Initially announced for PlayStation 3 at Gamescom in 2012, Until Dawn has remained on my radar for some time. It was originally planned to be a showcase for the PlayStation Move controller, but my interests lay in the story – a teen slasher set in the winter wilderness. Being a fan of horror movies, not to mention story-based adventure games, I was hooked from the start.
Thankfully, developers Supermassive Games announced in 2014 that the development was switched to PlayStation 4, and the requirement for PlayStation Move controllers had been abandoned. Clearly, some of the initial design elements remained, which we’ll touch on, but by the time Until Dawn was released in August 2015, little else had changed: this was still essentially a survival horror title.
Until Dawn puts players in the shoes of 8 teens, who have a large cabin to themselves for a weekend – not only that, but the only access to the location is by cable car. An initial prologue both acts as set up for the story and initial introduction to the game mechanics. Set a year prior to the main story, the prologue tells a tragic story, wherein one of the main characters loses his twin sisters due to a disastrous turn of events. The friends return to the mountain the following year to honour the memory of their lost companions, but the mystery of their disappearance remains. Their bodies were never found, and are reports of a madman out and about on the mountain. Not only that, but the shadow of the events a year prior hang over their heads, with several of the friends harbouring feelings of guilt and others of blame for what had occurred.
The characters themselves are also cookie cutter – they each cover the spectrum of horror teens (from the nerd to the jock, through the bitch to the princess), and each are likeable or not in their own way. Part of the story is highly sexualised, at least initially, and many of the usual horror tropes come into play – one character must walk through the house initially in the dark, as the lock fails to work due to the weather; others find themselves heading to the basement in order to power on the generator.
While it could be argued that this has all been done before, the point remains that it works. There’s a reason that horror movies tread the same path as those before them – the outcome is predictable, and the method is tried and true. Here, it works perfectly, as the scene is set in classic fashion, and the tension builds to a crescendo before all hell breaks loose.
There are some aspects to the game that don’t quite work, or at least their impact on the game is not so apparent. For example, pressing R1 during the game brings up a character screen. Here, you can see the relationship between the current playable character and the others. Different actions will increase and decrease these relationships, and it is believed that this affects dialogue between characters throughout the game.
Until Dawn plays out in third person. There are ten episodes, and each sees the player taking control of several different characters. It’s very fixed, and doesn’t allow switching between characters by choice – once the current story has played through to a pre-defined end, the viewpoint switches over to someone else. Control is on both the left and right thumbsticks – the left controlling movement, and the right controlling where the character is looking. I assume this is a carryover from the days of development using the PlayStation Move – perhaps wherever the Move controller was pointed was where the character would look, or where the flashlight would be pointed. It would have made sense in that context, but here I found it confusing. Often it wold be difficult to distinguish where the character was looking, as it depended on the position of their head (which amusingly might be looking off to the left while they are walking to the right). This is much clearer when characters are holding a flashlight or torch, but even in those times, it wasn’t the most intuitive. It is important, however, as there are collectable items and interactive elements that light up when you look at them, so the confusing control scheme would occasionally result in things being missed.
It’s a minor concern, though, as it is something you get used to – scan an area with the right stick, then move on. More than that, anything that is required to progress the story itself is clear in the layout of the scene, with lighting and other cues making progression clear, if a little “on rails”.
Finding collectibles would do one of two things – present a clue to one of three “mysteries” in the game; namely, who is the mysterious man, what happened in 1952, and what is the story behind the disappearance of the twins. The other kind of collectible is what is referred to in game as a “totem”, the pieces of which build up one of 5 totem poles representing different potential outcomes. The five totem types – guidance, loss, danger, death, and fortune – each provide a very short premonition with a potential outcome. Sometimes this is enough information to indicate a decision that would result in escaping from danger…. Or death. To be honest, I never found them to be overly useful, as the information provided was often too limited or vague, which is the point, I suppose.
And this is where Until Dawn puts all of its bets. Throughout the game, players will be presented with choices – these are presented as two options, selected by pressing in the direction of the choice you’d like to make, or by Quick Time Events (QTEs) that require prompt button presses to navigate an area. The decision that is made may not have an immediate impact, but may affect decisions or outcomes further down the line – the infamous “Butterfly Effect”, which is referenced several time within the game itself. I’m unsure if the QTEs had any great impact on the outcome, or if failing them simply heightened the tension, although I have been informed that any delay in chase scenes can lead to death, for example, and injuries can also affect movement later in the game, but I didn’t experience this myself.
On completing my first playthrough, I felt as if the decisions themselves held no real weight – it felt as if there was a clear story, and that certain characters HAD to die within the context of the story. However, it turns out I was wrong, and every character CAN be saved based on the decisions that are made. I guess this demonstrates the quality of the writing, in that I felt as if there was no other way that my game could have played out. Initially, it was because I found that one character who died very early in my game had survived the entire encounter in a friend’s playthrough. I then replayed several sections (once the game is finished, you are able to replay episodes, instead of the whole game), and discovered that certain basic choices DID result in characters being saved.
However, it was all really rather cosmetic. The story followed the same basic outline – the outcome ended up the same. Certain characters have to survive to the end game, others are not so important to the main story, and in later scenes often stand around with nothing to say (as by this time they either may or may not have died). Does it impact the overall feel of the game, though? Not really. And I did start a second playthrough, with the intention of saving everyone, even though I know how the story plays out.
I guess the reason Until Dawn has such staying power is in the fact that it just feels like you’re playing a movie. Sure, the interaction is minimal, and much of the action (which is limited) is made up of QTEs, but the story is so engrossing, and the use of sound, lighting, and camera angles is so immersive that the experience as a whole is quite enjoyable. The main story plays out over 8 or 9 hours, but the whole time I was completely invested – I wanted to continue. I needed to know what happened next, and it felt like I DID have some impact on the outcome at the time.
Is the story great, though? Well, it has its moments. There are some holes in logic, which is to be expected from a horror title, I guess. There are some eye-rolling moments, as OF COURSE there is an abandoned Sanatorium also on the mountain. But overall, the story is pretty solid, with some twists and turns, likeable characters, and it comes to a clear and final climax. Some of it is predictable, but that doesn’t make it overly bad – I guess the more horror movies you’ve seen, the more likely it is that you’ll figure certain things out.
Beyond the brilliant use of lighting and camera angles, though, I must make mention of the voice acting, which itself is impeccable. For the most part, the voicework is realistic, but it is somewhat overworked at times – however, this is only when it would be required for impact, and this matches what would be expected from a teen horror movie. The character models themselves are based on the voice actors, and are quite lifelike. In fact, playing through the game unlocks a series of “making of” videos, and I was shocked to see how accurately the voice actors had been modelled within the game.
In summary, Until Dawn is a wonderful example of interactive storytelling – much in the same vein as the Telltale Games and the recently released King’s Quest, but it feels much more like a movie in the use of realistic environments and characters, movie-like camera work and lighting, and high-quality voice acting. While the actual gameplay aspects may be minimal in comparison to other titles, the quality of storytelling on show here is exemplary, and I look forward to more of the same – and in particular, more horror, please!