By Kyle Holmer. This is LOAD FILE, where we patiently wait in closets and work on our menace. This week, Kyle dons a clown mask, unsheathes his machete, and methodically enacts a murderous plan in Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn, published by Sony Computer Entertainment for the Playstation 4.
As effective as horror games may be, we haven’t really seen any major advancements of the genre in several years. There are obviously some outliers (Alien: Isolation comes to mind), but unfortunately, after so many years, the genre has mostly stagnated due to a strict adherence to the horror formula. One could argue that the advent of survival games is in fact an evolution of horror and while there is some truth to that, there is still a very clear delineation between the genre’s guiding tenets: survival games provide a world of complete player agency while horror games depend on a lack of player control. Most successful horror games are completely authored projects; each component is methodically placed in order to orchestrate a single terrifying moment and then those moments are precisely pieced together to create an effective whole. Although it seems so obvious, for whatever reason, when it comes to horror those two ideas have always sat opposite each other.
And then seemingly out of nowhere, we have Until Dawn. While admittedly not doing anything completely original, Until Dawn has managed to revitalize the genre by injecting a horror game with legitimate player choice. Yes, companies like Telltale Games, Bioware, and Quantic Dream have been claiming that their games have a reactive narrative, but (as anyone who has actually played them will tell you), there is very little consequence to the decisions you make within those games. With Until Dawn however, every single decision has an eventual and tangible impact on the story which makes it even more upsetting that it’s nestled within the most generic of horror stories.
THE FAMILIARITY OF IT ALL WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO SCREAM
The story of Until Dawn follows eight high school friends as they reunite on the one year anniversary of the death of two of their classmates. There is a brief prologue chapter that will elaborate on the specifics of their deaths (as well as introduce the game’s mechanics), but that only seems to exist so that Until Dawn can adhere to the requirements of the genre. Once the actual game starts, the player will control all eight friends at various points throughout the evening, with specific clusters of them branching off only to be reunited further down the road. It’s a necessity given the game’s story, but unlike other narrative-focused games, you spend such a brief amount of time playing with each character that you’ll never actually feel any sort of tangible embodiment.
As this is a horror game, it follows all of the expected beats of a teenage slasher flick including a masked psychopath and (dependent on the player’s decisions) plenty of character deaths. Unfortunately however, this slavish adherence to genre conventions ultimate works against the game. There is an over-reliance on jump scares and considering how familiar the developers are with the genre, I had hoped that the narrative would have been more original. Regardless, given the stakes, introducing a realistic choice/consequence system is a perfect fit for this genre; it’s a surprise that it hasn’t happened sooner.
THE MECHANICAL COMPLEXITY YOU’VE COME TO EXPECT… FROM YOUR iPHONE
As for the gameplay, it’s about as simple as a game can get. There will be brief periods of player control, but those primarily serve as interludes between the story sequences. There really isn’t much to do during these moments besides scavenge for collectibles, although the developers use these sequences to build tension with effective sound and camera work. The actual meat of the game is primarily handled through quick time events, which works surprisingly well. They even take advantage of the motion sensor built into the Dualshock 4, by creating moments where the player must remain perfectly still during some of the more tense moments of the game.
As mentioned, the focus of the game is decision making. Because the story has you controlling multiple characters, you’ll be able to decide which characters will survive the evening, as well as how they choose to interact with one another. While the constantly shifting perspectives does create a disconnect between the player and the characters, it also allows for more experimentation, especially on repeat playthroughs; once you’re further inside the machine and able to chart the repercussions of a decision, that disconnect will encourage you to explore the exact mechanism of any given choice. The developers seem keenly aware of this, as they not only highlight the effects of any given decision, but the chapter select that’s available upon completion will allow you to quickly see how a decision will ripple throughout the story without having to play through the game over and over.
IT REALLY IS BETTER IF EVERYONE JUST DIES
Ultimately, that experimentation is really what makes the game so compelling. While the story is definitely serviceable, its traditional genre fare; the writing is just as corny and story is just as predictable as you might expect from any slasher film. While the initial playthrough was fun, I was constantly focused on making sure all of the characters survived. My second and third runs, where I spent my time trying to splinter and murder the group, was easily the best part of the game. There’s a superficial enjoyment that comes from being able to play through an 80s horror film, but the level of options offered within Until Dawn is really unexpected. While the story can be pretty shallow, there is some serious depth to this game that makes it an unexpected gem.