The second game I played for this year’s 31 Days, Until Dawn, was almost the polar opposite of the first one. Where SOMA stripped away much of the standard video game trappings to enhance the immersion and atmosphere, Until Dawn is the epitome of a modern story-driven game as it is generally produced these days. There are long expository cut-scenes, motion captured actors, collectibles, and QTEs. There are also interesting elements of decision-making and branching storylines, but I found the tedium of the former elements (and the obnoxiousness of the writing and characters) generally outweighed the interesting bits.
Much of the story of Until Dawn will be very familiar to anyone who’s seen a slasher movie: a bunch of teenagers hellbent on partying and getting laid run into mayhem and death. The story begins with a winter trip to an luxurious lodge isolated on a mountaintop. The group decides to play a prank on their friend Hannah by making her think that the guy she has a crush on, Mike, is into her. They hide in a bedroom and Mike pretends to want to get together with her. Just as she starts to take off her shirt, the group reveals themselves, Hannah is horribly embarrassed and runs out into the woods surrounded the lodge. Her sister, Beth, who hadn’t been in on the prank runs after her. Once Hannah and Beth are reunited, though, they start getting chased by something in the woods. They end up falling off a cliff to their presumed deaths, ending the prologue.
The main events of the game occur a year later. Hannah and Beth’s brother, Josh, invites the group back to the lodge to try to get some “closure” (which sounds like an insane idea to me, but teen slasher movie logic, I guess). You meet the various characters, who are your standard archetypes: jocks, sluts, bitches, geeks, etc. The actors include people you might have heard of (Hayden Panettiere, Brett Dalton from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Peter Stormare), and all of them were obviously face scanned and modeled in the game to look like they do in real life. They do a good job, but the script makes so obnoxious and unsympathetic that I couldn’t really care about their ultimate fates. It’s one thing to work the tropes of a teen horror movie, but it’s another thing to have scene after scene after scene of characters exchanging suggestive lines without moving things forward.
One of the characters, Emily, whipsaws back and forth between being a raging bitch to everyone around her and being terrified and begging her boyfriend to help her. There’s tons of weird tonal shifts as characters witness horrifying events only to seem to completely forget them in the next scene. The situation is exacerbated when the cutscenes have the characters breaking down in fear or getting hurt, but when control is handed back to the player, it’s back to wandering around elaborately modeled environments looking for clues and triggers for the next cutscene. Those clues are one of my sticking points with the game. The clues for the various mysteries that run through the game (who is after the teenagers, what happened to the girls, etc.) are hidden in standard 3D game collectible style and they are important for helping to understand what is happening in the game. So, you wander about exhaustively searching each room to try to make sure you find them all or at least I do that. You look at where the likely next place you’re supposed to go is and start heading in the other direction. Guess wrong and you’ll end up triggering a cutscene and getting locked out of checking that other corner perhaps for the rest of the game. All of that completely undermines any tension that is built up. Your focus is more on scouring for little glowy items pixel hunt style than in making your way to the next objective. The fixed camera angles in the game may also play into this issue since it’s a lot faster to look around in SOMA since it has a first-person perspective.
Enough about the stuff that bugged me, though. What Until Dawn does do right is offering the player choices and incorporating those choices into the game. For example, early on after it is clear that somebody is trying to kill them, two of the characters try to go back down the mountain. They find that the cable car is locked, but find out about a ranger station near by. If you decide to go to the station, then you’ll find a flare gun. At the time, you’re playing as Emily. The game gives you the option to keep the flare gun or hand it to the other character. If you do hand it over, then later on when Emily is attacked, she has no weapon to defend herself. If you keep it, you are able to use it, which completely bypasses a sticky situation later on in the game. There are quite a few of these situations, and some of the choices early on in the game can mean fatal consequences much later on. There are also options to in how the character you’re playing reacts to one of the others. The game tracks these responses and each character’s attitude towards the rest. The level of affection can change how various scenes play out (or even if they play out). The game is built in such a way that because of how these choices play out, there’s no way to see everything the game has to offer in a single play-through. If tracks the decision points and allows you to see which situations follow on from which decisions, so you could experiment as you like to see what would happen if you chose differently. All of that is pretty great, and if the rest of the game was more streamlined, I’d have a much more positive opinion of the game. As it is, I have to hope that somebody takes those elements and does another game with them. We’ll see if I ever get my wish or not.
- Released: August 25, 2015
- System: PS4
- Developer: Supermassive Games
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment