Though cut from the same cloth as Heavy Rain, Until Dawn might appeal to those who took issue with Quantic Dream’s genre-defining thriller.
That’s because Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn takes a decidedly different narrative approach, eschewing the vague, surreal delivery and long-form exposition of Quantic Dream’s PS3 milestone for something a little more direct. For starters, Until Dawn apes B-movie horror cliches to tell a story about teens haunted in the woods by a masked killer–a pretty far cry from Heavy Rain’s noir mystery. “Teen horror” is a film genre not traditionally known for subtlety, and Until Dawn doesn’t buck the trend, what with its near-constant jump scares, campy (sometimes, cringe-worthy) dialogue, and simple plot devices.
In addition, Until Dawn’s story is told in a series of episodes, which have the player’s control switching rather schizophrenically between characters. You rarely get more than 10 or 20 gameplay minutes with one figure before your perspective jumps, and each episode finds a way to cram a little bit of time with each character into an hour or less.
I went hands-on with a preview build of Until Dawn, which included the game’s first four episodes. This was a better and much-needed glimpse of a game for which 10-minute demos at press events do little justice. On multiple occasions (see my PSX preview and Adam’s E3 impressions), we’ve seen Until Dawn and walked away a little underwhelmed. The controls were immersive, and the element of choice was in full effect, but it’s been clear to us that a game like this needs time to set its hooks in you. After all, it’s cinematic in nature, hinging on character investment and relationships while feeding story details and events at a specific pace.
After playing these four chapters (about four hours’ worth), I have a much better idea of what Until Dawn is getting at. In the deep of winter, one year after the disappearance of two girls, their group of friends re-gather at the scene of the incident: a secluded mountain lodge. In true “teen horror” tradition, the cast is an insufferable mix of jocks, their pretty girlfriends, and a couple by-the-numbers main characters. Jealousy, sex drive, and a spirit for doing mean, dumb things are in full effect. Considering this gang of unlikeable clowns were partially responsible for the girls’ disappearance a year ago, thanks to a rotten prank that sent them running out into the dark blizzard, it’s odd at best–but really, just kind of tasteless–that they’re reuniting at the scene to “honor their memory.”
So, it’s with a bit of dark pleasure that I smile at the first signs of slasher-movie trouble. A shifting shadow back deep in the woods, a door that mysteriously slams shut, a sudden, fleeting glimpse of a masked man who’s gone when they blink… As the group makes their individual ways to the lodge and do preparatory things like turning on the water heater or trekking up a path to the guest house, there are telltale signs that they’ll get what’s coming to them. I think despising these characters is the expectation, to some degree, because it creates this interesting balance of wanting them to be punished for being such rotten people while having your survival instincts kick in when things get disturbingly real.
This conflict actually starts to make some of the cast endearing, in their own dopey way–because like them or not, their lives are in your hands. Literally, a missed button press can mean life or death. Thankfully, Until Dawn’s controls and action scenes are elegant and well-handled. When given the option between traditional and motion controls, I was understandably skeptical of the latter, but it didn’t take long with DualShock 4’s precise tracking for me to be sold. Thrilling chases, precarious moments, and regular interaction are handled with a mix of gestures and button presses. You might thrust the controller forward a few times to bust through a locked door, press Circle or Triangle in time to slide under a beam, or hold the controller perfectly still to avoid alerting the stalking killer. I never had an issue with tracking, and the game gives you a slim window for button presses. This makes action scenes feel suitably tense, as it doesn’t take much–a brief lapse in focus, shaking hands moving the controller too much–for something to go wrong.
The system’s flexibility also adds weight to your choices. When presented with a safe route around a cliff or the fast option of climbing it, you can bet that the prompts will come hard and fast with the latter, and have shorter timing windows besides. It’s all too easy to be overconfident in your gaming skills and your ability to hit the prompts on-time, but I missed the mark on a couple occasions. Thankfully, these didn’t result in any character deaths, but an oft-touted feature of Until Dawn is that the story will go on regardless of what happens to the cast. As characters die, survive, or experience moment-to-moment choices, the bigger narrative picture is always adapting to the changes.
The butterfly effect doesn’t complicate the story, per se, but it certainly adds an element of uncertainty to every choice. Sometimes, the effects are immediately obvious and not-so-powerful. Scare your girlfriend as payback for an earlier prank, and she’ll fall in the creek and get soaked–a sexual buzzkill, to say the least. But it’s not clear how Josh (brother to the disappeared sisters) will treat me later since I snuffed his high-five, to say nothing of whether I could have made it to a screaming friend in time via the risky path.
The biggest mystery of all might be the psychiatrist. In brief interludes in-between episodes, you’re removed from the game and placed in a fourth-wall-breaking interview with an overbearing man who quizzes you on such things as what most frightens you and what you see when you look at an image. A couple of my answers came to directly affect the game itself, but others are non-obvious. That’s to say nothing of the psychiatrist himself and the office, which transforms in ghastly ways as the game goes on. It’s another of Until Dawn’s great mysteries, like why I keep encountering Native American totems with visions of the future, what consequences my seemingly insignificant choices will have later, or why the lodge’s guest cabin is a multi-mile hike and an abandoned mine shaft away. Seriously, Mike and Jessica? Is the 45-minute trek to the guest cabin worth it? If you want privacy for a romp, a stone’s throw into the woods will do just fine. It’s cold, sure, but I guarantee you’ll be done before you succumb to whatever killed your friends a year ago in this same spot and situation.
The episodic split of Until Dawn is another mystery. As mentioned, each episode lasts an hour or less, but you get a brief “Previously on Until Dawn” montage before the next one. The chapters aren’t long enough–nor is the story complex enough–to warrant these constant recaps, so what’s the point? If the aim is to make the whole thing feel like a TV series, I would warrant that the episodes aren’t particularly compelling on their own, nor are they paced like a good TV drama would be. And who’s going to put down the controller and walk away after just 45 minutes because the game implies a break?
But who knows? Maybe, in the end, all of Until Dawn turns out to be a sick, exploitative TV show orchestrated by the killer, and we’re only watching it play out. All considered, between its cinematic prowess and tight gameplay, Until Dawn does a good job telling its story–it’s just not clear yet whether the story will be one worth telling. Harrowing experiences can make you feel for the characters, but the majority are still unlikeable, and ham-fisted plot devices are used to push things forward or give the player video game-y things to do. Still, Until Dawn strikes a great balance between choice and action, weaving decisions into QTEs that are fun and suitably difficult. It looks tremendous, too, with particularly great facial animations, lighting, and atmospheric effects.
In movie tradition, Until Dawn is the next I Know What You Did Last Summer. In game tradition, it’s an unmistakably “Heavy Rain” take on interactive storytelling. And for all my qualms about its story and characters, like the guiltiest, cheap-thrill pleasure, Until Dawn left me wanting more. By demo’s end, I was invested, which speaks volumes about how Supermassive Games is marrying cinematic gameplay with an unexpected, unconventional genre. There’s very little like this in video games, and that’s reason enough to pay attention.