Halloween Gaming: Until Dawn
The explosion of the indie gaming scene over the last couple of years has led to the popularization of a handful of new genres like survival games, run-and-hide horror games, “walking simulators”, etc. And every once in awhile these new types of games manage to pierce into the highly homogenized world of $60 boxed releases. As a game, Until Dawn easily falls in line with the “interactive movie” style adventure game that was popularized by The Walking Dead. There’s less a focus on puzzle-solving and more a focus on rich storytelling that gives the player some choices to make in the game which ostensibly controls the trajectory of the plot.
Until Dawn can best be described as a game made in the mold of a teen slasher movie. The template of the slasher movie is an interesting thing for gaming to broach. The vast majority of gaming is focused on powerful lone heroes overcoming massive quantities of enemies. Even most horror games are made in this mold with protagonists like Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Isaac Clarke, Harry Mason, etc. forcing their way through armies of horrible abominations that are meant to be scarier than the average video game enemy, but nonetheless go down in great numbers to the protagonist. The slasher film, on the other hand, is an inversion of this. You have a group of protagonists that are facing a single overwhelming and resilient enemy who will inevitably succeed in thinning out the heroes to some extent. So as someone who has been playing games all his life and is interested in seeing creative new directions take form in this realm, Until Dawn had my interests piqued.
Until Dawn focuses on a group of eight teenagers who have come together for a night of partying on the secluded Blackwood Mountain. The mountain is owned by the parents of one of the teens, Josh Washington, who we’re told (and shown) are exorbitantly wealthy. This is no cabin retreat, rather it is a massive lodge that once served as a high-end hotel before the mountain was abandoned by its previous owner. This same previous owner also ran a sanitorium and mining operation on the mountaintop until the mine collapsed. The sanitorium and mine are now abandoned. And one year prior to this particular party, Josh’s sisters went missing on the mountaintop, and he’s throwing the party in their honor. Can you see where all this is starting to go?
The only way up and down the mountain from the lodge is by cable car. And of course, the cable cars become cut off as an escape option, and the teens find themselves assailed by a murderous “mystery man”, as well as facing the dangerous secrets of the mountain’s dark past. You trade-off controlling each teen as the story dictates. Sam is the closest to what I would consider to being the main character, as she’s the most morally-centered and shows the most focused-thinking. She’s also the only female character that doesn’t turn into a whimpering mess when faced with harrowing situations. Aside from her, the teens mostly follow very well established tropes. There’s the funny guy, the funny guy’s girl next door love interest, the athlete, the class president, the hot girl, etc. But I thought there was a small amount of subversion of these tropes. For instance, I found Matt the Athlete, who would in other forms of this template be the most self-centered of the characters, to be the most reasonable and diplomatic in the face of interpersonal conflict. Meanwhile, the more academically-accomplished and intelligent Mike and Emily are the most manipulative and cruel of the protagonists, far from the meek, socially-inept nerds that they would be in other uses of this trope. And the “hot girl” Jess, who to the others appears shallow and superficial, shows real depth in moments of self-reflection and confessions of her insecurities.
Over the course of the story, we see conflict and betrayal as well as selflessness and loyalty evolve in these characters. Some might call these individuals “flawed”, but I’m not sure that I would use that exact wording. Rather, I just think they’re very realistic. They can be cruel to each other, they make mistakes, but they also have redeeming qualities and moments. The game features a “celebrity” voice cast led by Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare. I’m usually very skeptical and annoyed by big name voice actors, since most of the time they don’t take gaming seriously and do poor jobs. But I have to say that this crew mostly does quite well in their roles.
Choice is something that developers have been enamored with for quite some time now. After all, video games are an interactive medium, so it’s logical that players should have some ability to influence the course of events that occurs in a game’s plot. Unfortunately while this is a great ideal, in the real world it’s a rather hard thing to implement probably because having significantly deviating paths in a game requires the production of a lot of additional content by the developer. As a consequence, most choices in games tend to work like little diamonds. The player’s choices can have some impact on the unfolding of immediate short-term events, but the story is set up such that in the long-term the divergent story paths find a way to come back to the same point. I think most gamers have caught on to this, but developers still love to use the concept of highly consequential “choices” as a selling point for their games.
And Until Dawn is no exception considering its genre. The game begins by introducing the player to the butterfly effect and explaining how their choices will result in significantly diverging events in the game’s story. There’s also a menu in the pause screen that shows you the critical determinant choices and actions the player has made. I’ve only played through the game once, so at this time I can’t really say how radically different the story can play out. But as far as I know, the three acts play out roughly the same regardless, with the first act introducing us to the characters and setting up the rest of the night’s events, the second act sees the slasher’s plans set in motion, and the third act brings together all the mysteries surrounding the teens’ ordeal. There are pre-scripted parts where a specific teen can die if the wrong decisions or actions happen, but, as I understand, that doesn’t change the story beats. I think it just changes which characters are involved in each event (and their collective survival odds), not which events happen. But like I said, I really can’t say for sure, as I haven’t exhaustively explored the game’s many divergent paths.
But what about Until Dawn as a scary game? After all, this is a Halloween Gaming post. I have to say Until Dawn probably isn’t one of the scariest games I’ve played. It does have an appropriate atmosphere and mood for the story it’s trying to tell, but I was never really spooked by it. There were a few exceptions that did really rattle me, though. In particular, the abandoned sanitorium that the player must visit really set my teeth on edge for some reason. It might have just been the mood I was in at the time, and maybe a function of how many drinks I had that night. I did worry about the teens survival, but it wasn’t really dread or fear I felt for them. It was just that I liked these characters and wanted to see their stories play out. I managed to keep all the teens alive until the climax of the game, and the first time one died I was so disappointed with myself that I turned the game off in anger at myself.
One thing I will say about this game is that it likes its jump scares. This is particularly true in the first act of the game where there’s really not a lot of danger, and the focus is on introducing the protagonists, their relationships with each other, and the mountain location that they find themselves on. This part of the game, in particular, has a lot of cheap “BOO!” moments even though there’s really not much threat to them. I suspect this is because the developers didn’t want the player to forget that they were in a horror game considering how peaceful things were at the start. I have to say, the jump scares got kind of annoying after a while.
One thing I did like about the game was the fixed camera that it employs. It made me nostalgic for the survival horror games of old that used this perspective, even though this game isn’t survival horror, itself. I definitely think the camera was a big part of the tension I felt in the sanitorium that I mentioned above.
Although I didn’t necessarily find the game to be among the scariest I’ve ever played, I do think I really enjoyed it in the end. It does have a good atmosphere and mood and creates a cast of characters that are compelling to watch and play. The third act goes in a direction that I felt was less interesting than what was set up earlier in the game, but I still found myself suitably invested in the game’s climax and seeing the protagonists through to the end of the story. I actually would really like to talk about the story and characters more in-depth, so I hope to get a spoiler-tagged post on this game out in November, after I’ve finished my final Halloween gaming post.
Thanks for reading!