Think horror games are boring? Think there’s nothing new under the sun? Think again: Until Dawn delivers a blood-curdling nine-hour tale full of jump scares, genuine horror, and shows other game studios how to handle the very concept of the player’s actions having palpable and long-reaching consequences on the unfolding narrative.
It’s a complex and deeply disturbing story-heavy game in which every choice has a knock-on effect down the line, often not for the better, but more than that it’s an experiment in storytelling that gives the player unprecedented influence over how the story pans out. Do you save all eight characters, or just a few? Or none? It’s entirely up to you.
After having spent a weekend playing the game to its conclusion – at least, to one possible conclusion – I can happily tell you that Supermassive Games has succeeded in bringing to life a great story whose twists and turns make for some pretty compelling gaming. Here’s why.
Until Dawn is the story of eight friends who gather in the (northern hemisphere) winter of 2015 at an isolated, snowy lodge to commemorate something awful that happened a year before at the very same venue, something in which all of them are, to some extent, complicit.
Of course, it all goes horribly wrong, things get bloody and the player must get to the bottom of the seemingly fantastical mysteries that abound before the break of dawn the following day… preferably with as many characters as possible still alive.
Characters are portrayed by real actors, including some well-known ones like Hayden Pannetiere from Heroes, Rami Malek from Mr. Robot and Brett Dalton from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., all of whom are rendered in painstaking detail by the power of the PlayStation 4, to the point where they look almost identical in game graphic form to how they do in real life.
Particular care seems to have been lavished on Ms. Panettiere, who looks even more gorgeous in the game than she does in real life. In my opinion, anyway.
The game starts off quite slowly by introducing all of the characters and showing off the dark and ominous lodge and its eerie surrounds. Under these less-hostile circumstances, players are also introduced to the game’s dialogue choices and quick-time events that form the basis of the “choice and consequence” system, after which the awful events ramp up to 11 and players must spend the hours until dawn unearthing clues and making decisions that ultimately determine who lives and who dies. And, of course, the story they experience.
Scattered throughout the game’s environments are totems, small wooden carvings that offer visions of events that may come true depending on the player’s actions. Interestingly, I found that most of the predictions I saw didn’t come true, but that could have been because I scoured every corner for clues – highly recommended as the more you know about the story the better-armed your characters are to face it appropriately. Lucky me.
Even so, I missed some vital clues according to the log that tracked everything I had found, leading to a less-than-satisfying conclusion in which I lost more people than I was happy with.
All aboard the gore train
Losing people is hectic. Until Dawn pulls no punches when it comes to death scenes and shows it all in graphic detail, so if you can handle the creepy atmosphere – brilliantly provided by sufficiently ominous audio cues and foreboding mood music – but Al is the only gore you can handle, you may want to give this game a skip. It’s brutal.
That brutality is all the more in-your-face given that the game looks utterly stunning, utilising the PlayStation 4’s hardware to the max to drive some incredibly convincing graphics. Staring at the screen for as long as I did, I felt the cold of the blizzard-swept mountainside, empathised with the terror and confusion I saw on the characters’ faces and recoiled in horror at the convincing violence that often came out of nowhere. Definitely not a game for the weak of stomach, this.
Flap wings here, typhoon there
That concept of actions having a ripple effect on the world is better-known as the “Butterfly Effect”, and that’s exactly what developer Supermassive Games has incorporated into Until Dawn. The result is a mightily impressive narrative masterpiece that twists and turns according to how you play, ultimately inspiring you to play and re-play just to see how things pan out with and without key characters.
Should you give that a bit if thought, you’ll realise just how big a technical challenge this is. Think about how your day would pan out if just one if just one of your colleagues was missing from your office. Would lunch be the same? Would your meetings be the same? Of course not. Now imagine TWO of your colleagues were gone, and the impact THAT could have on your day, and keep extrapolating until there’s nobody there but you. Complicated, right? Right.
Fortunately, developer Supermassive Games is very clever about how they went about providing those possibilities, arranging the developing story in ways that ensured they didn’t have to write every single scene for anything from one to eight characters.
It’s still a huge technical hurdle, but going on my experience of rescuing only three characters come dawn without feeling as if I’d somehow broken the narrative, they did an incredible job and I can’t wait to see what sort of story I will come away with having successfully guided even more through the night’s harrowing events.
But raw story is not all the game does right. It also introduces a genuinely compelling reason to own a PlayStation camera: Until Dawn scares you, and captures video of you jumping at the very moment of your fright.
The developers admit straight up that the scares are cheap, as the section of the game that lets you watch yourself having the life scared out of you is called “Cheap Shots”, but they are no less hilarious because of it. As much as I consider myself a hardened fan of horror, even I jumped, and while I am a little ashamed to admit it, the laughs to be had seeing myself reacting afterwards were well worth it.
While I would love to link to each and every Cheap Shot here in this review to show you what I mean, I don’t want to spoil the scares for you as they’re included in the Cheap Shots footage for context.
It’s hard to go back
On finishing Until Dawn, I went back to re-play a chapter from mid-way through the game in which I lost one of my wards just to see how saving them would impact the story.
I had to change my choices quite a bit, because doing what I thought was the right thing in that particular situation had deadly consequences. Interestingly, it was only when I went against my better judgement in a situation that demanded I choose between being a douche, and putting personal feelings aside for the supposed benefit of another that the character emerged un-dead.
It was a great example of how small decisions have meaningful impacts, and how you can’t really know in the moment whether the outcome will be in your favour, or to your detriment.
Having an understanding of the greater story certainly helped playing again, but expect your first playthrough to be rife with mis-steps, because hey, life is messy and sometimes bad stuff really does happen despite your best intentions. To that point, Until Dawn does a great job of keeping the story real, and not pandering to what players might expect to happen.
That said, going back is not easy. The story unfolds at a languid pace, and dialogue can’t be skipped, so if you want to go back to change something, expect to spend as much time on it as you did the first time around, and then to complete all subsequent chapters again to see just how far the butterfly effect’s ripples extend.
There’s also no way to save and jump between points in the story apart from the option to re-play chapters once you finish the entire game the first time. That means if something awful happens, you’re stuck with it unless you quickly quit the game before it saves, and fire it up again to an automatic save point that’s hopefully shortly before the awful event happened.
So while the game has definite replay value, replaying to see every narrative variation is going to take a long, long time, and I’m not sure the majority of players will have the patience for it.
So just how scary is Until Dawn overall? Let’s just say I arrived at work on Monday morning with a tension headache caused by my upper arms, shoulders and neck being scrunched up in terror all weekend, I fought with my girlfriend on Sunday because of how edgy and strangely aggressive the near-constant fear made me, and while I think the game is brilliant, part of me is relieved it’s over. It’s that powerful.
Ultimately, Until Dawn unfolded before me like a very good, highly compelling TV show over which I felt I had some degree of control, giving me a glimpse into the future of storytelling. I really, really liked it, and hope more studios follow suit; at the very least I’d be happy to see a sequel using the same mechanics but with a different story and a new set of victims, er I mean characters.
Until Dawn is a PlayStation 4 exclusive, and is out on the 25th of August for a recommended retail price of R799.