My wife and I fell for one another while drinking crappy beer and watching horror movies of questionable quality. This last week has been a repeat of that experience, but rather than watching a movie, we’ve been cackling our way through a video game.
Until Dawn is a new horror game developed by Supermassive Games for the PlayStation 4. (It used to be a Move game for PlayStation3!) It puts the player in control of a group of eight young horror-movie archetypes—in one scene you’ll be controlling the dutiful jock, and in the next scene you’ll take control of the sexpot homecoming queen. Whomever you’re controlling, your job is to keep everyone alive through escalating freakiness and, eventually, mortal danger. (Every chapter begins with “X hours until dawn.” Get it?!) It’s a “cinematic game,” meaning the controls are simplified—you might use the thumbstick to choose one of two dialogue options, or direct your character around while exploring a small space, or hit a button on a timer to quickly react to danger. The story branches according to the decisions you make, and if you make the wrong choices, the character you’re controlling can die. If that happens, you don’t get a game over or reload from a checkpoint—the story will simply shift to a new character and carry on.
The narrative setup is appropriately absurd: A group of friends have been invited by their friend Josh’s to his large, isolated cabin at the top of a mountain. (It’s so isolated, in fact, that they operate a ski lift by themselves to reach it.) The group had made a habit of partying at this spot, but the year before, a few of them played a nasty prank on Josh’s sister and she ran into the woods. His other sister went chasing after her and yada-yada-yada, an accident (or, “accident”) occurred and the two were suddenly and tragically killed. Par for the course in a horror setup: there are lots of questions about how they died, though no one seems especially concerned about answering them. A year later, everyone’s come together to help Josh return to normalcy, and it doesn’t take long before they realise that they’re not alone.
Anyone who’s spent time with horror films knows how fun (and frustrating) it is to yell at the screen when characters are doing increasingly stupid things in the face of imminent and obvious danger. Until Dawn lets you be those people—finally, you can do more than yell at the screen! You make most every decision, from the trivial to the crucial, and you can even choose to put the characters in so much danger that they die, and the story carries on without them.. (My wife spent the whole game rooting for me to kill one character, and shed no tears when they died.)
The choices in Until Dawn range from the life-threatening (this is not a spoiler, by the way):
To the far more mundane:
That’s what a lot of the choices are like, actually.
Until Dawn largely works because of the characters. Most may be paper thin archetypes created entirely to be shanked by a knife in the dark, but they’re engineered to elicit a range of emotions. One character is mean to annoy you (Emily); another is meant to make you laugh (Mike); another gets you feeling sympathetic (Josh). They’re all pretty one-note, but together they form a functional, convincing ensemble.
Mike and Jessica are my favorites. All they want to do is fuck the shit out each other, and just about every line of dialogue out of their mouths alludes to sex. The frequency and lack of subtlety is completely hilarious, to the the point that I was bummed anytime the story left them to focus on other characters
Let’s look at one of their scenes a little more closely, since it helps illustrate Until Dawn’s tone. Mike and Jessica have just arrived at the cabin. They’ve finished a playful snowball fight in which Jessica has “accidentally” fallen to the ground and Mike has “accidentally” fallen on top of her.
Mike: You’re going down! Gotcha! Done, done. Done city.
Jessica: So, did I go down?
Mike: Um, I don’t think so.
Jessica: I think you’d know so if I did.
Mike: Alright, alright.
Jessica: My, my, are we calling it MY favor, then?
Mike: You’re a worthy opponent, Ms. Snowball Queen.
Jessica: OK, that sounds vaguely dirty.
Mike: My lady.
Jessica: Wow, save some for later buddy.
Mike: Endless reserves. [pause] We should get up to the lodge.
Jessica: It’s so nice out here, though. Pretty breathtaking.
Mike: I could stay out here for pretty much ever, provided I was making out with you the whole time.
Jessica: Just making out out?
Mike: Well, quote un quote.
It only gets more vulgar and ridiculous as the game moves along.
These character moments define the game. The most successful horror movies, especially those in the slasher genre from which Until Dawn shamelessly cribs, spend a good amount of time making you care which characters may or may not die. Even horror’s most iconic terrors - Freddy, Jason, Pinhead - only worked because the people they were chasing had dimensions to them, too. The killer’s potential victims don’t need endless layers of backstory—only enough for you to project onto, since horror has just as much to do with the audience as it does with what’s happening on-screen.
