"So You Think You Can Survive a Horror Movie: The Game"
A review of Until Dawn
(Note: This is a full review of the game. It is long.)
Horror and I have a love/hate relationship. While I find the genre fascinating, the execution of it usually has me either bored or sick. But while movies have generally disappointed and TV shows can be really hit or miss, it’s the video game realm of horror that both terrifies and draws me. I have traipsed through Raccoon City fighting zombies, immersed myself in the grotesque and disturbing Mount Massive Asylum, and experienced the surreal town that is Silent Hill. My game library has several horror games in it like Fatal Frame, Amnesia and Eternal Darkness that I need to buckle down my courage, stop being a coward, and step into, despite everything in my bones telling me to stay away and play something nicer.
Part of my hatred of movie horror though is the fact that half the time I find myself yelling at the screen “Don’t split up, you dummies!” or “Grab the fucking pipe instead of running upstairs!” I’m sure many of you have had that exact moment as well, though how familiar you are with it may vary. Deep down in most of us is that idea that you’d be smart enough, quick enough and brave enough to survive a horror movie. Enter Until Dawn and its subtle challenge: Prove it.
Until Dawn is a horror game by Supermassive Games that is exclusive to the PS4 with a simple storyline. Eight teens return to the site of a terrible tragedy that occurred one year ago. They are there to celebrate an annual tradition and maybe find some closure over the disappearance of two twin sisters. Anyone familiar with the horror genre knows where this is going and pretty soon the night devolves into fear and panic. The goal sounds pretty simple too. Keep all eight alive until dawn. Their fate lies in your hands.
The first question one has to ask. Is “Until Dawn” scary? I’d say to a point. But what makes it worth it is not the scares, but the build up of tension not just from the plot, but also from the gameplay mechanics that immerse you into the world you’re playing until the little noises start making you jump as well.
The game is set in the genre of ‘interactive fiction’, two words that either excite or turn off a gamer, depending on your opinion of the genre. I personally think it has its place in the gaming world, though it’s not the highest of high on my list. Similar to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, Until Dawn uses this genre to place you in the role of decision maker for ten chapters. Early on, the decisions seem simple. Do you side with your girlfriend or tell her to calm down when she’s fighting with another member? Do you sympathize with the brother who brought you up here, or try and take his mind off it by bringing up something else entirely? Banal as it may seem, you are building to something, even if it looks more like a dating sim.
Later, decisions carry more weight. Do you run or hide or fight back? Do you take the left or the right path? Unlike the previous choice, most of these are timed, and the more dangerous the situation, the less time you have to make it, inducing a bit of panic into you to make the right choice. Each time you make an impactful decision, an explosion of butterflies flash across your screen. Until Dawn takes the idea of the Butterfly Effect and implements it into the game. And just like the namesake, the impact of such a decision is not always immediately clear. Fail to inspect an object in chapter 3 and it may not be available in chapter 6 when you need it. Alienate a character due to your choices and they may not let you in the lodge while you’re running for your life, or they may push you down while you’re fleeing an attacker so they can get away.
Adding to this are a set of collectibles called totems. They are scattered along throughout the game and each one shows a brief glimpse at a possible future. They are separated into five categories: Death (of the character who finds it), Loss (of a friend), Danger, Guidance, and Fortune. Finding these can make you paranoid, especially when dealing with the first two, and while some totems have much more weight than others (like Guidance), you can find yourself watching them over and over for any kind of clue to when it might happen. An early Loss totem showed a character burned to death, and I spent any time playing her worried when she was using any open flame. There are also clues scattered about for three overlapping mysteries that tie into what is really going on up in and around the mountain lodge. The more you find, the more of the mystery you uncover and newer clues can update information about things you found earlier. Also, very neatly, certain clues lead to characters piecing the puzzle together as it can change their script depending on what they know.
Speaking of characters, one nice thing about Until Dawn is how they do try and give their characters more depth. Early on, I found myself thinking “This character dies early”, “I hope the killer guts her first” or “This character has Plot Armor”. But Until Dawn gives you the chance to save everyone or no one by the time the night is through. And it leads up long enough to flesh out characters a bit more than your typical horror faire. Even someone as bitchy as Emily, who I hated for most of the game, had me white knuckled trying to keep her alive as she fell into her own horror show during one section of the game.
Most of the acting is done superbly and each character managed to make me feel something about them, unlike several movie cannon fodders I could describe. As stated earlier, the game is about choice, and how they matter. One way the game ensures this is the fact that the game autosaves. Don’t like a choice you just made? Too bad. The only way to change the outcome is to restart the game from scratch. I personally love this aspect given the way the game works. It has a way of making you truly question whether you made the right decision. Making the wrong one and getting someone killed can get to you. Making the wrong move and getting one of your favorites killed, like I did, can be crushing. I managed to make it out with 6 of the 8 alive, and both times were due to mistakes on my end.
