I feel like Until Dawn is bound to be polarizing for all the wrong reasons. I’ve seen praise sung upon it due to the quality of the acting and how intense the game is. I’ve also seen it criticized for having horrible acting and lacking choices that matter. The condemnations have a tendency to miss the point while the praise is as shallow as the vocabulary of those that would call themselves “professional” reviewers.
If you want to understand Until Dawn, you have to understand that it is a love letter to horror. Not a love letter to a certain subgenre, or even a loving deconstruction. This is no Cabin in the Woods, condemning how stale the genre can be while simultaneously playing to those very tropes with an intimate familiarity.
YouTube personality Razorfist recently critiqued the game, pointing out how the game “rips off” the film I Know What You Did Last Summer. What he misses is that Until Dawn’s story moves through a greater variety of phases than just Revenge Horror. It has the torture porn, the stalking serial killer, the haunted house, and even the midnight creature feature.
Note that I did not specify that Until Dawn is a collection of horror film homages. This is because you’ll also find plenty of inspiration drawn from the old PlayStation era of 90’s horror video games as well. Cinematic camera angles are used to limit the player’s field of vision, or to highlight key objects or shadows in the scenery. Sometimes these highlights are traps, sometimes tricks, and other times hints.
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is also a strong source of influence, though taken a bit of a different direction. If I had any disappointment with Until Dawn, it is that they took some of the elements that made Shattered Memories so great and applied a shallow, surface level coat of paint onto their title. The game asks questions of the player and tries to influence the proceeding chapter based on responses, all while trying to question the player as to why they are enjoying the twisted proceedings. It works as an effective descent into insanity, but the payoff is weak. They’re one step shy of providing meaning to the descent, at least deeper than narrative insight. What is supposed to be a neat little “twist”.
It invokes questions of the player, questions similar to those asked by games such as Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock Infinite, only applicable to the horror genre as a whole. Yet it feels as if the developer pulls back, laughs, and says “Kidding! We don’t actually expect you to think”.
Which I suppose they do not. Instead, they want to make the player tense, uncomfortable, nervous, and exhilarated. To that end, they do a very good job.
As I mentioned earlier, there will be camera angles that just tempt the player into traps. It’s more than just highlighting objects that are a bad idea, it plays off of the design of other games to try and use the player’s habits against them. Reflexes developed after years of quick time events can lead to the player performing actions they don’t want to do, responding to a button prompt out of instinct. Highlighted objects look mysterious, but they also look as if they could be holding treasure of some sort.
It is moments such as these that reveal just how cleverly designed Until Dawn can be. While the easiest genre description is of an “adventure game”, or a quick-time game similar to Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls, it isn’t trying to reinvent gaming like either title. It merely implements what works and combines them with clever design from other titles.
Which is also what makes the story work as an intriguing mystery. What seems to be a collection of disconnected events, a group of freaky and frightening supernatural occurrences, all merge into one mystery that once more calls back to old horror games like Resident Evil. That they manage to successfully implement so many genres of horror is not only impressive, but they also use the different genres to keep the game dynamic. You won’t always be frightened of the same thing, and you won’t always be addressing conflicts in the same manner.
It is important to emphasize, however, that the game doesn’t allow for as many branching paths as it promises. The player can screw up in some major ways, and yet characters will still survive. Small decisions will carry through, but like decisions from one Mass Effect game to another, they’ll only result in small changes of dialogue. Very rarely will there seem to be a decision that truly impacts events right up to the end.
Which makes the collectible totems seem even more pointless. Throughout the game will be small totems, each one carrying a prophecy of future events. Some of these totems will have prophecies relevant within that level of gameplay, but many have little importance until near the end of the game, and only after the player has made their choices. There will be little indication as to when many of these prophecies are approaching and only seem relevant after. It begs the question of why the totems exist in the first place, if only to increase player tension.
All told, Until Dawn is a great experience for fans of horror in general, and even those that are just interested in narrative-driven gameplay. I will no doubt write about it again in the future, when I’ve had more time to study its design and how it uses its mechanics to not only influence terror in the player, but to try and influence their decisions. I would recommend playing it with a room full of friends, as it will be just as enjoyable to watch as it will to control.