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"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.

8.75/10
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: Geometry Dash, Until Dawn
  • Eating: Spaghetti
Either that, or I'm just running into all the stupidity in the world the last two days.  Between someone reversing into me because they wouldn't take two minutes to be able to see out their rear window before doing so, to someone nearly hitting me on the freeway because they are in too much of a hurry to make sure the lane they want to move in is clear (they nearly sideswiped me), to a lady who nearly ran into me because she wanted to turn into a parking spot on the opposite side of me and refused to back up to let me into the parking spot I was waiting for when she has no one behind her and I have a line waiting behind me.  And now the new car I have may have just been hit in a parking lot while I was at work or in a store and no one of course will cop to it.

Seriously, this week blows.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: The Binding of Isaac, Geometry Dash and Ys
  • Eating: Chicken and Rice
So apparently my state wants to experience all four seasons in a 24 hour period.  We went from clear skies and 70 degrees yesterday to heavy winds and clouds, to rain and finally to snow by the evening last night.  Now it is snowing like crazy as though it's trying to make up for how little snow we had this winter.  Go figure.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: The Binding of Isaac and Ys
  • Eating: Chicken Parmigiana
to my fans who have patiently stuck with me.  I have been lacking in writing anything for such a long time and Soul Crossed has suffered.  I owe you better than to leave it here and I hope 2015 will be better for my writing muse.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: The World Ends with You
  • Eating: Yummy Christmas leftovers
and to all a good night!
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: The World Ends with You
  • Eating: Yummy Christmas dinner
So my wife, for six years, has been fighting with a vine that has been attacking a beautiful plant in my mom's yard, threatening to strangle the life out of it.  Today, she struck a major blow in the contest, managing to strip out a good amount of the root from the ground without eating at the plant's root system.  She is so proud of herself. 
  • Listening to: Let it Go from Frozen
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: FF Tactics
  • Eating: Arctic Circle
So, in addition to needing surgery to fix what was not healing well so that I'll be setting off metal detectors from now on, my wife was out with friends and stopped at a stoplight.  Some idiot who thought it was a brilliant idea to be looking at his phone while rushing to the airport rear-ended their car.  Whiplash and concussion for both my wife and the driver, and a concussion for the other passenger.  Got to love more issues in my life...
  • Listening to: Let it Go from Frozen
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: FF Tactics
  • Eating: Arctic Circle
So I had finally gotten back on the writing kick, and managed to work through the kinks in the chapter I was stalling on.  I was even feeling good about how my job was going, despite it being year end.  Anyway, I go outside to help my wife bring some stuff in from the car after she got off work, slipped on some ice and pain ran up my right leg.  Next thing I know, I've fallen to the snow, and I'm screaming out like a little girl.  I could not put any weight on my right foot and even being helped inside, I'm hobbling to the house and each move is causing more pain.  I get laid down and then I'm shaking uncontrollably.  (Yay, my first encounter with being in shock) 

Luckily, it was only a sprain, and not as bad as it could be, but I could not go to work today, which my boss was not pleased with, and I have to have help to get back and forth to the bathroom.  (That brings pain with every hop.)  And I am really worried about my job because of this.  If this had happened next week, it wouldn't have been so bad, but we have one week left to get all the year end stuff done and losing a day on it right now is the worst timing we could possibly have had.  So yeah, this sucks.

UPDATE:  Yeah, so I slipped and fell this morning in the bathroom.  I followed that up by passing out and shaking and clenching my teeth.  (Not a seizure thank god.)  Went in to get it checked out, and while that can be a normal reaction to severe pain, they wanted to x-ray my foot.  Turns out I have a fractured fibula.  Not fun...
  • Listening to: Let it Go from Frozen
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: FF Tactics
  • Eating: Arctic Circle
and Happy Holidays to all.
  • Listening to: Let it Go from Frozen
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: FF Tactics
  • Eating: Christmas Dinner
It's been a long time since I've been able to sit down and just write.  To let my words flow through me and onto the page.  I can blame less sleep and stress all I want, but it doesn't change the fact that even when I have gotten all that I wanted in sleep and when things have been going good, I open the document to work on more, and the words just don't hit the paper. 

