David Cage’s Quantic Dream, and their 2010 release Heavy Rain, finally gave us the realisation of the ‘interactive movie’ – or a game with a focus on dynamic storytelling, player choice and characterisation as opposed to traditional gameplay mechanics. Heavy Rain was a critical success, mostly lauded for bringing something completely new to the table and telling its story in a cinematic manner never before seen in a video game. Only Quantic’s own follow-up – Beyond: Two Souls – has really tried something similar on such a big scale… (You can probably see where I’m going with this) Until now that is! Supermassive Games builds on the groundwork laid out by Quantic Dream, exceeds it and gives gamers a unique, special experience in – what will surely be their coming out party – teen slasher, survival horror game Until Dawn.
Until Dawn follows 8 high school stereotypes, played to a very high level by a strong cast of familiar faces, as they reunite on the anniversary of the disappearance of their friends Hannah and Beth at an isolated cabin in the woods. And, of course, they’re being stalked by something/someone who wants to kill and/or torture them. It’s all very cliché and from its opening moments, Until Dawn revels in the idiosyncratic tropes laid out by horror’s history; characters don’t see any issue with breaking off from the group; they think that scaring each other is the highest form of wit and absolutely nothing is so scary that they can’t also be horny.
But despite some comical (though effective and enjoyable) characterisation, Until Dawn’s tale manages to provide an abundance of genuine horror. Yes, the game relies heavily on jump scares – I lost count of how many times deer jumped from the bushes to give me a fright – but it also manages to instill copious amounts of genuine, psychological terror. In the game’s opening chapters, the sense of the unknown surrounding what hunts the octet, when it will strike and what its motivations are starts off at unsettling and quickly builds to a frenzy of absolute horror. By the time I was creeping through the corridors of a long-abandoned sanatorium, I could barely take two steps without stopping to gather my composure.
This sense of dread is aided greatly by stunning visuals and fantastic direction. Fixed, often high angle, cameras mean you only see what the game wants you to see, when it wants you to see it and this adds a tonne of tension to the proceedings. Often, the game will only switch cameras at the last possible second – as your character is about to disappear round a corner or step through a dimly-lit doorway – building the tension to great effect. Striking graphics, too, only enhance the experience and Until Dawn is one of the most brutally beautiful games you will have ever laid eyes upon. Moonlight beams through the branches of trees, dust particles linger in the air of old mine shafts and character models creep ever closer to the uncanny valley; Until Dawn is a visual marvel.
Towards the story’s half-way mark, there are some big revelations which see the game veer off in a dramatically (and thematically) different direction. This sudden switch substantially lessens the scare factor of Until Dawn, as the fear of the unknown dissipates and the game becomes less about tense survival horror and more about grisly, action-oriented mystery. This narrative diversity helped Until Dawn sustain my interest for its 10 or so hours, as the story doesn’t repeat the same beats and dares to try different things, but those looking for an all-out ‘fright fest’ may be disappointed. The game liberally takes inspiration from an assortment of horror movies — Friday the 13th, Saw and, latterly, The Descent — combining elements from each of these franchises to spin its own compelling yarn. Also, some clever misdirection allows for Until Dawn’s reveals to feel substantial and genuinely surprising as opposed to obvious and disappointing
The real crowning jewel of the game is its choice-and-consequence system based on the theory of the butterfly effect. And this system doesn’t sit subtly in the background, Supermassive proudly waves it in your face, crying “look at me, look at me!” It’s understandable, though, because it really works. Almost every decision you make will have some sort of consequence, whether slight or severe, with the potential to dynamically change the experience and story. How you treat one character can influence whether or not they’ll be there for you when you need them most, taking the wrong path can lead one of the teenagers to their death and bravery can sometimes be a suicidal tendency. All 8 character can live. All 8 characters can die. Their fate is in your hands. It’s an incredibly empowering feeling.
These decisions are made through a quick-time event control scheme much akin to the likes of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. The game allows you to use either motion or traditional controls but even mere button presses feel frantic and challenging, I chose not to opt for the added stress of inconsistent waggling. Perhaps the most polarising inclusion in the control scheme for me was the ‘stay still’ feature. In tense moments, when hiding from a pursuer, the game prompts you to stay still for a fixed period of time, employing the controller’s gyroscope and accomplished by literally holding the controller completely still. In theory, this is a fantastic innovation that forces the player to empathise with their on-screen avatar. In execution, I’m not entirely convinced it works properly. Failing to stay still can mean you fail a particular sequence and your character will be seen, captured… or worse. The stakes are just far too high for such a fiddly feature.
Also worth nothing is Until Dawn’s emphasis on collectibles and how the game genuinely rewards the player for finding them. Littered throughout the game world is a wealth of clues which unlock backstory to the mysteries of the mountain and the universe of Until Dawn. Even cooler are the totems, which offer visions of potential futures that warn you against possible dangers or guide you in the right direction. These quick flashes can confuse and manipulate you, force you to reconsider your viewpoint, second guess your second guesses and build anticipation of what’s coming.
Despite drawing heavily on influences from cinema, as well as other games, Until Dawn is one of the most unique experiences to grace a PlayStation console. It’s so much more than just unique though – it’s scary, it’s exciting, it’s rewarding and, above all else, it’s fun. A lot of fun.