I’ve never been a big fan of horror films. When I was younger, my older sister did everything in her power to make me absolutely horrified of Freddy, Jason, Chucky, and … even the Leprechaun. I had recurring nightmares of being trapped alone in my house, being hunted by a maniac killer doll who may or may not have murdered the rest of family. You could say I was a bit traumatized. Even now, I’m 26 years old and still have to psyche myself up to get in the right mind state to watch the latest horror show at the theater with my fiancée. So when Until Dawn was coming out, a game meant to make players feel like they are in a slasher movie, you’d think I would be apprehensive, right?
Wrong! Turns out, I actually love horror games and Until Dawn seemed to be a game made to bring my horror-loving fiancée and I closer together. Through the years she’s instilled so much gruesome history of the genre into me that I’ve slowly come to appreciate what makes horror so fun for people. And while playing Until Dawn, I noticed how it both pays tribute to the genre, as well as pushing it forward through it’s dynamic narrative and gameplay. Though it relies on the clichés of the genre and it’s bursting at the seams with cheesy dialogue, the game feels genuine in trying to be its own choose-your-own-adventure version of horror. It nails the dumb, goofy kids stuck on a mountain, it nails the jump scares and gore, and all the while, it’s pretty darn fun to play too, especially with someone on the sidelines.
Until Dawn places you in the shoes of eight teenagers who get together in a remote, mountain cabin, a year after two of their friends went missing and presumably died on that very mountain. Like typical, dumb teenagers, they get together to find closure and move on by getting drunk and having sex. Of course, they didn’t read the horror manual, because that’s exactly how you die. It doesn’t take long before it’s clear that someone, or something, doesn’t want these people on the mountain.
If you’ve played games like Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls, you have an idea of how Until Dawn plays. You navigate through the environments with a little exploration, but the real meat of the game comes in the form of the choices you make, and how well you handle the action. Throughout the game you’ll be faced with dozens of choices ranging from “take the easy path” or “take the risky shortcut” to “kill Emily” or “save Emily”. No matter how small some choices may seem, sometimes you’ll see a little butterfly in the corner, indicating you triggered a butterfly effect: a moment that changes how the story will play out. In some instances, not making choices can actually be the best decision. Most action scenes on the other hand, lean heavily on quick time events. In these scenes, you’ll be pressing specific buttons in rapid succession in order to, in most cases, stay alive. The fun thing here is that you can mess up sometimes. In certain situations, a wrong move may result in something as simple as a stumble, or if things get really bad, your character will die. Since there’s some leeway, I found the game that much more intense; with each fumble, you know your character is that much closer to buying the farm.
And lives matter in Until Dawn. With a huge number of branching paths, the game continues on no matter who lives or who dies. You can make it to the end with everyone alive (though highly unlikely) or you could have every character die and still have a pretty lengthy amount of game to play. What I enjoyed most about these characters is that they play heavily into their tropes, making it very easy to latch on to some once you get to know them a bit. One of my favorite characters was Mike, a cocky jock who’s a bit of a jerk, but he was just so perfect for this kind of story. My fiancée on the other hand, loved to hate him and scoured at nearly every choice I made with him. Then there’s Emily, a character who is nearly impossible for anyone to like. Let’s just say a laugh was shared when she came to a (un)timely demise in our game.
This is where I have to talk about my personal playthrough. My fiancée and I played through the entire game together, switching the controller back and forth when the game would change characters. She controlled the women, and I controlled the men. Like the horror films it’s inspired by, Until Dawn is a perfect game to experience with someone else. Jump scares become more than just a one-time moment. My partner and I would constantly look at each other, and laugh when we saw the other one jump, and we were often able to talk about the things that happened in the game, as well as speculate about what would happen. In the brief moments where a decision had to made, we’d both be yelling at each other to make a choice. In one instance, my fiancée actually froze up because she didn’t know what to do in the face of certain danger. I yelled “What are you doing?” and she finally snapped out of it, but too much time already went by and something bad happened to her character. We spent the rest of the game laughing and speculating about what would have happened if she didn’t freeze up.
Though we both had a blast playing, there are a few points in the story that drag on. Certain areas feel way too drawn out and take too much time to navigate through. In one section of the game, two characters are walking to a second cabin supposedly near the main lodge. However, it felt like we walked long enough to be on the other side of the mountain before we got there. These moments are few and far between, but they show up just enough to hurt the overall pacing of the game. Taking too long to build tension actually results in the loss of it.
My other big complaint with the game is the audio of the voice actors. I went on Twitter and found a few like-minded folks who shared my feelings that the voices just sound like they’ve been mixed really weird. I believe I said something along the lines of “it sounds like they recorded their dialogue inside of a tin can.” It’s not that you can’t understand everyone, but it just sounds off. Though it has the same quality throughout, I was able to get used to it after awhile.
Visually, on the other hand, Until Dawn looks amazing. Sure, there are some wonky animations here and there, but the environments look absolutely dreadful and beautiful at the same time. The lighting is some of the best I’ve seen in any video game, and the facial capture work is right up there with L.A. Noire. Regardless of its B-movie DNA, Until Dawn has an incredibly high level of polish that makes it just as much fun to watch as it is to play.
Until Dawn was originally revealed in 2012 as a PlayStation 3 game supported by the Move controller. Though the main idea persisted, delays and other shifts in development had many people, including myself, concerned about the quality of the final product. I would have never guessed that Until Dawn has turned into one of my favorite games of 2015, but that’s exactly what it is. It takes the choose-your-own-adventure formula that TellTale and Quantic Dream games have been working on and places it into a perfect setting for it. It may not be the scariest or have the best plot, but it nails the vibe of slasher movie,s and that’s what makes it so fun. And with plenty of different choices to make, I know my fiancée and I will be giving Until Dawn another go this Halloween.