Until Dawn (Video Game)
Developed by Supermassive Games
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment
Available Exclusively on the PlayStation 4
Rated M for Mature
“Interactive narrative” games are a bit of an oddball in the genre department. Popularized by titles like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and every Quantic Dream game, it still remains a niché genre despite commercial and critical success. This is complicated by the fact that no matter how well a game like Heavy Rain is remembered in retrospect, at the time of release there will always be equal heaps of criticism and praise. These kinds of games are designed to be scrutinized critically, but at the same time must be accessible with enough mass appeal to be financially viable in a market predominantly inhabited by people just looking to have fun. As a result, you will always have equal parts intellectual and very genre-savvy people who both loved the game for what it did and hated it for its inadequacies, both perceived and real.
So regardless of what side you fall on, don’t immediately assume I’m brainlessly pandering when I say that I loved Until Dawn. It is not a hard standpoint to back up if I delve into every element of the plot I liked and broke down the story, but unfortunately I do not have this course of action at my disposal. With a narrative game like this, spoiling the specifics ruins the experience. I considered roping off a section in a spoiler tag and just going ahead with my plot breakdown, but knowing how excellent I am at writing and how inquisitive my average reader is, I think the temptation would be too much to resist. So restrain myself I shall and relegate the plot contrivances to a later editorial.
Along those lines, do not look up a walk-through the first time you play. There are two reasons for this, the first of which is not spoiling the plot. In haste to finish my review, I made the mistake of looking up a section to see what I had done wrong. Unfortunately, the revelation of why I should have just gone along for the ride was one of the game’s major plot twists. Unfortunate as that was, it is telling that this didn’t ruin the experience for me. It is more compelling than the sum of its parts, so even if you know a little bit about the plot (or all of it), don’t let that stop you from enjoying the ride.
The bigger reason is the illusion of danger. One of the main criticisms leveled at Heavy Rain was that the game lost a lot of its impact when you realized your character wasn’t always in danger. It’s a weak criticism, requiring you to have detailed knowledge of the script to hamper your experience. It’s a functional impractically for every single decision to be potentially life-threatening, and in practice becomes incredibly tedious. You need to have moments that, while impacting, affect things other than the survival of the character. Still, many of the more tense moments lose their weight when you realize that you were ultimately in no danger. For your sake, please pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Insisting that you not spoil things for yourself is part of my larger point: Come into this with zero expectations. The game was marketed as a kind of “interactive slasher movie” for a long time, showcasing the scenes where a masked psychopath hunted a pretty blonde teen clothed only in a long towel. Though it verges on the level of spoiler, this is maybe 20% of what the game is about. The plot goes to some pretty crazy places, and even saying that feels like too much of a spoiler. Forget what you think you know about this game, and just sit down and play it.
There isn’t a lot to talk about mechanically. The entire game consists of context-sensitive button prompts, with brother quick time event and sister slow-motion aiming both getting ample screen time. There’s a motion controls option, which works well enough, but will likely be abandoned for the more reliable button presses. The only “new” mechanic is a “don’t move” prompt, which requires you to keep your controller so fucking still that you better not breathe too loud or risk failure. It was so insanely sensitive, I had to go to sniper training school to learn how to stop my heartbeat for the 15 seconds it took to beat some of these segments.
While mechanically the game just “works,” the atmosphere is stunning. The audio and visual design come together perfectly to create a dark and unwelcoming environment, with the foreboding dread of the cabin, mines, forest, and asylum all contributing a unique take on the overall theme. What really takes the cake is the shot direction.Using a fixed camera perspective that hasn’t really been seen since the era of the earlier Resident Evil games, the semi-static angles make for both dramatic and focused framing. While it switches between a tracking camera and the absolute static frames of the traditional style, it leads to some awesome “just who exactly is the camera taking the perspective of now?” moments.
The selling point of the game was the “butterfly effect,” a buzzword that replaces the “your choices matter” trend of RPGs like Mass Effect. There was a time a bit ago where your ability to change the story was the next big craze, and every game had to have mandatory moral choices. Games still largely use this but have learned how to more naturally implement it into the narrative (for the most part). Until Dawn cranks this up to 11, and at the same time it is the game’s strongest and weakest element.
On the weak side, not every choice is as impacting as it seems. To keep the game as lengthy as possible without sacrificing tone, characters can mostly only die at set points. If a character survived their ordeal, expect to not play them again until close to the end. This also leads to some pretty bullshit deaths. When they say every choice has a consequence, that shouldn’t mean a character dies two chapters later because he had an argument with his girlfriend and then tried to make up with her. That is so close to how it actually goes down that if the segment were my wife, she’d be pissed at me for writing about her in a way all of our friends and family could understand.
On the other hand, the game gives you an incredible sense that every little thing matters. Those collectibles you find scattered about? Those come up in conversations. Those little meters depicting your emotions and relationships with various characters? Though it’s hard to tell which exactly matter, the little sliders give you a sense of actual change in the interpersonal atmosphere. While not every decision leads to death, it doesn’t have to. Most decisions lead to some kind of altered overall experience. If you get ticked off that every character is not in mortal danger at every moment, please take a step back and realize that for most people video games are about the ride, and not fastidiously avoiding every death scenario and perfecting with 100%. In that sense, Until Dawn provides a ride with enough loops, turns, twists, drops, and water splashes to keep you smiling for the picture at the end.
I don’t see people playing through this game too many times, however, even with the branching plot and numerous collectibles. Regardless of the choices you take, the story leads to the same place. There are certain pivotal moments that lead down different roads to the same outcome, but the narrative’s strength is in the telling. The game juggles a number of spheres, with each character (or pair) facing a unique threat. It comes together well in the end into a single foe and is most importantly believable. It is hard to juggle so many genres, but Until Dawn managed to bounce between real/unreal, slasher/supernatural/monster, and mystery/action and still feel like a singular narrative.
I’ll be the first to admit that the game has flaws. With so many parts just begging to be scrutinized, it isn’t hard to see how the bits of negativity that I’m overlooking would ruin someone’s experience. The story, though varied, is unfocused. The choices don’t impact enough all the time to matter. There are too many areas of false danger. You walk way too fucking slow. It’s far from a perfect experience, but is a unique enough story told with enough mastery to overcome the flaws.
I realize that positive and negative reviews will too heavily color expectations for this game, so hopefully those reading this have already played it. This is a must-own for fans of horror games. I’d still recommend Until Dawn to any gamer looking for a unique and unforgettable experience. Once a generation, an interactive narrative like this comes along and proves that the genre is still relevant. Though early, I’d say that Until Dawn is that game.