided by Sony Computer Entertainment. The game hit stores August 25, 2015 on the PlayStation 4.