Until Dawn

October 25, 2018 ~ by Jacob LeBlanc
Last Updated: Dec 14, 2018

Isolated cabin? Check.

Sexually insatiable teens? Check.

Implacable killer, returning to claim victims on the anniversary of a past tragedy? Check.

Fans of slasher films have long become familiar with the tropes of this subset of horror. Less a genre than a formula of fan service, since its invention, the slasher story has mostly been confined to its original motifs. For many, these recurring set pieces are what keeps them coming back. And while slasher horror has never made a successful transition to the medium of video games, Supermassive’s 2015 Until Dawn seems, at first glance, to remedy this. Games like Condemned: Criminal Origins and Manhunt have already allowed us to delve into our Se7en-esque serial killer nightmares. The new DOOM fulfills all of the demon-killing fantasies one could have. Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, and The Last of Us have long proven games to be the superior medium for undead apocalypse stories. Could it be that Supermassive has finally created the interactive evolution of slasher films?

Yes and no.

Until Dawn’s story certainly begins by adhering fairly closely to classic slasher tropes. Eight uncannily attractive co-eds take an isolated vacation to a closed lodge owned by one of their parents, acknowledging the anniversary of their friend’s disappearance but mostly driven by youthful prurience. The jokes are crude, the dialogue is shallow, and an overwhelming amount of foreshadowing is ignored. Don’t assume ignorance of Supermassive’s writers, however; while the deliberate cheese can be a bit excessive, it mostly feels deliberate. This is an acknowledgement of its narrative ancestors, but not a strict adherence to them. The story takes place entirely in one night, and while it’s never terribly complex, a number of genre-bending twists and turns do break expectations. When things start to go wrong for the crew, players will spend a surprising amount of time doing detective work, mostly unhelped by an abundance of dull and regrettably cliche clues that can be picked up and read. Also decidedly non-slasher-esque is the amount of character development. While all begin as stereotypical vessels of flirtation, the unique personalities of each of the characters flesh out nicely as the story advances. The quality of the writing varies wildly, but it does avoid boxing any particularly figure into a one-dimensional trope. In perfect tradition, there will be ones you’ll cheer for, and ones you won’t.

In a style similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, much of the gameplay for Until Dawn consists of making decisions on each character’s behalf. Most of their actions are dictated through situational choices that, although primarily limited to two options, aren’t always black and white in their intentions or their results. The event tree is impressively thorough, and although the results of your actions aren’t always obvious, a huge proportion of them have some sort of lasting impact. Some direction is given in the form of totems that give a brief glimpse of the future, though they’re often too vague to be helpful. In general, Until Dawn does a good job of keeping players torn over whether or not they’ve made the right decision.

Unfortunately, many actions that aren't direct conversational responses are carried out through quicktime events that never feel natural. Even worse is that a significant number of these events, unlike the conversational choices, are totally inconsequential. In one scene in which a character runs for her life, her survival is seemingly dependant on a series of rapid button prompts. Curiously, we ignored every prompt, only to discover that failing them had no impact on her fate, never warranting even one of the ubiquitous “butterfly effect” notifications that indicate an impactful decision. After similarly testing a few different scenes in the game, it’s hard to shake the feeling that some of the quicktime events are a shallower involvement than players are led to believe. These cheap interactions are sometimes more frustrating than they are engaging, and too often serve as a disappointing reminder that this game will only deviate so far from what its creators intended. A small exception are the “Don’t Move!” events, which make use of the PS4’s SIXAXIS motion controls. Having to sit perfectly still to avoid the notice of a foe is terrifying, and does a fantastic job of plunging the player deeper into Until Dawn’s frozen, desperate world.

From the sinister stillness of the forgotten lodge to the howling, frozen wilderness, the design and rendering of Until Dawn’s world is engaging. There is a varied assortment of buildings, woods, caves, and other environments for the player to explore, all immaculately detailed and appropriately creepy. The size and complexity of the lodge itself puts a unique spin on the classic setting, adding to the isolation and allowing for more varied and interesting interactions between the protagonists and their foes. Areas are properly still and dim, creating a haunted vibe without ever seeming overworked or outwardly halloween-themed. They also vary greatly in size and shape: some will induce a cramped claustrophobia, while others evoke a looming sense of vulnerability. Character models are well designed, and for the most part, the voice acting is strong; both crucial victories for a game that relies so heavily on conversation. The rest of the sound design generally takes a back seat to the visuals and certainly isn’t as innovative as in Left 4 Dead or Dead Space. The sudden violin strikes and carefully placed silence are nice touches among the mostly flat soundscapes.

As a single-player experience, then, Until Dawn is no triumph. It’s a flawed one that will still be worthwhile for most horror fans, with plenty of scares and enough content to warrant multiple playthroughs. However, it absolutely shines in one, possibly accidental way: just like the slasher films it was born from, it is an outstanding local multiplayer experience. Any team of friends who would normally crunch popcorn to John Carpenter flicks will love guiding the outcome of their own interactive horror movie. With Until Dawn, they can share the fear of characters they love, seal the fate of those they don’t, and have a uniquely satisfying horror escapade.


As an emulation of slasher films, Until Dawn is a success, picking up the strengths and weaknesses of the genre equally.