In life, it’s the decisions that we make on a daily basis that define who we are. Every choice that we’re presented with has, often unseen, repercussions and the seemingly smallest choice could impact yours or someone else’s life in a major way. This is the idea that Supermassive games has tried to recreate in Until Dawn and although choice is not a new mechanic in video games, it’s very rarely done right. There have been far too many instances of the decisions made in-game serving as little more than misdirection to make the player think that they are influencing the story when in actuality, the major events seem to be unchangeable other than a few superficial elements.
Every horror trope rolled into one experience
Until Dawn tells the story of a group of teenagers at an isolated mountain lodge who find themselves being stalked by an unseen entity. It’s the sort of plot that the Hollywood producers who greenlit the Sharknado movies would throw out for being too cliché and yet in this game, it just works so well. Back before studios decided that comic book movies were the best thing since the invention of the butt-scratcher, slasher flicks were all the rage. Going to the cinema in the ‘90s basically guaranteed that at least one movie about a maniac with knife chasing a pretty, blonde teen would be available for your viewing pleasure. I imagine that when the idea for Until Dawn was conceived, the thought process was somewhere along the lines of, “Let’s take every single one of those cheesy horror movies and roll it into a single game.”
There are elements of Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and even Saw, but the game seems quite self-aware and is almost a parody of itself, much like the first Scream movie. If there was a checklist for the ultimate horror film, Until Dawn could tick all of the boxes. Sexually charged teens? Check. Ghosts and maniacal murderers? Yep. Sanitariums and creepy, abandoned mines? Of course. It may not be the most unique plot in history but it’s still incredibly entertaining. Because this is a horror game, it leans heavily on jump-scares and unfortunately there are just far too many to be effective. I found that I was completely desensitised to things suddenly appearing in my field of view within the first 2 hours and I was expectant of almost every one, so by the end, I was completely indifferent to them.
Similar to games such as Alan Wake, the game is broken up into chapters, each lasting around 40 minutes or so, and between each episode, you are placed in the role of an unknown character who is being examined by a psychiatrist. Over the course of the game, he tries to discern your greatest fear, which the game then includes into the main story. Although these fears have no real impact to how the game ultimately plays out, it’s still an interesting mechanic that does well to freak you out while you play. Along the way, you will also find totems that show you premonitions of a possible future which may or may not occur depending on your upcoming choices. There are 5 different colours of totem and each shows a premonition of something different. Black shows the death of a character, yellow offers guidance, brown shows the loss of a friend, red warns of danger, and white offers hope in the form of good fortune. Each totem also shows a video fragment which, if you manage collect them all, tells a story about the mountain’s dark history. They are easy to miss though and even if you take the time to look around carefully, chances are you will find that a few have eluded you by the time you get to the end.
From a visual perspective, Until Dawn is absolutely stunning. Every crease on the actors’ faces is captured perfectly and the subtle expressions that they make really help to sell their fantastic performances throughout the game. The movements of the actors have been captured flawlessly and even when they walk up and down stairs, something that often makes video game characters look like they have something wedged in a rather uncomfortable place, looks fluid and natural. The dynamic lighting and shadows emphasise the mood and the light filtering though a dark, dusty room provides an atmosphere that brilliantly suits the horror genre. The dust particles are a bit over-done in certain parts though, and there’s often so much of it floating around you that it looks almost like it’s snowing indoors. Due to the embargo and fear of leaks, I wasn’t allowed to include any of my own screenshots which was disappointing because the provided shots didn’t do the game justice as it really is quite beautiful to behold. The soundtrack also holds up well and it does a fantastic job of building the tension in all the right places. The beautiful, yet eerie, opening song is a rendition of O Death, an American folk song from the 1920s, and sets the mood for the game from the get-go.
Much like other interactive-drama games, the majority of the gameplay is made up of quick-time events (QTEs) and although this mechanic has been done to death, so to speak, and often feels like a ham-fisted way of making people feel important whilst watching cut scenes, Until Dawn manages to do it quite well. Coupled with the use of the PS4’s built-in motion controls, they actually feel quite natural. There are parts that can be a bit finicky, however, as using the motion sensor to control the light of your torch or aim a gun gets very annoying very quickly. Some encounters require you to remain completely still and even the slightest breath can cause the controller to shift, resulting in you being spotted by an enemy. Should you find that you would rather play it in the traditional manner, you can change the control options at any time to allow you to use the right thumbstick instead of flailing your arms about like an inflatable man at a used-car dealership.
Choose your own adventure
In order to get the most out of the gameplay, I decided to run through the game twice before reviewing it, in order to see just how much of an effect your choices and actions have on the story. For the first part of the game, every choice that I made seemed pretty inconsequential during my second playthrough and the story seemed to move forward with its predestined path regardless of what I did. This all changed once I reached about halfway through the game when some of the choices that I had made earlier suddenly presented nasty consequences. This Butterfly Effect mechanic is what makes the game really stand out among other decision-based games because the results of your choices have a ripple effect which builds up over time and often culminates in a significant change to the story. You can keep track of each decision and its consequences in the menu screen in order to see exactly what you did to get someone killed. Although there are quite a number of these Butterfly Effect decisions, upon playing the game a second time I realised that many of them offered only the illusion of choice and often had no drastic change on the story other than different dialogue. With that said, there are enough significant choices that drastically alter the events of the game to warrant numerous playthoughs, if only to try to save everyone. There are 8 playable characters in the game and based on the choices you make, any number of them could die or survive until dawn.
Many games have tried to incorporate choices into their stories, and some have even done it quite well, but for the most part, you often feel like you are being guided in making certain choices or that those choices have very little weight in the grand scheme of things. Until Dawn manages to pull it off brilliantly and even though a large potion of your decisions don’t have long-lasting effects, the game does well in making you think that they do. As I said though, there are also quite a number of choices that do affect the plot drastically and the game is short enough for you to play it a few times to see the alternate endings without it starting to feel stale. It isn’t scary in the way that Slenderman or Silent Hill can leave you with nightmares, but it’s a fun and silly horror that hearkens back to days when Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees were Hollywood’s golden boys.