Warning: Yeah, spoilers all around.
Until Dawn sort of flew under the radar considering its cast of Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and Brett Dalton (Agents of SHIELD). I didn’t hear much about it nor see much media coverage about the game which can cause death in sales. It wasn’t until I sat in a darkened room at a friend’s birthday party yelling at the screen that the characters were going to die. Guess what the end game is? That’s right, trying to keep all eight characters alive until dawn.
Damn, you pretty. You get to live.
Until Dawn is an interactive horror survival game which relies of quick time events, exploration, discovering clues and making choices. The player is set in a strict auto-save system unable to save in-between scenes in order to prevent a player from going back to a previous save file. Meaning once the player has made a choice, you have to live with it. However, the gameplay is only nine hours long and no play through is really the same due to the Butterfly Effect Mechanic.
The principle of the Butterfly Effect in regards to the game is to force the player to choose certain options which can either cause characters relationships to grow closer or further apart. It also leads to potential deaths and the outcome of a particular play through. For example, if you pick up a weapon in the first chapter of the game, the player can potential use it later down the line to save another character.
The prologue of the game is quite slow as you are playing the character of Beth Washington, sister to Josh and twin to Hannah. She is at her parents lodge up in a remote part of the mountains. Because horror games are either in a remote place or an asylum, why change a good troupe? Unknown to Beth, the other teenagers at the lodge have set up a prank for Hannah in regards to her crush Mike. Yeah, teenagers are arseholes, imagine that.
Although slow, this introduces the player to certain aspects of the game such as clues which will flash silver to gain the players attention. Through clues the player can find their way to the next section of the game. The player also gets to grip with the quick time events and choice making.
Shiny objects, grabbing any ADHD players attention.
Playing as Beth, you find the note with the prank and go to stop it. Alas you are too late and Hannah the runs out into the snowy darkness. Smart move girl. Beth goes to look for her sister, using the light of her phone to guide her through the forest. You also come across clue or Totems. Totems are as creepy as they sound, each butterfly on the totem gives the player a vision of terrible things to come. Black is death, Red is danger, Brown is loss, Yellow is guidance and White is fortune. This allows the player to predict which way to direct the game in order to prevent deaths or cause them, depending if you’re a bastard or not.
The two girls end up clinging onto a rock for dear life with a creepy stranger reaching towards Beth. The player is given the option of letting go of her sister or letting them both fall to their deaths. This the first instance of a quick timed tough choice in which the player is forced to do something horrible. In Until Dawn it will happen a lot. Spoiler alert: They both die no matter what.
Goodbye Beth and Hannah, we hardly knew thee. And didn’t care enough.
The first section establishes the one year later premise where the eight friends at the lodge go back at the invitation of the dead twins brother, Josh, wanting to celebrate the twins life rather than their deaths. The eight friends from the previous year arrive at the cabin; Sam, Chris, Ashley, Jess, Matt, Mike, Josh and Emily. Each character is given three words that describe their personalities which doesn’t seem to influence much other than the relationship with other characters.
All of them cover a troupe character from classic horror movies, Jess being the ditz and Emily the honour student. It is important to maintain working relationships with other characters or improve on the ones that might be lagging slightly. This is also in context to the Butterfly effect; say Mike pisses off Sam. Later in the game there may be in a possibility that the relationship between the two decides if Mike dies. Remember, all choices are auto saved and you cannot change it unless the player starts a new game.
As a player interacting with all this characters, I was surprised at the amount of depth that was put into them. Sure, you have the classic troupes casts but there are options that subvert who they are like Jess actually being smart but playing up being dumb for attention. Although the first rule of any horror genre is not to get attached to characters, you can’t help like them. Clever developers.
Now I liked the game for setting me on edge, having me decide who lives and die, deciding which character to hate. However, I think the story got a little lost halfway through. During the first half, the characters are being stalked by an unknown figure that turns up to jump scare the player a lot. Yes, playing in the dark adds to that horrible factor. If you double enjoy freaking yourself out, I suggest you do it.
Totally watching you bathe for fear reasons….
Interrupting between the chapters is an unknown character attending appointments at a psychiatrist. Throughout the first half of the game, the visits start fairly normal but slowly become more disturbing. It turns out that the figure stalking the characters and setting up the elaborate ways of hurting them is Josh. He was pulling one horrible prank on the eight friends in revenge for the one pulled on Hannah which led to his sisters deaths. That’s the end of the first half.
Then we get to the second half. Remember when Hannah and Beth died? Turns out Hannah lives but she has become something from legend. She was lost in the tunnels below with the corpse of her twin. In to stave off hunger (bad pun, don’t care), she then proceeds to eat said twin. Imagine eating something looks like you, that’s downright creepy. By that point Hannah becomes something new. A wendigo. Yup, that’s the second acts villain.
Supernatural always taught me to use a flare gun. Smash glass in case of wendigos.
Now, I was perfectly fine with the element humans doing it during the first half the game. The player is already in a remote part of the mountains and running around at night adding to that sense of helplessness. I would have liked it better to find out Josh was behind everything, spending the second half of the game trying to outwit Josh in order to survive. The Butterfly effect could truly come into effect on deciding to piece together clues in hopes of escaping him.
Quick, Sam! The plot went over there!
Instead, the player is thrown out from human fear and put into a supernatural element which kinda takes the realness away from it. When a human is the antagonist doing horrible things to people he once considered friends, that is quite terrifying. The first half of the game is full of jump scares and psychosocial horror. Upon switching to the wendigos, the game almost turns into a gore fest. The deaths are shocking and the player still has to difficult choices but the impact of fear isn’t the same. It’s always easier to kill something that isn’t human, that can’t be reasoned with and will kill you no matter what.
During my first play through, about three characters ended up dying in horrible ways including Matt who I liked (please forgive me). I grew to like the characters as they exposed their flaws and vulnerabilities. The hazard of horror movies or games is that the watcher/player might hate characters and hope they die. With this depth and development to the characters, the player wants to make sure they all make it out alive. (Again, I am so sorry Matt). Anyway, the surviving five get cut scenes at the end where they try to explain what happened without sounding crazy.
In regards to style, holy hell did I love the graphics. The expression of the characters faces leave uncanny valley territory and reflects truly how someone might feel in a scenario like the ones characters are put through. It adds completely to the creeping atmosphere as you aren’t suddenly thrown off by pixelated areas or flat faced characters.
Look at the pretty!
Now, screeching violins always indicate that something horrible is about to happen. The music coupled with the dark atmosphere really makes Until Dawn a game worth playing. Even if the plot does go slightly off course, if you enjoy heart thumping games, you should Until Dawn as it atmosphere does freak you out. I thought the voice acting was well executed because nothing changes game through poor acting.
Despite my dislike for the change in narrative style half way through, I enjoyed the game, hoping that my second play through will result in Matt remaining alive.
Matt, to precious for this world.
All in all, I give it a 6/10.