Cinematic adventures come in all shapes and sizes. With every game that emphasizes narrative over deep gameplay comes a new idea of how to do this properly. From quick-time event gauntlets to unguided exploration, we’ve seen it all. The dividing line seems to be how much control and storytelling agency to give the player–effectively, ‘How should we tell a video game story?’ Until Dawn is more interested in asking, ‘What kind of stories can we tell?’ This horror adventure, Supermassive Games’ breakout title, chooses its path from the start, striking a balance between timed button prompts and full control. From this consistent foundation, it experiments with different tones, themes, and narrative genres, to mixed success.
For example, the game proper begins as a cheesy, B-movie teen slasher flick, with the secluded mountain lodge setting to match. One year after the two Washington sisters disappear into the wintry forest of Blackwood Pines, their seven friends and brother return to the Washington’s lodge to honor their memory. It’s a cheeky reason to reunite, and much of the cast is more interested in teenage preoccupations like sex and bitter rivalries. From the aloof jock and his cheerleader cling-on to the shy geek and his longtime crush, these are grating, cliche archetypes, with just a couple exceptions. But like its film forebears, Until Dawn uses this to make you just a teeny bit complicit in the terror and shine a light on the darkness in all of us. Every time a jump scare foreshadowed future danger or the cutscene camera revealed a shadowy figure through the trees, I felt a bit of wicked pleasure thinking about these teens getting their just desserts. The first couple times legitimate terror struck, I feared for the characters, but some small part of me enjoyed the chaos.
If Until Dawn had stuck with this tone throughout, it would have been a competent but predictable game. Thankfully, the genres come fast and frequent after the first few chapters. Until Dawn bounces from teen horror to action movie to psychological drama as often as it switches characters. This fluidity does wonders for the game’s pacing. I never felt like any particular atmosphere overstayed its welcome, and the change-ups kept me near the edge of my seat even when the story meandered in the later chapters. However, thematic variety can also work against the tension at times. When the tonal shifts were at their most erratic, changing every 10 minutes or so, they deflated my tension and prevented any meaningful build-up. This can create an identity crisis in the muddied moments between genres. More than once, a character witnessing a dead friend or experiencing some other trauma would have a suitably strong reaction with emotional gravitas, but that trauma seemed forgotten moments later when the story called for a lighthearted quip or a quick shuttling to the next scene.
As the story leaps between playable characters and filmic genres, the controls and your involvement stay consistent. Throughout the 10-hour adventure, there’s a pretty even balance between open exploration, where you have full control of your character and can interact with environmental objects, and QTEs that demand your rapid response to button and motion control prompts. These sequences can run a bit long, demanding your undivided attention for a couple minutes, but they’re always a joy to play. You only have to worry about seeing three face buttons and a handful of simple motion control prompts, so I never felt like the game was purposefully switching inputs to trip me up. I was concerned a bit when the game let me choose between standard controls and motion controls at the start–why give me the option at all if the latter is well-implemented? But my fears were unfounded. Whether during intense action or quiet exploration, the motion controls feel natural and are recognized without issue. A few unique functions, like holding the controller perfectly still to remain hidden or swiping the touchpad to flick a lighter, are novel ideas that make the action even more immersive.
Unfortunately, the game’s consistent mechanics and rules become a bit too familiar, such that later moments lose some of their tension. For example, when a scene calls for firing a gun, it always does so by suddenly slowing the action to nearly a freeze and giving you several seconds to aim your reticle with Sixaxis. It doesn’t take long to anticipate these moments coming before they happen, and your target is usually slightly left or right of where your reticle starts. As a result, these moments are made less intense and actually become pretty trivial. Predictability is bred with other repeat moments, like climbing rock walls or leaping between platforms. As the game progressed, I started to understand more of the logic and patterns behind QTEs, and their intensity dimmed.
The same can be said for Until Dawn’s many, many jump scares. To their credit, jump scares are the language of Until Dawn’s horror, used to convey the mood of its characters, instill anxiety, and plant certain expectations in the player. I saw many jump scares coming well before they appeared, but there were several times when the expectation of a fright was purposefully set up to leave me hanging and unsettled when nothing happened. Better still were the times when pre-scare anxiety was meant to trick me into reacting quickly or rashly to a false danger. Unfortunately, like certain QTEs, these lost some of their impact before the journey was through. I tired a little of the jump scares not just because of their frequency (seriously, they never let up), but also because I was always in control of what happened next. If the fright is coming from a genuine threat, the game always gives a prompt to respond, so I knew I was never in any imminent, death-bringing danger from the sudden surprises.
What never tires is how seemingly insignificant choices can dramatically change the fates of the cast. It’s refreshing to play a game with such wanton disregard for the lives of its characters. That’s evident not just in the shock value of character deaths, but in the way Until Dawn genuinely has no vested interest in who lives or dies before the credits roll. Their fates are entirely in your hands, and while some folks are certainly more likely to meet an untimely end than others, it will be your errors that do them in. I love the way I was lulled into a false sense of security by the game’s relatively safe early chapters, only to have the rug pulled out from under me later when the slightest mistake cost someone their life. Reflecting back on some of those moments that seemed out of left field, I can see the game was subtly teaching me how to respond to later choices. But there were still plenty of dilemmas where I couldn’t have guessed the outcome without some extra knowledge from exploring, and still more where I couldn’t have known no matter what. It’s an unpredictable landscape of choice that feels daring next to other games that shy away from changing their prescribed outcomes.
Exploration also rewards you with two forms of collectibles: totems and clues. The former, which give brief glimpses at potential future events, are meant to subtly guide your decision-making but end up being a waste. You’re rarely shown the link between decision and consequence. Instead, you see one or the other, which is never enough information or context to actually be helpful in future decision-making. Clues, on the other hand, come together to help solve one of several core mysteries running throughout, like the missing sisters or a fugitive arsonist that may be on the loose. You can review your collection of clues at any time, and, in a neat way of chronicling discoveries, their descriptions update as events in the story reveal their meaning. But at a certain point, the story robs these collectibles of their impact. Answers to the mysteries are either explicitly given or heavily implied in the natural course of play, and sometimes well before the story has even concluded. The clues start as enigmatic finds but are made redundant by the story’s revelations.
Still, it’s hard to begrudge how the clues could have informed the story when the characters and their actors do such a fascinating job telling it. To be clear, the acting is not universally excellent–far from it. Rather, Supermassive Games’ mo-cap work is so striking that it’s often the most interesting thing on-screen. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say Until Dawn boasts the most photorealistic faces and facial expression in video games. The acting isn’t always up to snuff, and there’s definitely a fair share of awkward animations where limbs and head movement can’t match the expressive faces. But there are just as many moments when everything comes together to create something truly special. When the technology acts as an open conduit for the actors’ craft, and when the cast are at the top of their game, you get a front-row seat to subtle, nuanced expressions of insanity, delirium, anguish, and joy.
Even when its mechanics serve too many masters and compromise a bit of tension, even when narrative shifts feel erratic, and even though I might roll my eyes at the umpteenth jump scare, Until Dawn is still a fun experience. Frequently, it’s a great one. And when the acting, tension, atmosphere, and gameplay come together in harmony, it positively sings. Whether you’re looking for slasher thrills, psychological horror, or the latest cinematic adventure with a flair for film conventions, Until Dawn has you covered. But its most interesting experiment is with choices and their meaningful, permanent, grisly consequences. It’s not the first game to have such bravado, but it’s among the best.