E3 2015: Until Dawn Spookier Than Originally Advertised


During my weekly lunch with Dread Central overlord Steve Barton, we were going over my priorities for E3. Among the games I absolutely had to cover was Until Dawn, the long awaited horror adventure exclusive for the PS4. The trailers painted it as Friday the 13th meets Heavy Rain, a teen slasher in a cabin where your choices dictate who lives and who dies. He asked me how I thought the game would be, and my educated guess was “Meh, it’ll do okay. Popular in some circles, not a lot of mass appeal. Definitely not a system seller.”

After getting some hands on time with it at E3, I was surprised by a lot the game had to offer, but I can’t really say my opinion has changed.

A lot of this comes from what I have experienced previously in these kinds of “interactive narratives.” I am a really big fan of Quantic Dream, the best known name in the field, and Telltale Games, whose adventure format presents choice in a similar style. The big problem with a title this big is that it’s hard to actually deliver on the promise that characters are perpetually in danger. Actually killing a character at any time would take tons of narrative gymnastics to not cut major portions of the game, so often danger isn’t as pressing as it seems, especially early in the game. A lot of shit talking was done in the direction of Heavy Rain when people realized they could just put down the controller and make a sandwich during many of the critical moments, and that regardless of a lot of their choices it would lead to basically the same conclusions.

Personally, I love these kinds of games, and tend to look past the lack of impact in some decisions as a design necessity. It would be almost impossible to actually make a unique path for every decision, especially with a title that takes multiple hours to complete. You don’t want a player to feel like they are missing out on a quarter of the game because they made a mistake in the first level. When death is on the line, a lot more is at stake than missing some quests.

That being said, such design will always ostracize both hardcore and casual gamers. A good portion of gamers are looking for a simple experience to blow off steam for a few hours after work, and the slower pace of Until Dawn won’t deliver that, despite the overall more exciting tone for a game of this type. Similarly, hardcore critical gamers won’t be able to look past the limitations of the format, analyzing every twist and turn for lack of long term narrative impact and pointing at is as a shortcoming. There will be a sizeable middle ground that enjoy it for what it is, but the overall discussion will be dwarfed by the loud voices of the dissatisfied.

So walking up to the Until Dawn booth, I had a realistic expectation of what to expect. I’d see some choices that were flavor, one that was pivotal, and it would lead up to a big set piece moment. The demo started right in the thick of things, with Matt and Emily facing down a herd of deer with an axe. The game started with a brief tutorial, and a disclaimer that said “Sometimes, not doing anything is the best option.” So, when presented with a group of deer, I decided not to axe one in the neck. They let us by without incident, because they are deer.

Heading up to a radio tower to call for help, the game switched between characters at set points, I think that this might have just been a function of the demo, since there was a conspicuous button that when pressed it displayed the prompt “Feature Disabled For Demo.” One thing I noticed right away was that the characters move unbearably slow, excruciatingly so when just traveling from one place to another, so maybe that button was run.

Reaching the base of the tower, I noticed an object shining in the snow. It turned out to be a strange collectible totem. Picking it up and examining it with the game’s L.A. Noire style joystick rotation, I was given a quick snippet of some flashback where black ooze was emerging from someones mouth. Huh, okay Until Dawn, I thought this was a slasher game, but maybe we are getting a bit supernatural up in this piece. *Spoiler Alert* It does.

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After climbing the tower, the distraught duo must figure out how to turn the power on and call for help. There are a couple interactive elements that give you some backstory into the disappearances of two young girls, which im sure plays a much bigger part in the overall narrative. I reached my first seemingly innocuous but actually important choice during this part, as I found a flare gun and decided to give it to Matt. After calling for help, the forest service told Emily that they wouldn’t be able to send a helicopter… UNTIL DAWN! I think I see what you did there, game.

A mysterious entity tries to force its way in, but is unable to. It goes with plan B, which is to cut the support cables for the tower and push it into a ravine. Wow mysterious supernatural force, way to overreact to rejection. Can’t you just tell everyone I was shit in the sack, like every other demon in my life? As it turns out, Emily gets the shit end of the “falling into a ravine” stick, and is dangling off the side and hanging on for dear life. I gain control of Matt again, and try to save her. She is understandably distraught, but resorts to shit talking instead of just panicking. When given the option to tell her to calm down or stop being such a bitch, I went with the maning the fuck up option and told her to shut her ungrateful mouth. I did try to save her, but she fell in the pit anyways, which I gave precisely 0 fucks about. This is likely one of those choices that, like Heavy Rain, seems pivotal, but is prescripted.

Walking into a dark cave, Matt’s peril becomes immediately obvious. Menacing cages hang off the walls and ceilings. Unless they are using ostriches in place of canaries—which would be silly because ostriches are much less sensitive to oxygen shortages—this is likely a mine that harvests torture rather than minerals. A shadowy creature grabs Matt and begins to drag him, but that important flare gun decision from earlier now come into effect, and I am able to fire it to dispel the apparition. Demo over.

Footage courtesy of IGN:

The devs say that the game will be about 9 hours long, but be changed considerably based on who lives and who dies. Of the 8 characters, all can live or die, but I still didn’t get a good sense of when that would be. I really doubt that the point I played is when Emily actually dies, and likely wakes up alone later on with some kind of flare gun solvable conundrum. The “Butterfly” system is supposed to be the main draw, with choices that affect the overall experience prompting a flash of butterflies in the corner. I really like this, as it can often be hard to tell what choices in one of these games actually changes anything. In theory, it should allow you to know what decisions are important for subsequent playthroughs, but we will have to see exactly how much these choices impact the game to really see how it all works out.

I really liked what I saw of Until Dawn. I will definitely be picking this up the day it comes out and seeing what it has to offer, probably multiple times. If a title can get me to come back for a 9 hours playthrough more than once, I consider it to be money well spent. Well, time well spent, I am a games journalist after all. I get this shit for free

I just still don’t think it has the wide appeal to make it leap off of shelves. As I mentioned in my Sony wrap up, they hardly showed any of this during the conference. A lot of that comes from this game being old news and the conference was mostly about big new reveals, but I think they also realize that people aren’t leaping out of their seats to buy this game. The Sony booth on the floor had 8 stations of this game. But it wasn’t in the exclusive lounge areas that more profitable titles were. The Battlefront display was a whole two floors of non-console exclusive glory, and all the Mobius titles had their own little private showing areas. This was with a bunch of downloadable titles like Kill Strain.

So there you go Dreadfans, a hardcore gamer’s view of the anticipated Until Dawn. I highly recommend you do some research into the genre before picking it up, but I think this really has a big chance of being a cult hit. If you like these kinds of games, this one will certainly give you a lot to love. Check it out on August 25th with me, and I’ll let you know what I think of the final product. *Spoiler Alert* I kill everyone, I’m the monster.

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