I just know it isn't writer's block.  I know what I want to have happen in each work I haven't moved forward.  I know where I'm going with it.  Something else is standing in my way.  Something is sapping my desire right out of me, and I don't know what it is, or why.  All i know is something I took great joy in working on and doing is suddenly...gone.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Too Much
  • Playing: FF Tactics
  • Eating: Pasticho
The Utah Jazz have their most important game of the year, and they shoot the worst they have all season, miss 9 free throws, shoot 3-11 from three and score their lowest point total for the season in 4 quarters.  What an abysmal performance for what was a crucial night.  Way to step up guys...  I sincerely hope there are major changes by next year.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Vegas, Elementary
  • Playing: Heroes of Might and Magic and Xenogears
  • Eating: nothing
When you realize that someone you love and are close to is on the bleak edge of losing everything they've worked so hard to have and knowing that there isn't a damn thing you can afford to do to help until they can stabilize.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Vegas, Elementary
  • Playing: Heroes of Might and Magic and Xenogears
  • Eating: nothing
Been on the job hunt for a job in my field ever since I got my Bachelors Degree in Accounting, and despite it supposedly being a great field to be in, I keep running into one obstacle.  "You have no experience."  So, I cannot get a job in my field without experience, but I can't get any experience without getting a job in my field.  And I cannot take a year or so as an intern without a paid internship, as I have a family to support.  So I'm stuck in no-man's land until someone is willing to give someone with no experience a chance.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Vegas, Elementary
  • Playing: Heroes of Might and Magic and Xenogears
  • Eating: nothing
I apparently can NOT root for a team that wins the big one, as my 9ers gagged away the Super Bowl.  To me, they lost for three reasons:

1)  They played a pathetic first half of football.  The 9ers have fallen into a habit of playing poorly in the beginning of a game, then expecting to come back.  This time, it bit them.

2)  Wasted timeouts.  You can probably attribute that to the youth of their QB, but the two timeouts they lost would have been helpful down the stretch.  

3)  Giving up the touchdown return to start the second half.  They looked like they were just unprepared to stop any run out at all.

So, congratulation to Baltimore on winning the Super Bowl.  I'll just be over here, cursing the luck again of watching a team I root for lose in the finals, and praying I'll get another chance a lot sooner than the last drought of waiting.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Vegas, Elementary
  • Playing: Heroes of Might and Magic and Xenogears
  • Eating: nothing
As my wife and some of my friends can attest to, I am a huge fan of musicals.  To me, sometimes something is better conveyed through song than just spoken word, and other times, tunes are just fun to have along with the score.  Went to see Les Miserables for the first time today (thoroughly enjoyed myself) and was actually thinking about something.  Personally, even though I've only seen it once, Brigadoon is still my all time fave.  A question to my watchers:  What is your favorite musical, if you have one?
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Vegas, Elementary
  • Playing: Heroes of Might and Magic and Xenogears
  • Eating: nothing
a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday to all.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Alcatraz, Fringe and way too much else
  • Playing: Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Kartia
  • Eating: nothing
...it's just great fun to stare at my wife and grin like a Cheshire cat, just because I know it freaks her out.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Alcatraz, Fringe and way too much else
  • Playing: Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Kartia
  • Eating: nothing
Yes, I'm still kicking.  I have a lot of inspiration.  I just have not felt motivated at all when I sit at the computer to do anything.  It doesn't help that my space key really does not like me much and I have to go back and add in spaces to what I type.  I just...I dunno.  I really sit and stare at the page and have trouble putting words there.

On another note, I go 15 years without having an issue with my bank account, and now, within a month and a half, I've had someone use my account twice to make fraudulent online purchases.  I changed my card number the first time, which only seemed to delay them.  *shakes head*  Friggin' ridiculous.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Alcatraz, Fringe and way too much else
  • Playing: Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Kartia
  • Eating: nothing
So apparently Nickelodeon has been running episodes from their shows in the 90s late at night.  Am I the only only one who thinks that was Nick's high point?  Doug, Rocko, Are you afraid of the dark?, Clarissa, Double Dare, Legends, Nick Arcade, Wild and Crazy Kids, Hey Arnold.  Even stuff I didn't care for that was popular such as Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy, All that, etc...

Also, for some nostalgia, one of the best songs from one of the coolest cartoon bands of the time:  The Beets!  www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7c3bQ…
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Alcatraz, Fringe and way too much else
  • Playing: Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Kartia
  • Eating: nothing
Bachelors Degree.

*dances*  Ceremony was today and it still feels surreal.  Had my grandmother in town from Australia along with several of my family here in Utah.  It just feels so strange to think that I've come this far.  Still have a bigger goal to reach in a Masters and other goals, including my novel that I'm working on, but this step seemed like the biggest in my life.  Now I just need to keep pressing forward and get a good job.  

The funny part is:  I kinda wish it was me in the stands, celebrating one of my sons doing the same thing.  I know it's a long way to think, but now that I've felt it from one end, I want to feel this pride in someone else as well.
  • Reading: Game of thrones
  • Watching: Alcatraz, Fringe and way too much else
  • Playing: Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Kartia
  • Eating: nothing