Until Dawn is not a game I expected to buy (or rent, although in this instance I did actually buy it, something I almost never do), because for most of its development cycle, I just wasn't interested in it. I was aware of it - a slasher flick esque survival horror game where you take control of each of the potential murderees in turn as they attempt to escape the killer who's stalking them - but it didn't rouse much interest in me. I've played my share of horror games, after all, and I'd played enough of them to know that the glory days of horror video gaming had well and truly passed, at least in the triple-A market.
It didn't catch my interest until it was just about to be released, and Jim Sterling on Youtube played fifteen minutes of it, covering a scene where one of the characters pursued the killer through the woods. Not too long after I saw that video, I got a Playstation 4 (not because of that video, I'd been saving up for one for about two thirds of a year), and Until Dawn was one of the two games I got for it.
Set at a ski lodge on Mount Washington, a massive and imposing private mountain in the Rockies, the game follows eight teenagers as they reunite for a weekend of laughter and fun and emotional healing, one year after a trip up the mountain ended in tragedy when a cruel game went horribly wrong. It isn't long, however, until the eight start being killed off, and they start catching glimpses of a mysterious masked killer who seems intent on forcing them into life-and-death games. Meanwhile, an unseen figure converses with Doctor Hill, an unhinged psychiatrist who seems to be supporting the killer's sinister designs.
Until Dawn isn't really a horror game, at least not in the sense that we generally use that term when talking about games like Silent Hill and Deadly Premonition, so much as it is an interactive storytelling game - akin to the fare put out by Telltale Games or Quantic Dreams - that follows a horror story. Most of the gameplay revolves around making choices and dealing with the consequences of those choices, and performing quicktime events in hectic and often frantic chase and fight sequences.
(How forgiving those quicktime events are depends a lot on which one it is. Some will cause the character you're playing as to die instantly, whereas there was one which I failed five or six times in quick succession without consequence.)
It's arguably the first interactive storytelling game I've seen, though, that's actually properly interactive, though. Make a choice in a Telltale Games game and the story will eventually railroad you back onto a linear path - make a choice in Until Dawn and it will have lasting ramifications for the rest of the story. In an early part of the game, I failed a quicktime event, causing a character to fail to save another character, causing her to be the first death in the game - but had she survived, she would have been the playable character for a whole gameplay section of her own later, and later still been a complicating factor in another character's story, compelling them to either look after her or abandon her.
That's good interactive storytelling. That's making me feel like my choices (and errors) have genuine meaning, something which offerings from other developers have never really managed to do.
|I give them a month before they break up, assuming they both survive.|
Arguably as a result of that, the game is quite short - my playthrough came in at almost exactly six hours. But it doesn't need to be longer - it was quite nice to be able to play through the entire thing in one sitting, and the slasher film genre doesn't cope well with length. As the Scream television series put in one of its many self-congratulatory rambles: 'Slasher films burn bright and fast. By the time the first body has been found, it's only a matter of time before the bloodbath commences.' Until Dawn is the perfect length for what it is, and it arguably couldn't be any longer without outstaying its welcome.
For those who want to extend their experience, though, the game offers a large amount of collectibles to find! Not useless collectibles, either - totems will give glimpses of possible futures for the characters, and clues will expand on what happened on the mountain in the past, and both will unlock more information on the mountain as time goes on. I didn't try to get all of them, but it's worth doing so.
The story of Until Dawn is a very well-written one, as well. It starts off as a pure slasher flick, gleefully using the tropes and cliches of that genre in a way that will be an absolute treat for anyone who enjoys slasher films, and in the last three chapters or so starts to play with genre in interesting ways, seamlessly switching mode into different genres of horror.
|Oh, hey, Ward from Agents of Shield.|
All the characters, bar possibly one or two, are engaging, interesting, and layered, and they reveal different facets of their personality over the course of the story. Everyone's well voice-acted (with the grand prizes going to Rami Malek and Peter Stomaire), and the faces are - okay, similar technology to LA Noire is used in this game to create very close representations of what the actors look like, and as in LA Noire, they were apparently animated by someone who thinks that faces are constantly twitching and twisting without ever relaxing. When the facial animations are good, the talent of the actors involved shines through. When they're bad, they're ... pretty bad.
It's a game you'll want to not spoil yourself for - at least not too much - before you play it, because a lot of the fun comes from theorising about what's going on and what's going to happen. If possible, play it with friends, too.
All in all, one of the stand-out games of the year, and when the next Fission Mailure Awards roll around it will definitely be in the running for a best game medal.