To B or not to B that is the question as Harrison delves into the choose-your-own-adventure slasher game Until Dawn.
And now for something completely different.
So far every game in this series has been an outright horror title, which makes sense. What else would I recommend for Halloween? Well, there is something I’d like to call attention to that, whilst not strictly speaking a horror game, does at least embrace the genre’s themes and tropes and then reworks them into a new framework. That title being Until Dawn, supermassive games’ love letter to the slasher genre, which comes in the form of a branching narrative, interactive-story game.
You know interactive-story games? There those things where you can’t really fail in any way, shape, or form and instead just make decisions for characters and occasionally hit a button when it appears on screen. I’m going to employ an overused analogy, because it’s the most efficient way of describing the genre, so please forgive my laziness when I say that they’re basically like those choose-your-own-adventure books. These games effectively present you with 16 hour long cut scenes and ask you to occasionally decide what someone will say or do. I’m not a fan for the most part, as I don’t see the appeal when there are already games that include choice-making mechanics, as well as actual gameplay bits in between (Fallout, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, etc.)
However, Until Dawn is different. Until Dawn works because it taps into something that we all do when we watch slasher movies. Think about it, how many times have you watched one and found yourself yelling at the dumb characters on screen to do something differently? ‘Don’t go in there!’ you’ll cry, ‘Why didn’t you pick up the weapon?’ you ask, ‘For Fuck’s sake don’t split up!’ Well now’s your chance to prove yourself. Now you are in charge of their decision making capabilities. Do you hide under the bed or keep running? Do you investigate a strange noise or stay exactly where you are? Who lives and who dies is all up to you.You get to play God with these horny teenagers lives. And it’s so fun.
Apparently the intended goal of the player is to try and get as many of these dickbags to survive as possible. Why on earth anyone would do that is beyond me. I mean, have you ever played The Sims? If you have, be honest, did you try and look after your characters and ensure that they had happy lives? Or did you sadistically torture them for your own amusement? Yeah. That’s what I thought.
Of course you’re going to try and get these people killed, especially when they’re so annoying! They each perfectly fit into distinct genre archetypes (the whore, the good girl, the jock, the nerd, the ‘funny’ guy, the bitch, the weirdo, the black one!) and are so hip and millennial that they’re practically begging to be dismembered. I don’t want to babysit them and deprive myself of the gory spectacle. I don’t get enough control in my own life, but at least I can make these entitled pricks suffer!
In this branching narrative department, the game does a lot right. Most importantly of all, it makes your choices actually matter! I cannot overstate how crucial that is, so many of these game’s fail to do this and have to find convoluted ways to neuter the consequences of your decisions. Until Dawn meanwhile gives you expendable canon fodder characters, who have little to do besides die, and so lets you really toy with their fates. Any of the eight playable characters can snuff it in multiple ways and in differing combinations. It’s true that the first half does keep a few alive for necessities sake (otherwise your experience could be very short), but by the time that the credits roll, you could have literally nobody left standing.
It’s so brutal with it too. Certain seemingly inconsequential decisions can have irreversible consequences, and characters can easily shuffle off this mortal coil over things as trivial as whether or not they tripped over a log. In one of my play-throughs, I managed to keep everyone alive until one bad move had a ripple effect that lead to 3 unintentional deaths. It was devastating and cathartic all at once.
The game smartly allows you to track the repercussions of your decisions via a comprehensive menu, so that you can replay and try things a different way next time. It’s a nice touch, one that you’ll come to appreciate should you ever find yourself wanting to do a play-through that ensures specific outcomes.
There are also neat little gameplay additions that differentiate Until Dawn from many other games of its kind. For a start, the exploration sequences require you to search locations for clues and objects in order to progress. What is interesting here is that, like in Alan Wake, the amount of story information you receive is dependent upon what you find, and certain narrative threads can even be locked away entirely should you miss the right pieces of evidence. Similarly, the failure of certain QTE moments can take you to slightly different locations and even set new set-pieces in motion. I was watching someone else play it recently and they failed a certain action-sequence, causing them to miss out on a whole chunk of the game that I had. It was a really great bit too, one of the best parts in fact. And they didn’t get any of it. I love that this game is willing to block access to huge chunks of the story like that. It really makes me wonder if I’ve even experienced everything that there is on offer here.
