I knew almost nothing about Until Dawn until I sat down and played the damn thing in one, very thorough, eleven hour sitting.
I was camped out at my local GameStop, picking up some miscellaneous bobs for my 3ds, when I saw the poster. It so happened to be the release date that morning, and they only had one copy left in stock. I briefly read about it the week prior and had seen Sony talk about it’s early development at a past E3 event, maybe watched a couple videos on IGN, but was solemnly disinterested because I couldn’t see myself enjoying a game that was solely based on quicktime events (with the wild exception of Heavy Rain, for which I have a ruthless love). When I asked the clerk if they knew much about it, two burly dudes wearing socks pulled halfway up their calves under Nike sandals chuckled. At me. At the thought of me playing Until Dawn. So either out of absolute stubborn smite, or maybe my inherent need to publicly challenge those who question my effeminate presence inside GameStop (a hilariously often occurrence), I smacked down a couple extra bucks and walked out with Hayden Panettiere’s forlorn face tucked under my arm — and maybe a couple amiibo.
Maybe I should thank the Socks and Nike Brothers, because Until Dawn ended up being the most surprisingly fun game that I’ve played in a long, long time. So much fun, actually, that it’s managed to squeeze itself into a very safe place in my gaming library. It’s not in my top ten, but it’s definitely an anomaly that deserves far more recognition than it has received to date.
*Spoilers lie beyond this point, stop now to avoid or forever hold your peace. Otherwise, prepare for some incoherent, emotional fangirling.
I’m glad that I went into it knowing close to zilch about the plot, because Until Dawn is best served with a steaming bowl of ignorance. Think Cabin in the Woods or The Evil Dead, flowing with strong 80’s slasher currents and pulp horror. The game is filled to the brim with archetypal goodness, and if anyone tries to tell you that the story is too “corny” or “predictable,” then they are not only taking it too seriously, but need to take a trip down Wes Craven lane. Until Dawn beautifully orchestrates knowledge of good B Horror, and almost every element of the game helps illuminate that intelligence.
The game starts with a flashback: ten haughty teens have traveled up to the Canadian mountain cabin of their rich friends, Josh, Beth, and Hannah. After a prank goes horribly wrong, Hannah leaves the cabin and runs out into the night (and, of course, into a bad snow storm). Her sister follows, shaming the group for being asses. After Beth and Hannah are united in the forest, they are approached by an offscreen threat and conveniently slip off the side of a cliff, only to shatter against the rocks below in the first of many cringe worthy montages. Their bodies are never found, and the rest of the party move on with their lives until one year later when Josh invites them all back to the cabin in memoriam — and to get totally wasted! Roll the moody title sequence, and let the game begin.
Sam, Mike, Josh, Ashley, Chris, Emily, Matt, and Jessica are all playable at one point or another within the game. The “goal” is to have them all survive the night, and that is no small task. The game runs on a Butterfly Effect system similarly to Heavy Rain’s, and it all starts with a series of first-person psychiatry sessions with Dr. Alan Hill (portrayed by Peter Stormare). These sequences are the only time the game snaps to first person and juxtaposes the player as a character, since all the literal protagonists will be played in third. Dr. Hill shows us various image cards and we are to chose between two at a time, progressively. For example, when trying to determine your greatest fears, he’ll swap between and narrow down pictures of wolves, needles, clowns, zombies, knifes, etc. The purpose is to flesh out how Until Dawn can best give you the creeps, and so long as you answer honestly, it’ll do a damn good job based on your personal results. Without elaborating too much, Hill’s sequences are by far the most thought-provoking aspect of the game, and occur off and on for much of the first three quarters.
But let’s get back to the Butterfly Effect: nearly every choice you make matters. Which fork you take in the road, whether or not you decide to console or argue with your girlfriend after a steamy catfight — did pick up that baseball bat so that Sam would remember it later? Everything counts, down to the daintiest of details. It doesn’t matter if you just aced that extremely stressful quicktime event, because you pissed off so-and-so earlier in the game and now she doesn’t want to unlock the door to let Blank in. It’s frustrating, rage worthy, and absolutely brilliant in execution.
In my first playthrough, I managed to keep everyone alive except for Chris, and I still remember that brutal pain as it stuck with me until the end. I thought to myself, why Chris? Why not Emily (who I purposefully killed the second time around because she was a total pain)? After pounding button after button in various quick events for 3 minutes without a break, I missed one by less than a second, and off went his head. I screamed, Ashley screamed, we all screamed as his stubby head rolled across the snow. But I had no other choice than to force myself forward, primarily because I really had no other choice: Until Dawn is very unforgiving in a sense that you can not move backwards, no matter how bad I wanted to give Chris another chance at life. He was dead, and I had to atone for that sin.
Some players and critics have been so insanely turned off by how unforgiving the game is, but I strongly disagree with their reasoning (laziness, even). I still shudder at how badly I wanted to go back and save Chris, but I ultimately don’t mind the fact that everything was so permanent and that they cut the option to go back and redo events you screwed up, because it made the experience so much more emotional. I felt for the quirky assortment of characters, and I was drenched in sweat by the time I finally made it to sunrise. Even if you could ostensibly make it from start to finish in roughly six hours (although you’re cutting it a bit quick if that’s your final time count), Until Dawn presents the cast so well and concise in a very short amount of time. Each character has their own distinct personality, heck, there’s even room for decent character development and the game only spans out over a single evening.
Even the visuals are as strong and thoughtful as a feature film; aside from some wonky, fixed camera angles, the graphics are wonderful. The soundtrack is eerily gorgeous (and fully orchestrated), and the voice work is done well. Until Dawn is a package deal. It may be because the game was exclusive to the Playstation 4, or that it had little to no prior marketing that it received minuscule attention. But if I didn’t make myself clear, it is definitely worth at least one dance. Until Dawn is like sitting down and watching a movie, only you have total control.
Wendigo, Indigo — huh!