Last week I played the PlayStation 4 video game Until Dawn. I wanted to play something scary for Halloween, and I’d heard Until Dawn is a unique storytelling experience more akin to an interactive movie than a traditional, combat-centered video game. Because I love stories — especially with decisions and multiple endings — I was excited to give it a try. And I can tell you it was pretty creepy.
Spoilers to follow. I can’t help it, it’s that kind of game!
Until Dawn tells the tale of a group of teenagers who are spending a night in a cabin in the woods. The story is broken up into 10 chapters, each taking about 30 to 60 minutes to play. In the prologue, two of the girls are killed by a mystery character. One year later, the eight remaining friends reunite at the cabin and remember the girls who died. But someone is still out there.
It’s like Until Dawn takes all the horror genre tropes and throws them in a blender. Unsuspecting teenagers going on vacation — no parents, a little sex talk, lots of personal drama. Creepy cabin in the forest… on a secluded mountain. A snowstorm. A mystery murderer in a mask who pops up in windows and watches from hillsides, unbeknownst to the main characters. Bookend scenes in each chapter taking place in a psychiatrist’s crumbling office, with a mystery character being “treated.” There’s even a scene with a spirit board and the murdered girls’ ghosts.
One of the biggest features of the game is that characters can die, depending on your choices. You have to pay attention to get things right, and sometimes it’s just not clear what to do. Should a character run or hide? One decision could lead to their death, but you have to go with your gut in those cases.
I lost about half the characters in the first half of the game. I was so disappointed in myself. But about two-thirds of the way through the game, I learned that the “masked murderer” was in fact one of the teenagers, Josh. (He’s the brother of the killed twins.) He faked his own death, and in fact only one of my characters had really died. Jessica falling down an elevator shaft, Chris and Ashley about to get sawed up, and Josh himself — they were actually all still alive.
It was an intriguing twist, but I felt a little cheated. Suddenly I had a second chance to save these characters, which was cool but made me realize the game wasn’t as difficult as I had thought. Learning that Josh is crazy was interesting. He was the character in the psychiatrist’s office, and the psychiatrist was in his head. But it just wasn’t enough to trump the fact that there might not be a crazy murderer out there after all.
However, there is still somebody there: weird creatures called the Wendigos who want the mountain for themselves. They’re the ones who can really kill the characters. To be honest, I found this revelation a little odd. Ghosts are one thing, but I wasn’t expecting such a weird supernatural element in the story. Maybe it’s because I play so many combat video games, but a psycho killer is scarier to me than some creatures you can avoid or shoot. You could argue they’re an interesting part of the mythology of the game, but I just wasn’t feeling it.
All that murdery stuff aside, I was also a little disappointed in the character interactions. While much of the dialogue rings true — teenage slang and all — I couldn’t really tell when my decisions were affecting relationships. There’s a Status menu that shows you the relationship status of every character combination. However, there wasn’t enough character interaction for me to really feel a difference, except perhaps when Ashley and Chris argued over whether Ashley really saw a ghost or not. I just wish there were more opportunities for this kind of relationship development throughout the game.
The butterfly effect was certainly in action, but I didn’t see the results very obviously. The game drops you hints; for instance, when you make a choice that will affect what happens later, you see butterflies in the upper left corner of the screen. But what about the consequences later? At one point, Emily picks up a flare gun, but she doesn’t get to use it in a very dramatic way. And I don’t even know what Ashley did with those scissors she picked up. I also don’t know what choice I made caused Matt to end up with a hook through his jaw. It’s like the game tells you when a decision is important but doesn’t let you notice or appreciate the consequences later. I guess it’s trying to be subtle, but it left me feeling confused and unrewarded.
Until Dawn’s gameplay is like Quick Time Action 101. Most of the characters’ actions are carried out via these QTEs. As someone scrambles up the side of a cliff or runs down a path, you have to press the correct button when prompted onscreen before it’s too late. A couple of times I hit the wrong button, and a few times I didn’t press it in time. Usually, I got a second chance, and the character scrambled successfully.
On the quieter side, there are many instances where you encounter objects that you need to pick up and turn over. This requires you to press and hold R2, then turn the object over with the analog stick. It’s a little slow, but it works. There are similar controls for opening doors, unlocking gates, and turning knobs.
Because the Wendigos can’t detect you if you’re perfectly still, there are also a few times in the game when you need to hold your controller steady, not moving, to avoid being spotted. And let me tell you, this made me really angry. I was able to do it every single time until the last two minutes of the game, when the character Sam apparently moved a little tiny bit and got killed. Just like that. In the last moments of the story. Sam is a very likeable character — one of the few, really — and losing one more person at the very end made me upset. That death just didn’t feel fair.
But most of the game is watching the characters interact onscreen. When you have control of a character, you can scout around for clues, which are called out by small shining white dots in the environment. Some of these are totems that show you hints of what could happen in the future; to be honest, I barely paid attention to these little one- or two-second flashes, though I believe they’re important for strategizing what to do. There are also newspaper snippets, little bits of info on the twins who died, and more that tell the tale of what’s going on around the mountain. It’s interesting information, at the least.
There are also many opportunities to make dialogue or action decisions during interactions. Some of my favorite moments here were when Mike and Jess have snowball fights while talking and potentially making out — the mix of choices and QTEs here create simple, memorable scenes. Other times, I chose bitchy options for characters like Matt just to create drama. It was a lot of fun, although I don’t always know the results of my choices.
When the Wendigos are revealed, one of the character’s, Mike, is able to use a shotgun. Shooting the Wendigos releases their spirits, which is bad, but I still had Mike shoot a few when things got tough. Time slows down so you have plenty of time to aim; it’s pretty hard to miss a target in this game.
Until Dawn is a beautiful PS4 game. There’s no denying that. Whether exploring the haunted cabin or trekking through the snow-covered woods, I found the environments to be very easy on the eyes.
One of the most notable visual features threw me a little, though. That’s the fact that the characters depicted are virtual renditions of the real-life voice actors. I’m just not a big fan of this. It’s the uncanny valley thing, and the fact that seeing recognizable actors like Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek, and Peter Stormare in a video game is a little distracting. I guess the motion capture work is well-done, but I actually didn’t enjoy this feature very much.
Until Dawn dishes up a creepy horror experience that feels like it came out of a genre blender. A little more character development and less reliance on QTEs would have made the game stronger, but I still enjoyed the fact that the game tells an interactive story in a new way. Giving it an extra half point for that. =)
OVERALL SCORE: 6/9