After much anticipation, Until Dawn finally graced the living rooms of UK residents on 28 August this year.
This was not my first encounter with the dreaded teen-slasher however; I’d played the demo at EGX 2014 – a piece chosen to include a certain ghost which springs out of nowhere to frighten the bejesus out of us – and frighten it did.
Finally, after many years of yelling at the television and watching dejectedly as horror film stars investigate a noise rather than running away, we can prove that in that situation we would do a thousand times better. Or not, so I found out. Having completed it in 8.5 hours, my cocky-but-cautious play-through lead to the death of five out of eight protagonists… and one dog. Whoops. And irritatingly I ended up making the same mistakes that are typical of your average horror film; don’t touch anything, don’t split up, etc. But, hey, when you’ve got eight teenagers partying on top of an icy mountain in the middle of nowhere, what could go wrong?
Until Dawn is the definition of a horror cliché and for once in my life I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Firstly you’re revisiting a cabin in the mountains where two of your friends died exactly a year before; their bodies were never found. Secondly you’re bombarded with footage of a daunting, masked psychopath wielding a machete; and finally there’s a sanatorium up there with you – a big, abandoned, decomposing sanatorium. Horror gold, right? But rather than calling it a cliché, we want to call it a classic. Until Dawn revisits everything we love about the genre, from its cheap jump-scares to its palm-sweating unpredictability. The further you get into the story, the more you realise it was a purposeful strategy, lulling you into a false sense of security before BAM, the whole plot turns in a whole new direction. It lets us explore what we, as scary film lovers, have wanted to do for decades. No more predetermined thrill rides; it’s our turn to make the decisions and feel really, really bad if we get it wrong.
Once an intense prelude is over, and after an unnerving introduction to a psychologist, we’re thrust into the first chapter – 10 hours before dawn. Here we learn all about each character as they’re introduced with a stark display of features. In keeping with this typical approach we’re faced with your stereotypes, i.e. the slut, the hunk, the good girl, the bitch, the jock, and so on, but rather than winding up as a jumble of lines with a face, these characters are suddenly believable, displaying traits that pushes away from the stereotype and makes them a person. That doesn’t mean the script has strayed far away from American-horror dialogue though. Yes, it’s as classic as a Victoria Sponge but the voice acting brings it home, providing us with some truly wonderful performances from several well-known actors and actresses. On top of having a base personality we also witness a change throughout the game as our decisions affect the stats, causing us to better or worsen our relationships with others and thus possibly change the outcome.
Leading onto the “butterfly effect”, the foundation on which Until Dawn has been built, this truly is a major step for the future of choice in gaming. To name a few contenders, Telltale Games gives us some choices which ultimately don’t affect the overall story, whereas Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls are the footing of choice-oriented, or “interactive film”, games. Heavy Rain clocked in with around 22 different endings and Beyond: Two Souls has a total of 24, which was amazing to me at the time. But now, Until Dawn is believed to have hundreds of different endings and we can face thousands of choices thanks to the butterfly effect. The playability of it is endless and that screams value for money. Some choices can be made simply by going through the right or wrong door at the right or wrong time, or saying something you shouldn’t have. Sometimes, just to mess with you, you don’t have to choose anything but it makes you think you should. That’s just evil.
Something that concerned me throughout my first playthrough was an inability to revisit previous chapters, and since we can’t choose to skip lengthy scenes of dialogue I was quite disgruntled by the thought of having to go through it all again just to change a decision – there are 10 chapters in total. However upon completion an area in the main menu unlocks, allowing you to go back to the chapter you wish to change without playing previous chapters. You still have to sit through whatever the psychologist says but it’s not as bad as sitting through the whole game again, and just in case you’ve forgotten what happened we’re given a lovely overview of the story so far at the beginning of each chapter.
Focusing on the psychologist for a moment, I would seriously like to shake the hand of whoever decided to include that creepy bastard in the story, and the animator(s) who made him so intense. As soon as I had my first session with him I was unnerved. Whether it was how close his face was to the screen, or his tone, or some of the things he did or said, he just made me feel cold, but oh was he a clever little instrument. Both a safety net and an instigator, the psychologist pulled us away from the game long enough to feel comfort initially but it quickly turned to dread as his sessions became decidedly more disturbing. Think of the stage show, The Woman in Black’s play-within-a-play method. If we’re exposed to too much fear too soon we’ll become used to it and it won’t affect us as much, but if our tender nerves are allowed time to cool down before shoving in another scare we’re fresh meat ready for scaring.
In all of Until Dawn’s glory, the feature that I was most excited, and most impressed by, was its use of motion control. This was something I didn’t experience at EGX last year so of course when given the choice between using motion and regular controls I’m going to pick the latter. The movement was okay, if occasionally a bit clunky when making decisions or aiming, but what really stood out was Supermassive Games’ introduction of “staying completely still”. In a stressful situation, the simple action of not moving your hands becomes nearly impossible as your neck spasms from tension and your hands begin to shake, determined not to waver. In these moments you don’t move; you don’t blink; you don’t breathe; you just pray and try not to cry. This combined with a multitude of quick-time events really makes for a stressful ride, one of which I’m fairly certain has put a few knots in my back and callouses on my hands.
I know myself and many other gamers will consider this an “interactive experience”, but it needs nothing else to make this game great. It’s a well-designed, intelligent and polished piece of work that won’t disappear into the mass of other games coming out over the next year. Until Dawn will be hard to forget and is a must-play for all gamers… except those with heart conditions, perhaps.