Developers: Supermassive Games
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Plot: Eight friends reunite on the anniversary of a tragic accident, unaware that they are being hunted by something on the mountain.
Until Dawn has enough going for it to attract gamers before you’ve even played it enough to figure out if it is any good. Seeing as this is the sort of game, where the less information you know about before diving in means the better the experience, this is incredibly important for the success of the game. Enter a star-studded cast ranging from one of the more successful faces of the smaller screen, Hayden Panettiere, bringing her usual charismatic and watchable self to a stock horror movie lead. Until Dawn’s Sam is a little more determined and decisive than Panettiere’s heroine in Heroes, taking the best qualities the actress has up her sleeve and applying them to the role at hand. Perhaps the supporting cast slightly outshine her, especially Brett Dalton and Rami Malek, as the two alpha male figures. Dalton starts the game as the ‘guy-to-hate’ but evolves into something more complex and heroic. Out of all of the characters, you feel a little safer when you are paired up with him. And I haven’t even got around to talking about the ever-excellent Peter Stormare, breaking up the horror action with some intervals, where the game deliciously cuts into the post-modernism that will have essay-writers diving into the psychology of a gamer. Even if discussing the social context of gaming isn’t for you, it is just as fun watching this incredible actor do his thing on screen, whispering maliciously or snapping you right back into the action with a well-timed bark. These scenes could be argued to pointlessly slow the game down to a crawl, but when you are in Stormare’s hands, you are happy to take in the quieter moments. Importantly, Until Dawn boasts near-perfect animation. This isn’t just Hayden Panettiere lending her voice to a game. She is well and truly present, motion capture bringing every terrified gasp or sarcastic slice of dialogue beautifully to life. It doesn’t always work – the character of Jessica in particular cursed with a slightly horrific smile – but the backdrop is lush and when the horror elements crank in, the animation really does wonders for keeping the fear factor grounded in a sense of realism.
Ah, the fear… Seeing as this is a game that is needed to be played multiple times to get the most out of it, you might end up forgetting just how terrifying Until Dawn actually is. As you play out a drawn out walk through an abandoned Sanatorium for the third time, it feels business as usual. However, that very first time you played that sequence, it was the stuff of nightmares. Until Dawn is slightly guilty of a few frustrating red herrings and cheap jumpscares (it could be criticised that one of the biggest plot points is more about dragging out the game’s running time than servicing the story), but god, does it know how to work an atmosphere? A lot of the time in Until Dawn, you are creeping around a set-piece, lighting the surrounding area with a torch or mobile phone screen, simply trudging deeper into the story. However, Until Dawn never lets it become boring, keeping you very conscious that you could be walking into your death. And this is where the true terror of Until Dawn comes out. With games like Dead Space and Resident Evil, you are tensed for that next jump scare, aware that it will spook you, but the effects are pretty short-term. Even if the scary zombie murders you, it is a case of restarting from the last checkpoint and letting the game resume as normal. You do not get that in Until Dawn. There are no save points; no restarting. Like any good horror movie, you are trapped firmly in the nightmare. If you end up getting one of the teenagers killed, then you have to carry on with the game without that character. It makes for a tense, unforgettable experience. No, you aren’t particularly dreading that the next corner could result in a jump scare, but you are dreading the fact that the next corner could mean your favourite of the teenagers bites the dust early. Hayden Panettiere even gets put on the side-lines for the first half of the game, so you don’t get the comfort zone of knowing that the game won’t kill off the main star quite so early. Every choice is second-guessed, every split second decision is hell on earth. Even something simply as ‘running’ or ‘staying hidden’ is a tactical nightmare. Any of those options can be fatal? Until Dawn plays around with these moments like a maniacal puppeteer, and while a few of the butterfly effects are a little strict (how can a squirrel getting shot result in a crow attacking Sam?), for the most part, it keeps Until Dawn creepy until the last few moments, especially when the true villains show up. That’s when the game descends into all-out horror!
The choice element in the game is the other reason to get excited. Right from the opening, Until Dawn boasts off its butterfly effect tone with an opening title screen. Yes, choice is a big part here and you can easily play Until Dawn multiple times to get wildly different stories. Do Chris and Ashley fall in love or do they stab each other in the back? Do the group turn on their own after a suspicious bite? Who survives? However, it is the smaller changes that really impress. An early conversation with Stormare’s psychiatrist about your fears manipulates the jump scares in the game to tailor to your personal fears. Confess your arachnophobia and one shot throws in an eerie tarantula crawling across the camera for added creeps. These smaller diversions from the story are crucial, because, as all games of this style suffer from, the major changes cannot truly happen until the closing chapters of the game. As cool as it would be to murder off the lead character in the first few frames, it would make constructing a proper story out of Until Dawn impossibly difficult. You can go down the Telltale Games road, where the story loops back round to itself, although on a replay this often comes across as quite cheap. We have all played back through the Walking Dead and frowned at the important decision we made, turning out to be not so important. Until Dawn’s changes in the plot are more focused on character. Each of the eight teenagers have a personality meter on the pause screen, telling the player what traits they have. Brett Dalton is the dishonest alpha male, strong and brave, yet secretive, seeing as he is sleeping with half the female cast. As you progress through the game and play around with the various dialogue options, you find that you have the ability to alter these traits. Emily’s character arc can start as the bitch of the group, but slowly lighten as the story grows. In a way, it is a little like the modifications you make to your characters in the Sims. It seems like a small thing, but as you end up tailoring your characters in the movie protagonists you want them to be, you end up getting fairly attached, which helps the internal desire to keep them alive until the very end.
Yes, I love Until Dawn. I think it is a great direction for video games to go down. The movie lover in me is instantly attracted to this genre and while it doesn’t have the length or diversity of the excellent Heavy Rain, I do believe it has come closer to the idealised product that other attempts actually have. A part of me would be happy for this to get Game of 2015, tough competition with Arkham Knight, Metal Gear Solid V and Fallout 4 lurking around the shops. However, it is always going to fall down on one crucial flaw. Will I be playing this in a year’s time? Part of me believes that I will be quite happy to dive back into this in the distant future, the same way I will rewatch an old movie that I liked. However, once you have blasted through it a handful of times, exploring the different outcomes, Until Dawn becomes a very defunct game. It relies on story, the action reduced to Quick Time Events and the ever-tense ‘hold the controller as steady as you possibly can’ moments. It is a very short game, lengthened out by long sequences as you walk through a creepy setting. As with all horrors, you end up getting desensitised to the terror. I was a shivering wreck through that first playthrough. Now, I rush through the action, seeking perfection, not jumping once at the creepy clown psychopath hunting me down. It will always have a home in my heart as a gaming masterpiece, but Until Dawn is a fond memory, rather than a show-stopping bestseller.
Final Verdict: While time will most likely erode Until Dawn’s impact, it is a very well made horror game with tense choices and an excellent cast.