The ‘Don’t Move’ segments also deserve a special mention, as they are brilliantly intense. Here, the game uses the PS4’s motion controls to measure your steadiness. You’ll basically be asked to hold the controller as still as possible, and if you fail, your character may be detected and unceremoniously slaughtered. The harshness of these sections make it both satisfying when you succeed, and shocking when you fail. Again, it’s just damn fun, although I did lose a character because I needed to sneeze.
One gimmick that does seem a little wasted is the use of the psychiatrist character. In these sequences, you’ll come face to face with a therapist (played by a wonderfully OTT Peter Stormare), who will evaluate you based on your responses to certain questions. Said inquires range from ‘which of these images frightens you the most?’, to ‘which character do you like the least?’. The implication is that your results will then tailor your experience in a dynamic way. The reality however, is that your answers will only make a cosmetic difference at best. For example, if you say that you’re afraid of spiders, then a tarantula will crawl across the screen at one point. Meanwhile, the character that you specify as your least favourite, will later appear on a photograph with their face violently scribbled out. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if it were THESE decisions that had the most impact on the game? I personally would have loved to have been pursued by my greatest fear because I chose it. How awesome would that be? Choosing your own destroyer, Ghostbusters style!
Elsewhere, the actual story of the game is above-average slasher material, although it does indeed walk a fine line between functioning as a pastiche of generic horror tropes, and being a cliche narrative in and of itself. Basically, a group of obnoxious teens go on a trip to a secluded cabin (in the mountains this time, not the woods), on the anniversary of a prank that went fatally wrong. The intention of their get-together is to put the tragic event behind them (oddly enough, they do this by continuing to prank each other for the whole game) and move on with their lives. Unfortunately for them, a masked killer is roaming around the mountains, seemingly intent on forcing them to confront their pasts. It’s very I Know What You Did Last Summer, with a healthy does of Saw, Halloween: H20, and Friday 13th thrown in for good measure.
Which is fine, because whilst that would be incredibly by-the-numbers in cinema, for a video game it’s weirdly unexplored territory. Horror games are generally concerned with monsters, ghosts and people fighting back against inhuman threats. Meanwhile, slasher set-ups haven’t really been done before, meaning that this is a rare chance to see how the medium would deal with the genre. In fact, I don’t think this would work half as well if it didn’t tick all of the teen-horror boxes. Remember, the central appeal is that you’re now in control of a slasher movie! That’s not going to be as fun if you don’t get to play around with the familiar tropes.
Still, there is nevertheless a 3rd act twist that changes everything up in a spectacular fashion, and whilst it may divide some people, it personally elevated the whole game for me. It’s not like it comes out of nowhere (anyone who wonders about the killer’s POV shots will see it coming a mile away), but it is a satisfying reveal that turns the tables completely for the climax. It also helps that it starts to riff heavily on one of my all-time favourite films, once the action relocates to a cave setting.
Overall, Until Dawn is an extremely fun and subtly clever game, that is disguised as a dumbest slasher flick imaginable. With tons of replay value, an intriguing mystery, and intense set-pieces, this is honestly one of the best releases of the current generation.
RECOMMENDATION: FOR THE CASUAL GAMER OR EVEN PARTIES. HERE’S AN IDEA, SAY YOU HAVE A GROUP OF FRIENDS; GET EACH ONE TO TAKE CHARGE OF A SPECIFIC CHARACTER(S) AND THEN WATCH THE MADNESS UNFOLD AS YOU MAKE ALL THE WRONG DECISIONS AND GET EACH OTHER KILLED. IT’D BE SO EASY TO MAKE A DRINKING GAME OUT OF IT.