Until Dawn is a 2015 Teen Horror Interactive Drama Game that Puts the Power in Your Hands
Supermassive Games’ entry into the interactive drama field, Until Dawn, made quite a splash. The game took the benefits of interactive drama and applied these to the horror genre.
We know that games like these, done well, can be a huge success a la Heavy Rain. Until Dawn is definitely more of a spiritual successor to Quantic Dream’s murder mystery than Beyond: Two Souls but it lacks the staying power.
People who know me know that I’m obsessed with both of these things: interactive drama and horror. So, in theory, Until Dawn should be right up my alley. It just lacks the charm to allow it to fully explore the replay value a title like this should have.
At its core, Until Dawn has three points of interest. These provide a useful framework to look at the game’s success. We can define Until Dawn by its horror elements, its story-telling, and its butterfly effect.
Until Dawn As a Horror Game
One peek at the box art of Until Dawn will showcase the Final Destination-esque, teen horror movie story that awaits you within. True to form, we are met with a group of sexually-charged young people and all the high school drama that entails. The story quickly becomes about a psychopath who stalks the protagonists. Without wanting to give away too much, it then develops into something akin to Saw before losing the plot entirely.
Any good horror game can be measured in one question: Is it scary? For Until Dawn, the answer is a “Not really.” It has its moments; but they’re mostly when things are jumping out at us. I was hard pressed to find a time throughout the story that had me on edge.
The camera work foreshadows much of the action so players will always know in the back of their mind when something is about to pounce. Interactive drama as a genre lends itself to thriller and horror style games because of the nature investment in the characters and their development.
Lacking the ability to elicit dread is bad enough but to telegraph (and therefore spoil) your jump scares as well is unforgivable.
Until Dawn‘s idea of how to separate its key players is clumsy. It tries to isolate them to build the tension but needs to tie at least two together for romantic development. These two elements are at odds with each other for the majority of the game. It never really finds an elegant solution; and the player often feels like there is a safety net as a result.
Being an interactive drama game, the story is a key focus of Until Dawn. There are several ways that the game highlights its narrative. Firstly, clues are scattered around the various chapters to allow the player to piece together the events of the world outside of the snippet we are presented. They can become repetitive but it’s a nice touch to deepen the narrative and help players make sense of the more ridiculous plot developments.
Secondly, Supermassive Games has done a good job making sure that each character has their own branch in the story. Given any of them can die at mostly any point, it’s important for there to be meat to the narrative should someone check out early. Consequently, players can cultivate some relationships and stories at the sake of others and aren’t punished for doing so.
Unlike Heavy Rain, for example, losing a character it’s necessarily a bad thing. There is a richness to the story of Until Dawn which allows it to be non-linear in places and give a real freedom to the player. There are, however, times when it is painfully linear but these are necessary to keep the story moving forward.
There is a hodgepodge of horror elements designed to generate fear. Until Dawn goes from a game of cat-and-mouse to a Saw-esque B-movie before becoming a zombie apocalypse. This is a theme with more recent horror titles that appear to be adhering to a recipe for scares. Something that takes away from the big reveal towards the end of the game.
Most of the people I’ve shown this game to have met the reveal with confusion or disinterest. Contrary to Heavy Rain’s reveal which is met with shock.
The Butterfly Effect
This was a major selling point for the game and one it does not let you forget. The butterfly imagery is a little bit forced. Principally, it means that seemingly inconsequential events can have a powerful effect on what comes after.
Until Dawn uses this as a vehicle to give meaning to the player’s decisions. Because the game consistently reminds you of the importance of your decision-making, it forces players to either be genuine – thereby creating their own story – or consider each choice more carefully and craft a story of his or her liking. Purely from a each playthrough is unique perspective, this is a monumental triumph and an excellent take on a horror story.
Much of the magic disappears, though, on subsequent plays. To illustrate the Butterfly Effect, Until Dawn provides players with a reference guide of the different decisions you make to affect the story and their consequences in the “Butterfly Moments.” While this allows you to modify your outcome with surgical precision, it robs the game of its mystery unnecessarily quickly.
Butterfly Moments fall into one of two categories: blatantly obvious or only loosely connected. Very rarely is there a middle ground. For instance, one moment is “So-and-so hit a moose, now the moose are angry.” Hardly reflects the mysticism of the Butterfly Effect. Another is “Such-and-such agreed with someone and immediately fires his gun into the air.”
Until Dawn features sessions with a Psychologist between chapters. While not as meaningful as that found in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, it’s a fun little addition. As he probes your psyche, the discoveries that he makes impact the game.
This is a nice touch but the choices aren’t that meaningful – purely aesthetic. For instance, telling him you hate cockroaches can make cockroaches appear more frequently throughout the game. Simply generating more revulsion from the player.
Until Dawn isn’t perfect. As I explained earlier, the first play is a gripping experience. I could nary put the game down during my first experience. It doesn’t take nearly as long to get going as Heavy Rain so there’s no real inertia preventing newer players getting involved.
I would still personally showcase Heavy Rain over Until Dawn for the quality of the narrative. But Until Dawn is an amazing entry into the genre and blows Beyond: Two Souls out of the water.
I suppose the reason that I found Until Dawn a little tiresome is that I love being able to read about a game and learn the small appreciable details. Part of the charm of Five Nights at Freddy’s is the amount of depth beneath the surface. Exploring Until Dawn really didn’t really provide anything that I hadn’t already seen by playing it.
Perhaps for those with less than thick skin, Until Dawn will be a rewarding horror experience but for anyone with any experience in the horror genre, it’s just telling a good story.