So there I am, making a break for a cabin in the middle of the snowy Mount Madahee woodlands, running for dear life. I’m not sure who’s chasing me or what they’ll do if they catch me – the only question going through my head is “Will I make it to the door?” I’m closing in on the steps and—oh shit, my pursuer is in front of me. I need to think quick to get out of this one alive and *eek* I’m dead. It’s not the result I was hoping for, but at the very least, I managed to create what I’m pretty sure is the first teen horror story where the black guy didn’t die first.
That’s what Until Dawn, a new adventure-thriller for PlayStation 4, is all about. It takes cue from the campy teenage slasher films that were all the rage in the late 90s and early 00s, with a story reminiscent of I Know What You Did Last Summer with a dash of Saw, but adds a Goosebumps-style ‘choose your own adventure’ twist into the mix. The course of the story rests solely on you, with a butterfly effect-inspired system ensuring your decisions and actions have ramifications on the events and ultimate fate of the cast.
In Until Dawn, you assume the roles of eight teenagers who gather for a winter weekend in a remote cabin on the anniversary of the deaths of their two friends a year earlier. After arriving, though, things begin to go awry as it becomes clear that the group isn’t alone on the mountain. The cast is composed of the clichés of the genre – there’s the jock, the nerd, the cheerleader-type, among others, played by the likes of Heroes actress Hayden Panettiere and Brett Dalton from Agents Of SHIELD – and who lives and dies is on you. If you want to see everyone make it out alive, you can do that, provided your fingers are fast enough to keep them safe.
The premise and cast aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but honestly, that’s part of the fun. It in many ways feels like a send up of the teen horror film, embracing the melodramatic silliness where screams are in surplus and everyone has a crush on everyone else. The visuals and audio are equally spot on, with strong graphics, animations, and voice acting that help sell the story, save for the occasional awkward mannerism or dialogue delivery that dips into uncanny valley.
The advantage Until Dawn has over more serious interactive dramas like Telltale’s The Walking Dead is that its frivolous plot encourages players to try out the humorous and audacious dialogue choices their moral compass might normally keep them away from. I mean, heck, when I was first introduced to Mike, the jock of the group, I was more than happy for him to bite the dust (I even figured I would see to it that he’d cark it). And despite the tropey writing, I actually found myself liking the characters. Even Mike… eventually.
The gameplay, however, doesn’t always come across so successfully. Around half the game sees you walking your characters throughout Mount Madahee, exploring and picking up clues that shed light on the story’s mysteries (the good bits), while the other half of the game plays out as cut-scenes with context sensitive controls (the not so strong bits). In these latter situations, the game and narrative elements sometimes feel at odds with each other – for example, when a tense chase scene gets interrupted so you can twist open a doorknob in-game by mimicking the motion with your thumb, the pace takes a hit. Likewise, the game feels like it screeches to a halt any time you pick up an object or turn on a lighter, and I swear, if I ever have to imitate the action of locking a door ever again, I’m going to freak.
These parts of the game feel completely unnecessary, and while I realise Until Dawn is a video game and there needs to be frequent player interaction, there are surely ways to make it feel more graceful. In fact, developer Supermassive Games came up with one context sensitive input that’s actually genius – requiring you to stay dead still while hiding, using the controller’s motion capabilities to gauge your movements. These moments of hiding were truly tense – I would find myself holding my breath with my heart practically pounding out of my chest while I desperately tried to remain as motionless as possible to avoid being spotted. These sequences were definite highlights and created immersion in a way impossible for film. It’s just a shame the game doesn’t have more examples of this genius.
The game goes for about nine hours on a first run, and impressively, doesn’t feel like a drawn out version of a film-length story thanks to its plot that turns out to be far more fleshed out and fascinating than the simple premise might have you believe. You’re then given the option to go back and replay scenes to change the course of the story, which has countless variations, and hunt down any backstory-illuminating collectibles you may have missed (there will be plenty), adding quite a lot of playtime if you’re dedicated to exploring the full narrative.
While Until Dawn doesn’t always excel at being a game, it’s not really the kind you buy for being game-y. It’s the kind you pick up because you’re up for an engrossing and well executed teen slasher story.
First published on Pagesdigital. Image via Sony Interactive Entertainment.