pop culture | no politics
Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn is one of the most interesting media experiences I’ve had in 2015. I use that term over game because I’m not exactly sure how to categorize it. I’ve seen “interactive movie” and “psychological horror” thrown around in reviews but I’m not sure if either of those are fair descriptions. The latter implies that the terror exists simply inside one’s mind while the former makes it sound like some kind of ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios amusement park.
Like 2010’s Heavy Rain, Until Dawn’s unique gameplay boils down to a combination of quicktime events and clunky, awkward walking while shining a light source around to illuminate clues. Given the context of the story this is actually a good thing. These characters aren’t ninjas or ballet dancers, they’re regular teenagers scared out of their minds trying to navigate a hostile environment that they’re not familiar with. Trying to clumsily steer the eight protagonists around really cements the bond that the player has with them while also giving us the opportunity to soak in the beautiful environments. It’s somewhat rare that a third person game gives you the time and space to appreciate areas of the screen that aren’t in the immediate vicinity of your character, but Until Dawn offers that to its players. There’s plenty of eye candy to look at while making the often tedious walk from point A to point B and it’s all worth checking out.
Much of that is due to the haunting atmosphere the game has to offer. The story takes place on an isolated mountain in the dead of winter and visits such charming locations as a sanitarium and a long-abandoned mine. This is nothing we haven’t seen before in a horror story but everything is rendered and presented so well that such cliched environments can be overlooked. The centerpiece locale is a giant lodge that feels like the mansion from Resident Evil swallowed a Saw film and the resulting stomachache was this nightmare. Under its surface the lodge is full of rot and ruin, a nice metaphor for the characters the player is asked to control. Fixed camera angles create a strong sense of solitude even when our heroes are paired off together as the environment looks to ready to swallow them whole at any given moment. This is what survival horror should be, a desperate attempt to overcome the odds and stay alive long enough to see the sun come up. The actual game area is relatively small by today’s standards but good cinematography and editing gives it a much bigger sense of scale.
The writing is strong and believes in its characters enough to let them occasionally break out and contradict traditional stereotypes. I instantly disliked the cocky bad boy and resented the fact that I had to play as him only to discover that he can also play the role of hero. It felt like meeting someone new in real life and getting off on the wrong foot with them, only to discover that by giving them a chance that we get along well. The characters make all the usual bad decisions that teenagers tend to make in horror films out of necessity to keep the story moving forward. But playing as them puts these choices in a context that a slasher film can’t, we’re actively making the bad decisions instead of shaking our heads and judging as we do when passively watching a movie. This lends a sense of reality to the situation, playing this game makes it easy to understand why bad choices get made by people under extreme duress.
Unfortunately the game isn’t without its flaws. The story doesn’t really give us anything we haven’t seen before and falls into the same trap as contemporary horror film often do, the need to hinge on a big twist. Until Dawn’s hits around the halfway point and cheapens many of the best scares that precede it. From this point on it feels like a different game, almost like the player has unknowingly walked into a sequel. But what’s unforgivable is that the twist renders many of the difficult choices the player was forced to make in the first half meaningless. I agonized over one particular life and death decision for several minutes before reluctantly pressing the button and to have that dramatic moment soiled for me left me somewhat bitter towards the game for the remainder of my play through. I can’t imagine that the first half of the game would be enjoyable for anyone replaying the game. This is a considerable problem given that the one of the game’s selling points, the “Butterfly Effect” story mechanic, should inspire people to want to revisit this story to see all the possible outcomes.
The real thrill of a good mystery isn’t found in its solution, its in the journey it takes to find it. The possible answer we imagine in our head almost always exceed those that end up being the reality. And since Until Dawn reveals its answers so early the last half of the game feels tedious and we’re left with long sequences of running down corridors with mediocre quicktime gunplay and a shotgun that apparently never has to be reloaded.
I started writing this halfway through the game and I had to do a lot of heavy editing given how dramatically my feelings towards it shifted. The first half is solid A-minus experience but the last four hours were a C+ at best. That isn’t to say the game should’ve been shortened, at only 9 hours long that is certainly not the case. But there are definitely pacing problems here that keep Until Dawn from being everything it could’ve been. And at such a short length it’s hard to justify the $60 price. But for a new IP this is a solid start, and assuming there’s an Until Dawn 2 this could be the foundation for another great Playstation exclusive franchise.