Eight friends return to a secluded cabin atop a snowy mountain one year after tragedy befell them there. No cell phone service, no electricity, no way to get a hold of the outside world. What could go wrong, right? If the premise for Until Dawn sounds derivative, that’s because it definitely is. The tropes and clichés built into the introduction for Supermassive’s choose-your-own-adventure game are deliberately obvious. It was billed as a classic teen slasher in the vein of Friday the 13th and Halloween. Going into it, I planned to accept these tropes and play the game with an open mind. If that’s what the studio wanted it to be, then that would be how I looked at it. What it turns out to be, however, is much more than that, and that’s partly what makes Until Dawn a success.
After we witness the tragic deaths of two characters, the story jumps ahead to one year later where the remaining eight teenage friends have reconvened on top of the Blackwood Pines mountain range, the site of the tragedy and where one of the character’s family owns land. A ski lift takes each of them to the summit where the Washington residence sits, but they arrive to find the house blanketed in darkness with no means of getting the lights on and hints of someone lurking in the woods surrounding the property.
The gameplay mechanics consist mostly of using the analog sticks to interact with the world, and, in times of duress, quick-time events with the face buttons. Gamers who played Heavy Rain or any of the recent Telltale games will find very similar mechanics in Until Dawn, though you won’t as often choose your characters’ lines when they’re talking. There are no puzzles to solve. Instead, the action relies mostly on making decisions quickly. Very smartly, sometimes inaction is actually the best decision, and you’ll have to decide in a hurry when it’s best to do nothing instead of doing something that could be do more harm than good.The lighting in Until Dawn might be the best I’ve ever seen in a game.
All eight characters are playable, and with it being a horror story, their lives are in danger at any point. The game stresses the popular definition of the Butterfly Effect – one small thing can lead to big consequences – and the story will continuously go down several branching paths based on things you’ve said, choices you’ve made, and relationships you’ve developed. You can look at these changes in the game’s menu and you’ll find it’s true to its word a lot of the time. Little things here or there can set up a series of events leading to a character’s demise or survival much later. Plenty of recycled moments from the horror genre can be seen, like the equation of sex equals danger and the victim tripping during his or her escape from the enemy.
Like a lot of other games that offer branching stories, some characters in Until Dawn might die before they really experience a full character arc. This seems to be the price you pay for leaving the story in the hands of the user like Until Dawn does. Maybe someday a game will find a way to have it all at once, player agency and satisfying character arcs across the board, but this isn’t that game.
[S]ometimes inaction is actually the best decision[.]
That’s not to say the story is a letdown. On the contrary, it’s much better than I anticipated. There are several story threads being woven throughout and the game’s use of clues as collectibles lead to a more unraveled mystery for players who go out of their way to search for them. Another clever set of collectibles are totems. These offer very brief glimpses into possible futures that could be the information you need to get your characters out of a dire situation alive.
Making these collectibles so valuable to the story is one of Until Dawn’s best features. I found many of the story clues in my playtime with the game, and I was left both grateful for the added information I had found but also left wondering what else I’m still blind to. The ending, or at least the one I got, felt abrupt after the rest of the game unfolded at a good pace. With it mimicking a horror movie in many ways, but playing out over a 7-10 hour story, the exposition is told slowly. The characters seem like stereotypical slasher fare at first, but over time most of them become interesting and some are easy to root for.
I was often faced with a conflict of interest when faced with dangerous circumstances. On one hand, I naturally tried to succeed and get the characters out alive, but on the other hand, I recognized that a horror story wherein nobody dies is a pretty boring horror story. So when half of my group failed to make it to the end of the story, I was about satisfied with that conclusion. While the game is never really scary like a true survival horror, it definitely has moments of high tension that will scare off players who can’t react quickly.Facial captures look great here, but sometimes characters are lacking emotion.
The whole game is tinted in a blue-grey haze which gives it a unique aesthetic style. Combining this with the excellent lighting, fixed cinematic camera angles, and highly detailed character models and environments makes Until Dawn one of the best looking games to ever come to consoles. I was consistently impressed with the creepy setting and found myself taking a lot of screenshots.
Former Heroes star Hayden Panettiere leads the cast of friends and there are a few other recognizable faces too. With this sort of approach, the story did seem to lack a true protagonist among them. It seems driven by circumstances, not any one character. At times it tries to paint Panettiere’s character as the lead, but that seems to be because she’s the most recognizable face among them. There really is no main character, which is at least unconventional, but also sort of sloppy. The facial capture and motion capture are both performed very well, but they were done separately and sometimes that’s evident. Their expressions don’t always match their body language, and sometimes they don’t emote enough.Moments of intensity are offset well by more exploratory scenes.
Standing still, though, the characters are some of the most realistic looking ever seen in a game. The voice acting is also well executed but sometimes what the characters are saying will make you cringe. This was deliberate, of course, to fit the game’s initial guise as an empty-headed slasher but still, corny is corny.
…I naturally tried to succeed and get the characters out alive, but on the other hand, I recognized that a horror story wherein nobody dies is a pretty boring horror story.
Until Dawn is at its best during the many intense sequences that demand you make instantaneous fight or flight decisions never knowing which choice is the right one to make. It’s very likely you’ll end the game regretting some decisions, I know I did. Fortunately, you can replay any of the chapters and make new isolated decisions to see how things could’ve gone differently. Games like Until Dawn offer replay value because you can go down new paths and forge a new narrative, but usually with similar games I haven’t been compelled to do that. I like to take my version of events, call it my one true version, and never see the rest.
Even with Until Dawn’s violent and horrific setting and story, the game overall feels lighter than other games with similar mechanics, and in turn more inviting to replay. It’s certainly less somber than The Walking Dead and offers more branches than Heavy Rain. Because of that, I do feel a desire to replay some scenes, maybe even the whole game.