As a fan of the horror genre, Until Dawn caught my eye months before it was actually released. One thing most horror games have in common though is the fact that they aren’t actually scary – I speak from a PC gamer perspective, where you can find plenty of shooters and survival horrors that are based on jump scares and methodically dealing with your opponents. The last – and also the first – horror game that really scared me – and also hooked me on the genre – was Silent Hill 2, which is still my go-to title about “how scary games should be done”, and I played that in 2005.
Since then I tried almost every major title that came out, never finding one that actually made me worry for the sake of my character. When I first read about Until Dawn, the key piece of information that caught my eye was the developer, Supermassive Games, the studio that just a few months back had released The Order: 1886, a huge let down in terms of linear gameplay and no consequences or options for the player to affect the outcome of the story, but an unmatched visual quality. The Order and Until Dawn had this in common, they both looked great, so I decided to go through and buy the game.
After just a few minutes in I was already immersed and really enjoying the experience. To some extent, it felt a little like Heavy Rain, with all the choices, but less like Heavy Rain in the sense that you don’t have to execute EVERY SINGLE action the character is doing. There are a lot of cutscenes, but the lighting, camera placement and performances work so well together that you just lay back and watch, but never fully relaxed since at any point a fast timed decision might jump at you. About the characters, there’s little left to imagination and filling in gaps for low-poly geometry. The characters were modeled based on the likeness of the actors that play them – plus a ton of motion capture – which works like watching a very stylized mix of live action and animation movie.
I know I keep saying “movie” and “watching” while at the same time I bashed The Order for lack of interactivity so let’s make this part clear. Until Dawn is filled with choices. Path choices, conversations, hard decisions and “hold your breath and don’t move a muscle” moments, which affect directly the outcome of the game in the long run and, most of the times, also what is just about to happen. There are jump scares, of course, but more than that, this game kept me on the edge of my seat even when I knew nothing would happen right away.
The plot revolves around eight friends that end up trapped in a huge mansion at the top of a mountain during a snow storm. They were there the year before and that developed into tragic events – it’s the playable prologue of the game, to set the mood and introduce the characters. You get to control them all individually as the night progresses, sometimes in simultaneous events since they scatter around the mountain in different tasks or end up separated by unexpected events. The beginning feels strongly like a teen slasher movie of the cheapest kind but fully self-aware of that, which is what makes it great and fun, since you kind of know the stereotypes, how they should behave and what will happen soon enough, so the game reels you in with this little sense of security about the genre just to hit you back with something else when less expect. I stopped playing a few times just because I was too afraid I would kill the characters by making stupid choices. That had never happened before in a game for me.
You know when you’re watching a slasher flick and people make THE STUPIDEST decisions? Well, playing this game, I made several stupid decisions on my own, and I started to empathize with the characters and understand those moments. Sure, you want them to survive, but at the same time, I tried doing everything I could to make them help each other and that didn’t turn out so great many many times. When I got to the final scene, I could try to save some more people, but I was so worried that I would get everyone killed in the process that I ended up just blasting ahead and saving less characters the first chance I got.
Until Dawn made me realize that even though I knew what I was doing was stupid ahead of time I still didn’t change my plan and opted for a safer route. At some point I was chasing a kidnapper that took one of my characters in the woods and I had several choices of safer paths, but I kept going for the fastest/riskier ones because I NEEDED to try as hard as I could to catch up with that monster and rescue my girlfriend, even though the chances of getting hurt in the process increased dramatically. Another thing that amazed me was that you got choices and, once in a while, it’s best to not do anything and let them time out, because that is also a choice. This ended up getting me an ally at a critical point and it really made me feel a little safer while exploring some haunted ruins.
The game has clearly two main parts that blend well together and it doesn’t feel like “part one is over, now let’s move on to this other totally unrelated plot”. Part two sets roots during the first part, and it definitely does kick up a notch in terms of scary and worrisome bits. Being unable to load from previous saves also puts a lot more stress in how much you’re messing up those characters, since one bad decision can cripple you for something that will jump at you later on, and, wow, that happened a few times and I literally screamed at the game because I understood those were consequences of my own actions. I was also surprised by some unexpected events along the game, and that is not something that usually happens, since most horror movies are quite predictable, so lots of points for that!
By the time I got to the end and the credits started rolling, the first thought that came to mind was “I really gotta play this over again and change some of my decisions to see if I can make it through keeping everyone alive”. For some cases I know exactly when I messed up and got someone killed. Other parts aren’t as clear and I’m not sure how the larger numbers will affect the later events in the story, so I might be saving someone from death at that point in order to get them dead just a little later. The main point is: you definitely feel like you can change the outcome of the story and some of the middle too. You can imagine what would’ve happened if you took a different path.
All in all, Until Dawn was one of the best horror games I ever played AND one of the most exciting horror films I’ve watched in a while. Achieving these two points is not usual and it definitely gives it a “must play” status. It was funny how, after it was released, the internet was going crazy about the game, calling it a sleeper hit and people demanding it to be a franchise. I would surely play whatever comes afterward, specially if they make it an anthology thing, with different characters and stories.