It all starts, like most horror movies would, with a group of friends in a secluded place. In an absolutely massive log cabin built in the snowy mountains, eight friends quickly watch their idyllic getaway turn into a nightmare. In the middle of a cold night in a place with no cellular reception, with no quick route to help, you have no choice but to try your best to survive Until Dawn.
Last week I got to sit with Until Dawn and play a hefty three-hour long preview of the game. The game is a adventure survival horror game developed by Supermassive Games for PlayStation 4. I was worried about sitting in a room with other journalists and PR people while I played a horror game: I jump at scares, no lies. I always have, since I was younger and I have an absolute loathing of anyone laughing at my jumps. All of that was forgotten when I got a headset on and was greeted by characters in the Umbra 3 engine. Wait, is that Hayden Panettiere staring back at me? The game has paid a lot of attention to making the characters look real, with small facial animations conveying a diverse range of emotions, well beyond the range of angry and happy and scared. Until Dawn made me feel like I was playing an interactive movie, similarly to how Heavy Rain pulls you into a realistic-looking world to tell you a story.
Until Dawn is a game about choices. From picking how to react to what people say to deciding how you will climb up a cliff-face, the game is constantly throwing questions at you. Do you side with your girlfriend in a fight, or do you try to calm her down? Will you ask for help or try be the hero? Often these decisions are made on the fly, a countdown timer forcing your hand. It is is during these moments, when the action starts and you have to go with your gut and not think things through, that you realise how much your choices mean in the game. Pretty often the game will show butterflies in the corner of the screen, telling you that a decision had a butterfly effect. Much later you will see butterflies again, and the game will tell you that you are watching a butterfly effect event unfold. The effect could be subtle, or your choices might lead to death. Sometimes there is a choice of inaction, of waiting for time to run out instead of making a choice. These choices are the worst for me, because of that fear of the unknown. As the game moves on you take control of various members of this group of friends, giving you a position to control as many choices as possible. This also allows the game, in horror fashion, to switch from one character to another at the worst possible moment, leaving you to stew for a while until eventually return to that character to continue with their plight.
When not being chased or running around, the game gives you time to wander the world looking for clues. Clues give you information which could be the small advantage that helps you cheat death. You will grab small objects, which you can rotate and turn over in your hands, in similar fashion to L.A. Noire. While this was obviously first implemented for when Until Dawn was going to be a PlayStation 3 game with PlayStation Move support, it serves as a great grounding point, making you feel more in control of your character and their actions. Prepare to look in dark nooks and crannies for clues as you attempt to puzzle just what exactly is happening on the mountain and why.
To complicate matters, the game throws you a curve-ball: As you move through the game, a psychologist will ask you questions about your fears, questioning what you are doing in the game. Is this game he is talking about the actual game, breaking the fourth wall? Or is he talking about the events of that night being a game to me? The visits are short and uncomfortable, with Dr Hill’s office slowly decaying and becoming filled with objects you confessed to fearing. He comments on your progress in a mocking manner, his method of treatment surely unethical. It also adds another realm where you have to make choices, without offering any clues as to what the consequences of those choices are.
The issue with having such a heavy focus on facial animations and realistic faces is the uncanny valley effect. Sometimes the faces pull a rictus grin instead of a smile, or expose far too many teeth when a character is angry or in pain. Sam’s character model (voiced by Hayden Panettiere) probably has the least issues with this, while the enigmatic Dr Hill (creepily voiced by Peter Stormare) tends to look like he is smiling too much. It looks like his face is about to split when he flashes you a grin, though maybe that is from me being used to him portraying John Abruzzi in Prison Break, a man who doesn’t smile often.
This looks like a game that will have to be played multiple times to understand the whole tale or to try save as many people as possible. The game has its own auto-save system, making sure that the choices you make and their consequences, are permanent. There is no going back when you realise you have set a chain of events in motion that result in your favourite character dying, and that makes it scary. The finality of it, dealing with those consequences instead of hitting the load button, they take a toll on you, especially when you are faced with a grisly close-up of a murdered character, someone who died because of what you chose. Can I replay it to save everyone? Can I replay it to make everyone die? Only time will tell.
The game is, at least in the first three hours, pretty focused on jump scares with music building the tension. I understand not everyone enjoys jump scares and sometimes I found the music a bit heavy-handed in using voices whispering on the wind and extra odd noises. Unless maybe there are voices whispering on the wind and then we just hopped into a whole other kettle of fish. Is the supernatural involved too? You are going to have to wait until late August to find out.