As far as gameplay goes, you aren’t just simply making choices. While the lodge is the main section of the game, there are several other places to explore around as the game progresses from a remote cabin, to twisting haunting mines and what horror game would be without some sort of creepy abandoned asylum? Each one is detailed stunningly and gives you a lot of room to look for clues.
There are also several QTEs, the bane of many a gamer. However, these QTEs are actually quick, and several can have real consequences for failure. Miss more than one during a chase and you could end up with a dead character. There are also aiming segments, almost all timed, where you move the right stick to aim and R2 to fire. The game reminds you early on that sometimes doing nothing is the right course, and there are several times this comes into play. That also adds to the paranoia.
The best mechanic, in my opinion, uses the gyroscope in the PS4 controller. There are sections where the game tells you “Don’t Move” and you have to keep the controller as still as possible while it vibrates in the rhythm of a heartbeat. To try and do so, I found myself holding my breath, which only added to the tension and immersion as I felt nervous right alongside my character as they hoped whatever danger they were hiding from passed them by.
Visually, the game creeps into Uncanny Valley territory. Several of the actors’ character models are instantly recognizable. Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Brett Dalton (Agents of Shield) and Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Night at the Museum) play some of the teens, while Peter Stormare (Fargo, Armageddon, The Blacklist) chews scenery as the mysterious Dr. Hill who gives the player choices about what scares them or which characters they like or dislike between chapters, affecting the game subtly each time. What is really nice is the attention to detail, though. Side characters may shiver or rub their arms as they follow you up a snowy path and brushing off snow when getting inside was treated with normalcy. At one point, I failed a QTE and a character fell into a river and had his pants covered in ice and snow afterward that stayed through future cut scenes.
No game is without its flaws though. For one, the game is short. Eight to ten hours on a playthrough, depending on how diligent you are in clue hunting. Even with replayability for a different ending, that might be too little for a full price game.
The game uses fixed camera angles during the times you are in control, a la the early Resident Evil games. While the nostalgia is there, the same problem with mechanics come with it. Occasionally your character will be caught on something you can’t see due to the camera angle or you’ll be moving and the camera will switch and you’ll accidentally go back the wrong way. Also, because some clues can be tucked away, it can be difficult to find what you're looking for without randomly pressing around corners. Thankfully, it only occurred during exploration as any combat was handled differently.
For all that the acting was done really well, there are some really bad lines in this especially between couples, tying into tropes a little too thickly. Not wanting to give any kind of spoilers, but anyone who has played the game will know what I’m talking about if I just mention Abe Lincoln. There were also a couple of times where lines were not delivered in the best manner, making me wonder if that was the best take they got of it. And for all the wonderful work done on the character modeling, close-ups some times gave exaggerated expressions that looked off, especially with Dr. Hill.
The middle of the game bogs down a bit as it seems too cluttered with what it’s trying to be. By the time you get to the section right before the game tells you what is going on, you may be more confused than anything else. Is this a paranormal horror or a typical slasher, a torture porn or a ghost story? The game touches on all of this and more, and until the truth is revealed, it all seems disjointed. Then the game tips you on your head and that can be a put off for all you’ve been through.
Also, the frights rely a lot on jumpscares early and often. The game even has the ability to hook up the camera for segments appropriately titled “Cheap Shots” to capture the reaction of significant ones. By the time the plot takes a left turn at Albequerque, there will be so many of them that they start to lose their effectiveness. I know they were trying to ramp the tension and call back to the 80s and 90s horror flicks, but it feels trite.
For all that this game is about choice, the plot is pretty linear and sometimes the choice you make is not a choice at all because it can’t deviate too far from the beaten path. And while anyone can die, some characters do have “Plot Armor” and must last to the final chapter. To me, this seems like a waste of a chance to truly explore choice, and I do hope Supermassive does another horror in this vein and tries to implement it further on down the line in future games. One particular choice especially would have made for a divergent idea should one choice be made over another with regards to Chris. Also, regarding choices, there was at least one choice that effected the plot heavily, but almost in an arbitrary way that can lead to annoyance with how that thread plays out down the line.
But for all the minor quibbles, I was very happy to have played this game and look forward to doing so again to try and save everyone. I might even try and get everyone killed at some point. I think the biggest ringing endorsement came from my wife, who was sitting next to me while I played. I went to stop for the night, and she whined when I did. I asked if she wanted me to keep going and she was torn between how scared and tense things were getting, and wanting to know more. In the end, she had me play for another hour. And despite watching me play, she is determined to lose more sleep by playing through herself.