Another early scene in Until Dawn has several characters meeting each other for the first time. Specifically, Mike’s new girlfriend Jessica is meeting his ex-girlfriend, Emily. They don’t exactly like each other.
Emily: No one wants in on your territory, honey.
Jessica: Excuse me? Did you say something?
Emily: Did you not hear me? Is your sluttiness too loud?
Jessica: Somebody sounds like they’re bitter she didn’t make the cut.
Emily: Yeah, it’s all a bit cattle call with that dream boat. You’re top cow.
Jessica: Cuts real deep calling miss homecoming a cow.
In the middle of all this, Emily’s new boyfriend, Mike. Poor guy.
(A number of the decisions in Until Dawn are like this—choosing how to handle tense moments, even ones that don’t involve a killer. Naturally, they come back to bite you in different ways.)
This is a great time to point out the game’s charmingly awkward combination of motion-capture and facial animation. It’s so bad it’s...good? I think? It somehow fits the game, anyway, even if it’s a little distracting how much the characters don’t move like real humans should. Despite that, Until Dawn is often a gorgeous-looking game. More than a few times, I stopped to spend a few seconds taking in the way light would bounce around a room. Flashlight of the year!
Characters aren’t actually in real danger all that often, but it happens often enough that you spend most of the game on the edge of your seat, waiting for Bad Stuff to present itself. The game’s writers and designers are well aware of this, and go out of their way to produce a regular drip-feed of jump scares.
Until Dawn is a jump scare factory—some of those scares are from legitimate danger, but many are of the “it was just a cat!” fakeout variety. Even those fakeouts don’t feel cheap, because the game has enough genuine scares that when it decides to pull a fast one, you’re relieved enough to laugh at yourself. (Scares came frequently enough that my wife and I had to start closing the windows in our apartment, lest my neighbors believe something untoward was happening.)
Until Dawn shares a great deal in common with the PS3 mystery thriller Heavy Rain—both limit their interactions to on-screen button prompts, both rely more on the visual language of cinema than on the visual language of games, both tell stories from the perspectives of multiple protagonists, and in both, the player can let a main character die without the story grinding to a halt. Heavy Rain had issues, but I was intrigued by the way its story could be radically altered by player choice. I always suspected Heavy Rain’s approach would be a perfect fit for a horror game. Until Dawn is that game, and I’m happy to be proven right.
Like Heavy Rain and its ilk, you spend most of your time in Until Dawn making binary decisions. Be flippant, or sincere? Be probing, or hold off? Hide under the table, or make a run for it? Sure, there are segments where you walk around and explore, but those bits really only exist to give the player something to do in between the last cutscene and the next one. When things kick into high-gear, Until Dawn devolves into endless quick time events. They work fine, as QTEs go, though, and I certainly never found myself wishing the this game had a proper combat system.
Until Dawn is loaded with interlocking systems, and it’s not always clear how much control you have over how what happens in the end. In addition to the moment-to-moment choices you make for whichever character you’re controlling, there are totems on the ground that provide short glimpses into the future, and occasional conversation choices you can make that impact the relationships between various characters. (These relationships are represented by a bizarre sliding scale in the options menu.) I’m looking forward to players producing an Excel spreadsheet showing how it all works, but it’s needlessly complex and I ignored most of it.
It almost doesn’t matter, though. Until Dawn is about who lives and dies, and those choices are clear. And boy, the game can be punishing. You make hundreds of decisions in Until Dawn and most don’t have immediate consequences. Choices tend to stack, snowballing as the plot moves along. But once things get going, an errant decision in a tense moment can cause things to go wrong very quickly. By the end of the game, only two of my cast members had survived—and we’d started with way more than that. I watch a lot of horror movies, but apparently, watching horror movies does not translate into being able to survive one.
Until Dawn is weird. It’s got problems—the pacing is way better in the first half, you spend too much time looking for collectibles, the story isn’t actually worth a damn in the end—but it’s so earnest. This game was made by horror fans for horror fans, and that passion is obvious. Culty, schlocky games are exceptionally rare, but Until Dawn fits that description perfectly. It’s a big, dumb, super-fun choose-your-own-adventure game with some terrific scares. It shouldn’t exist...but it does, and I’m excited to play it again. Maybe when I do, I’ll manage to get a couple more of these dopes to the end alive.