On Until Dawn

Alasdair Stuart

Until Dawn is one of those things that just shouldn’t work. Originally developed for the PS Move, the motion control pads designed to mimic the Wiimote, the game began development in 2012.

It was finally released in 2015.

When it did come out, the game had been re-written extensively. Instead of a motion controlled horror survival game where the player’s movements controlled the movement of the torch on the screen it became something far odder and much more interesting. Until Dawn is one part movie you play, one part interactive fiction. It’s also far better than anyone thought.

The premise is surprisingly complex; Set in 2015, the game follows a group of friends. Mike (Brett Dalton), Sam (Hayden Panettiere), Chris (Noah Fleiss), Ashley (Galadriel Stineman), Jessica ("Jess") (Meaghan Martin), Matt (Jordan Fisher) and Emily (Nichole Bloom) as they take their annual Winter getaway at a lodge owned by Josh Washington (Rami Malek) and his twin sisters, Hannah and Beth (Ella Lentini). The lodge is near Blackwood Mountain in Alberta and is the site of the exact sort of drinking, partying and petty rivalries that all the best first acts of slasher movies are made from.

Except, in this instance, that’s not the case. Or at least not just the case.

One year ago, Josh’s two sisters disappeared at the getaway. While everyone is heartbroken, to varying degress, Josh insists on them honouring their memories the next year. So, off everyone treks up the mountain. But before too long it becomes clear that what happened last year was just the start…

So far, so familiar, I know, but Until Dawn does three really clever things with this material. The first is that you constantly shift control of characters. As things go bad and the group, being the characters in a horror movie, split up, you shift between them. In this way you both get a far bigger picture and find the peril focused in a new way. It’s not that these people don’t know what’s coming, it’s that circumstances are conspiring to keep them apart. Your job becomes not just survival but getting them back together so they can compare notes. Even better, it is very possible to die while playing a character.

In fact, that’s sort of the point. Until Dawn’s best ending sees everyone rescued. Its worst sees no one make it out. When I played it I was two down until the last POSSIBLE second and lost a third. Your actions matter, they have consequences that will absolutely end these people’s lives and often in very horrible ways. Much like the excellent 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, no one dies easily in this game and you’ll feel every single horrible moment with wince inducing clarity. That’s particularly true of a pair of pivotal moments at the halfway mark. I’m fairly strong stomached for this sort of thing but there was one moment so nasty that I’m actually clenching up even now.

The thing is, in the wrong hands these occasional and enthusiastically executed moments of hideousness would be cheap. But Until Dawn is never cheap and it’s never, ever, as simple as it looks.

The game uses its own version of the “Butterfly Effect” to drive the plot. Early on you have the chance to look at another character’s cellphone; do it, and you’ll get useful info but he’ll find you reading it and get mad. Don’t do it and you’ll be on better terms for the rest of the game. There’s a ton of choices like that, some so finely balanced you can barely see them, that create a massively branching narrative inside what still feels like a claustrophobic game. It’s brilliantly realized and gives the game a surprising amount of replay potential. I know for a fact I lost one character because of a single choice.

When I play it again? I’m going a different route.

This constant building of threat and consequence is mirrored in the game’s gear changes. Without giving anything away, what’s going on is not the only bad thing on the mountain. The game beautifully sidesteps the usual escalation problems of slasher movies while still keeping true to its roots. It also, constantly, surprises you.

Especially with the frequent guest appearances by your mysterious therapist. Played by everyone’s favourite go-to villain Mr. Peter Stormare, the game is punctuated by “your” visits with him. You never see which character you’re playing in these scenes, and the game plays very subtle games of three card monte with you about how real they are. The payoff to those is intimately tied to the payoff of the main plot but also echoes up and down the rest of the game. Pay close attention to the choices you’re being asked to make. You may find them familiar…

All of this combines to make Until Dawn both very clever and very good. In fact it serves as a neat counterpoint to what, to my mind, is the best US horror movie of the last two decades; Cabin in the Woods. Whereas that movie is a gleefully meta, angry tearing apart of the genre at its worst, Until Dawn is a subtle subversion of the genre at its best. Its haunting and untidy, like life. It makes you hate certain characters for surviving and others for not. It shows you the story under the story and its filled with some truly great performances from several genre alums. Rami Malek, Hayden Panettiere and Brett Dalton especially are fantastic. Not bad for a game that looked like it was set to die on the vine.

Or at the least disappear mysteriously next to the vine until a year later…

Until Dawn is available for PS/4 at Amazon and other retailers.

Alasdair Stuart owns Escape Artists, who produce the podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod and Podcastle as well as the magazine Mothership Zeta. Cast of Wonders, the parsec-award winning YA podcast will be joining them next year. He’s also a journalist and RPG writer. He blogs at alasdairstuart.com and tweets at @AlasdairStuart.

table of contents    prior page   next page