The summer is behind us and school is back in session, but that’s actually good news for fans of video games! For those of you who don’t follow the video game industry, the summer season is a period during which basically no new big budget video games are released. It’s basically the opposite of the summer blockbuster period in the film industry. Usually, the release of the latest edition of Madden reigns in the fall, when most big games are released (October and November can be especially overwhelming). This year, however, Madden 16 was not alone in its late summer release date. The Playstation 4 exclusive horror title from Supermassive Games, Until Dawn, is what I see as the first great game in a fantastic looking fall lineup this year.
Until Dawn tells a fairly simple story over ten well-paced chapters, although there are a handful of interesting twists along the way that keep things engaging and somewhat unpredictable. The plot starts out in typical horror movie fashion: eight teenage friends gather at a remote ski lodge, which is the site of the disappearance of two of their friends, twin sisters Beth and Hannah Washington. The ski lodge is owned by the parents of Josh, who is the brother of Beth and Hannah, and he’s invited the other seven friends back up to the mountain on the one year anniversary of their disappearance to commemorate his lost sisters. Unfortunately for them, and unsurprisingly to the player, there’s a shady figure stalking the group.
There are horror tropes aplenty in this game, and it’s almost amazing just how many clichés they managed to shove into this. You have the couple having sex being terrorized almost immediately afterward, the girl who happens to get caught alone taking a bath, and — most importantly — the group of characters always decide to split up. There’s plenty more clichés, but I don’t fault the game’s writers for this decision. It’s actually fun to see these tropes show up in a video game, since horror games like this are so rare.
Over the course of the game, you take control of each of the eight characters at specific points. There’s the aforementioned Josh, then Sam (played by Hayden Panettiere), Emily, Matt, Jess, Mike, Chris, and finally Ashley. Each character has various relationships with the other friends in the group, and these relationships can actually change throughout the game. This makes for some very interesting confrontations. Every character is also a stereotype typical to the horror genre. Chris is the goofball comic relief; Matt is the letter jacket wearing jock; Sam is the smart, confident, (probably) virginal girl who seems out of place in the group; and so on and so forth. While they are pretty one-note in the beginning, each character has their own arc that should make you care about keeping each and every one of them alive.
Between chapters, you’ll find yourself being interviewed by Dr. Hill, a particularly odd psychiatrist played by profound character actor Peter Stormare. These scenes play out in first-person, so you don’t find out who Dr. Hill is interviewing until late in the game (though I was able to put it together fairly early on). You are still making choices in these sections and they will impact how some locations look and how some story beats play out.
Until Dawn is a game that I’d put in the same category as PS3 exclusives Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. When I say that, I mean that Until Dawn is the video game equivalent to one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels. Whereas Heavy Rain was a noir-ish detective story and Beyond: Two Souls a paranormal drama/action-adventure game, Until Dawn is a horror game that spans many subgenres of horror, including the standard exploitative slasher flick, the murder mystery, and even a bit of torture porn.
The actual gameplay in Until Dawn is very simple, and it’s meant to be. Most of the time, the game acts as a television show, even down to starting every chapter with a recap of what occurred earlier in the story. You’re mostly going to be watching the scenes play out while occasionally pressing a certain button quickly (otherwise known as a “Quick Time Event,” or QTE for short) to save a character from certain death, or choosing between which of two paths to travel or which of two things to say. The other portion of the gameplay lets you have direct control of the characters as you search around the ski lodge and the surrounding areas. In these moments, you can find all sorts of collectibles and clues (about 100 in all) that will help you piece together the backstory and even give you hints as to what’s actually happening in the main story, like who the killer may be. There are also collectible totems scattered around that show flashes of what lies ahead, including the possible death of a character or perhaps what choice you should make in a certain situation.
There’s a large variety of choices you can make in the game that actually affect the outcome of the story, and that’s the main attraction Until Dawn has to offer. By the time the credits roll, you can end up with all of your characters alive, dead, or anywhere in between. This is all due to the “Butterfly Effect” system that the team at Supermassive Games has created for the game. Every decision you make in the game — be it finding a clue, messing up a quick time event, or choosing what to say in a conversation — can affect how the story plays out. When you make one of these choices, a notice will pop up in the top left corner of the screen, alerting the player that they just changed the story in some way.
I have had the chance to play through the entirety of the game twice, once by myself and a second time with a friend of mine at the helm. This game was billed as a story that can play out drastically differently depending on what choices you make, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Sure, there are a multitude of little things that can change, but the main plot points will play out in the exact same way no matter which way you play (including the fact that, no matter what, two specific characters have to make it the final scene in every playthrough). There are plenty of variations that can occur within the main scenes depending on choices you make in the moment, or even the smallest choices you made many chapters ago, but for the most part the game is basically always the same. This frustrated me during the second playthrough, even if I was still having fun watching as my friend played.
The presentation in Until Dawn is stellar across the board. Every character was played by and modeled after a real actor, and the facial animations in the game are absolutely fantastic due to the use of facial motion capture. However, the incredible facial work sort of creates a problem. The body motions of characters aren’t nearly as good as the faces, which causes a disconnect. The voice work, too, is generally great with most actors employing good range and convincingly hitting a ton of various emotions. Outside of the character models, the surrounding environments look nice, but it’s really the atmosphere that Supermassive Games created that succeeds the most. The woods are fogged and ominous, filled with the howls of wolves and crunching tree branches in the distance. The ski lodge is dark and large, leaving you feeling vulnerable to an attack at any moment. Being a horror game, I have to point out the quality of the character deaths. You’ll probably have a fair amount of dead characters by the end of your first time through (I finished with three surviving characters), and the deaths are appropriately gruesome and pretty satisfying even if there’s nothing an avid horror film fan hasn’t seen before.
Until Dawn has its problems and the advertising was misleading about just how much the choices affect the overall story, but it is still one of the best horror experiences I’ve had playing a game. It’s not too scary, but it captures the feeling of slasher flicks and plenty of other genres so well, and when paired with a fun story and great performances it is an absolute blast to play and hard to put down (I finished in two sittings equaling about seven hours). Perhaps what will be remembered about this game fifteen years from now is the revolutionary “Butterfly Effect” system, which I hope is an idea used to a greater degree by fellow game studios.
I also hope that this game does well enough so that Supermassive Games decides to do a spiritual sequel improving on the faults of this first outing and fleshes out their intuitive “Butterfly Effect” system. Like Matthew Lillard’s character in “Scream” says, “These days, you gotta have a sequel!”
— Michael Lane, Film Blogger