Released: August 28, 2015
I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of this game until it was released and as a result I wasn’t really expecting much. Developed by Supermassive Games, Until Dawn follows a group of 10 friends on their annual winter getaway in a mountain lodge, which is owned by the family of 3 members of the group. After a prank goes awry, tragedy befalls and leads to the deaths of twin sisters, Hannah and Beth Washington. A year on from the incident, the bodies of the girls have not been found and are being treated as missing persons. Josh Washington, their older brother, invites the remaining 7 friends back to Blackwood Pines and after establishing the new group dynamics, their reunion soon becomes sinister.
I have to admit, after seeing the premise of the game I wasn’t entirely impressed. It seemed like a very cliché, teen slasher movie and I didn’t know if I liked the idea of it at first. The characters seemed very generic, from the popular guy to the bitchy girl, and the isolated setting was also very ordinary in terms of the genre. However, it was when the first sequence with Dr. Hill (portrayed by Peter Stormare) came about that I started having a new outlook on the game. The doctor begins to ask you questions concerning your anxiety and talks about how your answers will affect your game. While this was the part that I found most interesting, it is not an entirely new concept. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009) incorporated a similar gameplay aspect, with Dr. Kauffman giving the player a psychological test, allowing the game to mould itself around the answers the player provides. I think the fact that Dr. Hill was played by Peter Stormare also had a part to play in my excitement, as my immediate response to seeing him was “It’s Abruzzi from Prison Break!”.
Dr. Hill uses a familiar tone when speaking, making it seem as if he is addressing the player and, in a way, breaking the fourth wall. He looks directly into the ‘camera’ and appears as though he is making eye contact with the player during his dialogue. All of this combined had me convinced that Dr. Hill was simply a way for the game to adapt according to the player’s answers without having to use a physical quiz or going through several menu screens to change the game. That was until after Dr. Hill makes you pick up and examine a photo. The hand that reaches out for the photo is visible and wearing a glove, and this made me question who I was actually playing as in these therapy sessions. After a while I stopped guessing and assumed that the reason the hand was there was to make the game seem more interactive and the glove was to make the gender ambiguous so as not to make assumptions about the sex of the player. But as the game progressed, there was something in the back of my mind telling me that the therapy sessions were more important than I initially gave them credit for.
The emphasis on the butterfly effect from the outset of the game was somewhat repetitive but it put an interesting spin on the game. Decisions made felt like they bared much more weight than in other games and actually made a difference. The choices the player makes ultimately decides which characters live and die. There is a way to save every character (bar the twins as, unfortunately, their fate is sealed) but there is also an ending that involves no survivors. There are clues scattered throughout the game, hinting at the mystery of Hannah and Beth’s demise, and also other aspects of the game such as the events that took place 50 years or so prior to the start of the game. Depending on the clues found by the player, it determines the type of ending you receive or how certain characters interact with one another. I thoroughly enjoyed the inclusion of these things as it feel as if there were endless possibilities and what you as the player were doing had a real effect on the game. I watched a few gameplay videos on YouTube and I saw some sequences play out that I hadn’t originally seen because different decisions were made, and that made me really appreciate the level of intricacy that went into this game. This gives the game a huge replayability value as you could progress through the game as dissimilarly to your original play through as you wanted to see what else can potentially happen. Although the phrase “butterfly effect” is thrown at you from every direction, you can understand why it is done as there are so many different paths to take.
Aesthetically, the game is magnificent. The graphics are crisp and the environments seem almost alive. The characters themselves are animated amazingly well, but that is to be expected after seeing the set up the developers used for the actors. No movement in their body or facial expressions went unnoticed and this brought personality to both the game and the characters. While it revolves around the cliché idea of a group of teenagers stranded in a hostile environment, it is not an entirely negative thing. The jump scares were somewhat predictable as a result, but that didn’t mean that the tense atmosphere didn’t deliver in giving some impressive scares. I liked the inclusion of the ‘don’t move’ segments, involving the player holding their controller as still as possible so as not to alert anything that is a threat to their safety. Until Dawn was brilliant in delivering a tense atmosphere, giving a real weight to the player’s actions. It was moments like these that made me realise that the interactive nature of video games, especially in horror, is better than films. During a horror film, you simply watch as a bystander, whereas games throw you into the terror whether you like it or not.
A spoiler warning for the plot line from here onwards. Now, one aspect of the game that I wasn’t sure if I liked or not was the Wendigos. In Algonquian folklore, a Wendigo is a creature that is created from a human subjecting themselves to cannibalism. The concept was cool and all, but I quite liked the idea of the supernatural not playing a part in the story of the game. After it is revealed that Josh Washington is actually the Psycho who was terrorising his friends in an intricate and sick prank, I was quite satisfied to know that my suspicions of Josh were correct. However, I knew that there had to be more of the game once Josh exposed his secret, only I wasn’t expecting it to be the Wendigos. A friend of mine and I were theorising three different killers: the Pyscho (Josh), the pyromaniac and the one who I dubbed as Predator because of their apparent infrared vision. Little did I know that the pyromaniac was actually a good guy and Predator turned out to be the Wendigos. While writing this all down now, I can see that it seems quite convoluted. It was an interesting concept, and while the gameplay during the scenes with the Wendigos are enjoyable and very tense, it felt almost forced. I think the supernatural in horror movies and games is an easy way to explain the weird and wonderful events in a story line, but I felt that with the production level and intricacy of Until Dawn, they could have delved into something more exciting than an overused trope. Despite this, the Wendigos were a terrifying addition to the game. Their gaunt bodies coupled with their misty eyes served as a truly horrific sight to witness, even more so when they were chasing you.
I keep coming back to praising the game for giving the player the chance to make decisions, which change the game in many ways. This is mainly because it is nice to feel like you have control of the story. As such, it immerses the player in more ways than one, making it even harder to witness a character dying due to a mistake that could easily have been avoided. Making snap decisions can either help or hinder the characters, and more often times than not, they end up needlessly dying. For the majority of the game, I really could not have cared much for Emily or Jessica as they were both bitchy and petty in nature, though by the end of it I began to feel sorry for Jessica as she goes through quite the journey. Emily didn’t really learn anything, which made her seem either too stubborn or a simplified character. Ashley was more of a background character to me, she didn’t seem to do much in comparison to the others. The strongest characters were definitely Sam and Mike. I thoroughly enjoyed the first segment in the sanitarium with Mike as it was a beautifully constructed level and delivered very creepy vibes. I also appreciated Mike’s comments during gameplay as it would often be my own thoughts voiced aloud by him, which was amusing for the most part. Sam was brilliantly fleshed out and it was refreshing to have an independent and strong female character, who ultimately saves the group (depending on how many are left) at the end of the game.
Overall, this game exceeded my expectations. I didn’t anticipate to enjoy it nearly as much as I did and I ended up invested in the characters and the storyline. It has its flaws, as every game does, but it did extremely well in delivering a fun and engaging experience. I think the characters needed a little more to their personalities but what we got was sufficient enough to drive the story forward. The Wendigos, while scary, seemed a little too far fetched but I suppose that’s the horror genre in a nutshell. The game is well paced and immersive and can be replayed as many times as you want, depending on what ending you’re aiming for. There are plenty of collectible items for the completionist side of our brains and an abundance of story to sink your teeth into. Definitely worth playing, even if it delves somewhat too much into cliché.