The core goal of any horror video game is to do one thing – scare the living daylights out of those that play it. Though like its cinematic counterpart, if a horror game lacks any finesse or subtlety it’ll ultimately prove to be boring, predictable, and boring if it ultimately amounts to a series of cheap jump scares or ultra gore just for the sake of having it. Finding the balance between being entertaining, genuinely scaring, and shocking is a tough one to have in a video game with a horror basis when you consider that a game needs to last anywhere between six or more hours as opposed to a quick ninety minute movie.While the odds may have been stacked against it from the very moment we first saw it unveiled in 2012, the horror title that is Until Dawn from Sony and Supermassive Games not only helps the video game medium take an evolutionary step, but it provides one hell of a good horror experience.
Until Dawn takes certain tropes that are known both in the horror genre and video games in general and not only revels in adhering to them, but also shatters them during its enigmatic narrative. While not as subversive as Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In The Woods, Until Dawn isn’t a typical horror tale like those found in the teeny-bopper flicks of the early 2000s such as The House of Wax or Wrong Turn..
Following a series of friends as they reunite at a mountain cabin retreat a year after a horrible accident occurred, Until Dawn quickly gets the gears going at both character building, making the player care, or even not care, about certain characters, and getting the action and horror beats going when the time calls for it.
What’s most impressive about Until Dawn is the storytelling and how each of the eight characters immediately has a personality that evokes some form of feeling from the player, or at least it did during my play session. Thanks to some stellar acting from a diverse cast which includes Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville), Rami Malek (The Pacific, Mr. Robot), and Brett Dalton (Marvel’s Agents of Shield), each of the characters feels like an actual person and not a tired facsimile that we’ve already seen dozens of times already. Sure, there may be existing archetypes for characters such as the jock, the bitchy rich girl, the ex-boyfriend that’s a bit of an ass, or the slightly nerdy yet attractive girl, but Until Dawn doesn’t allow those characters to stay flat during the game. Ultimately both in part of the narrative decisions and those that the player can make, each of the characters in Until Dawn grow and go on an actual journey which makes the game that much more entertaining.
The story of Until Dawn itself could’ve been entirely predictable since it results in each character either being hunted or killed as they frantically try to figure out what’s going on, but it doesn’t boil down to simply being a matter of a jolted figure claiming vengeance as they appear to be nearly unstoppable. Sure, that’s what the game may want the player to think at first, and it even has some meta fun given how a father of one of the characters works in the film industry, but the game takes some rather daring twists which prove to be surprising, but ultimately make perfect sense. Without spoiling the story too much, all I can say is that the tale spun by Supermassive Games is genuinely one of the best I’ve experienced in recent memory since it doesn’t stay on a boring linear path and the mythology behind everything is rather surprising in how cool and well executed it is in the end, a thing which again is bolstered by the terrific acting of the cast.
What sets Until Dawn apart from other horror games, and games in general, is that it perfectly melds the much lauded cinematic nature with an actual gaming experience without feeling like a quasi non-interactive experience. Taking mechanics similar to what Quantic Dream has done in the past with titles such as Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls, Supermassive provides a very tailored gaming experience which of course is predetermined to a degree based on the scenarios that they’ve designed, yet it still allows a heavy degree of player freedom if they were to miss an actual action prompt, either by accident or on purpose merely to see how the scene plays out.
It’s interesting to look at the deeper design and execution of Until Dawn’s core mechanics since it’s a free-form 3rd person adventure game that doesn’t feel as static or rigid as other attempts have in the past. The feeling of exhilaration that’s to be had when a character is chasing from the supposed murderer that’s hunting everyone, or even another more deadly entity, is amazing since there’s a tense feeling of not wanting to screw up a sequence once a button prompt comes up or wanting not to move your hands a mere inch when a situation calls for the DualShock 4 controller’s lightbar to be held perfectly still.
Until Dawn proves to be so a fun experience since Supermassive keeps the scenarios varied between exploration segments, which still have an air of tension to them, and those in which characters are blasting a shotgun or literally running for their lives. It also helps that each section of the game provides ample time to each character, sometimes flipping back and forth between characters within a given chapter which again adds a feeling of “what the hell is going to happen next” as to whether a character may suddenly bite the dust once you’re in control of them.
And yes, any of the characters, with two minor exceptions, can die at any point in Until Dawn and the game will merely keep going on with no game over screens or the sudden need to quickly hit the quit button and load up an earlier checkpoint. This design mechanic, which is dubbed the Butterfly Effect, actually does provide an actual sense of consequence to the actions committed by the player since one minor thing, such as a dialog choice, may result in a character biting the dust since the relationship they have with another character wasn’t stable enough for a particular action, such as handing off a flare gun, to be done. It may seem like the epitome of a gimmick on the surface, but the Butterfly Effect is quite deep since it allows a sense of freedom to be done on the part of the player in things such as conversations, action scenarios, and other elements such as finding important story related clues, which do have a massive pay-off, within the environment.
The overall design of the Butterfly Mechanic really makes for a rewarding experience since you see the effects of your actions pay off during the course of the game, either in positive or negative ways such as someone suddenly dying since you opted to take a different path. All together the Butterfly Effect really keeps the momentum going in the game since there’s a constant feeling of importance during every action or decision as opposed to feeling like you’re just going through the motions until an action sequence pops up.
The things that ties everything together in Until Dawn is the overwhelming impressive visuals. Utilizing the same engine that Guerrilla Games made for Killzone: Shadow Fall, Supermassive Games has provided a very crisp and realistic looking game within Until Dawn that features some stunning performance capture thanks to the completely life-like recreations of actors such as Brett Dalton and Rami Malek. A complete deja vu moment may not occur within the game as was the case of seeing an actor’s face in L.A. Noire, which used a completely different facial capture technique, but the execution of the visuals, in particular how the characters look, is really tremendous since it captures the movie atmosphere that the game is striving for.
Besides the wonderful looking character models Until Dawn also does an excellent job at providing atmosphere and ambience within the various environments in the game such as the cabin, or creepy barn, or a desolate mining facility. With things such as mood lighting in the form of moonlight peeking through a window or candles flickering in the darkness, there’s an immediate sense of believability in the visuals of Until Dawn since everything looks and feels fully realized and not questionable in a video game sort of way. Technically the game also runs nice with no major performance dips or weird cases of frame or visual stuttering that would’ve otherwise detracted from the overall mood.
Until Dawn proves to be one of the most entertaining games to appear on the PlayStation 4 and ultimately one of the best horror games ever released. A perfect melding of modern technology with game design choices that make a true impact on the experience, Supermassive Games have provided a game that is wholly original in what it does, is fun to play, and offers a ton of replay value thanks to the Butterfly Effect mechanic. Featuring simply stunning production values, acting, music, and a story that isn’t as predictable as some may think, Until Dawn is as it stands the definitive horror video game this generation since it succeeds where others have failed and has now set the standard moving forward.