Until Dawn

July 02, 2016 ~ by Jacob LeBlanc

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 subset of horror’s unique consistency. Less a genre than a formula of fan service for veterans of the genre, since its invention the slasher story has somehow always been confined to its original motifs. While the genre has never made a successful transition to the world of videogames, those first delving into Supermassive’s Until Dawn may believe that such a transformation has finally occurred. 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. So could it be that Supermassive has finally brought us the interactive evolution of slasher films?

Yes and no. Until Dawn’s story certainly begins 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 the genre, but not a strict adherence to it. The story takes place entirely in one night, and while it’s never terribly complex, a number of genre-bending twists and turns break slasher expectations. Until Dawn still squarely lies in the realm of rehashed horror motifs, but the narrative turns at least keep things interesting. Players will spend more time figuring out what’s going on than with most slasher stories, 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 surprising amount of character development. While the characters all begin as stereotypical vessels of flirtation, the unique personality of each fleshes out nicely through the story’s many twists and turns. The quality of the writing varies wildly, but it does avoid boxing any particularly character into a one-dimensional trope. In perfect slasher tradition, there will be ones you’ll cheer for, and ones that you don’t.

In a style similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead, much of the gameplay 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 in 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, and 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, or through clunky fixed-camera walking segments that would be perfectly at home in an old Resident Evil game. Even worse is that a significant number of these events are totally inconsequential: while curiously trying to bring about the demise of a character we loathed, we discovered that missing every one of a series of button presses as she ran for her life had no impact on her fate, never warranting even one of the ubiquitous “butterfly effect” notifications that follow impactful decisions. After similarly testing a few different scenes in the game, we couldn’t shake the feeling that some of the the quicktime events were a shallower involvement than we were expected to believe. These cheap interactions are sometimes more frustrating than they are engaging, and too often serve as a disappointingly obvious 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 controls. Having to sit perfectly still to avoid the notice of a foe is terrifying, and does a fantastic job of plunging the player into Until Dawn’s frozen, desperate world.

And what a world it is. From the sinister stillness of the forgotten lodge to the howling, frozen wilderness, the design and rendering of Until Dawn’s world is excellent. There is a great assortment of buildings, woods, caves, and other environments for the player to explore, are all immaculately detailed and appropriately creepy. The size and complexity of the lodge itself puts a unique spin on the a 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 an isolated and haunted vibe without ever seeming overworked or outwardly halloween-themed, and 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 the voice acting is mostly quite good - 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 innovatively integrated as in Left 4 Dead or Dead Space, but its sudden violin strikes and carefully placed silence add an expected cinematic feel.

As a single-player experience, then, Until Dawn is no triumph. It’s a greatly flawed, yet worthwhile experience 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.

TL;DR

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

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