Just how many layers of cultural nostalgia are we peeling back with this one? Fans of slasher movies will be overjoyed to find that Until Dawn takes part-and-parcel from the trope pool of Freddy, Michael, Jason, Evil Dead, et al. And then you have the choose-your-own-adventure element, harkening back to the days when the kid who owned the most Give Yourself Goosebumps books was the king or queen of the lunchroom.
The slasher-horror elements are used to weave a narrative, yes, but they’re also heavily deconstructed. If that description sounds like Cabin In The Woods, you’re not terribly far off, but Until Dawn uses the interactive nature of video game storytelling to put a unique spin on the relationship between the game and gamer, the often understated but always fundamental give-and-take relationship we share with the screen when we pick up the controller. At certain points, the unspoken divide between that reassures the player they are but a passive observer in the proceedings will wobble, if not vanish entirely. (Art Of The Unknown, anyone?) If it makes you a bit uncomfortable, let it. That just means it’s working.
And the choose-your-own-path elements feel truly fitting to the genre. It’s not an unknown concept; Bioware’s Big Two (Mass Effect and Dragon Age) are built upon the notion of branching plot points based on your decisions. Now, what Mass Effect does is foster the illusion of branching plot points. I don’t say this to be mean, because I really believe that Mass Effect is the defining science fiction franchise of my generation and an exemplary miracle of exhaustive worldbuilding. But above all, it means to tell a story. A specific story, one which must hit on specific plot points. In Mass Effect 3, you rejoin squadmate Mordin as he escorts a fertile krogan female to her home planet to help cure her race’s sterility plague. If Mordin died in Mass Effect 2’s climax – say, for example, you had him ‘hold the line’ instead of having him escort the Normandy crew back to the ship like you should – then his role in Mass Effect 3 will be taken by fellow salarian Padok Wiks. Different dialogue, different character interactions, but Paddy hits on the same basic plot points. Same deal if you’re forced to kill Wrex in Mass Effect 1: his role in ME2 and 3 will be taken by his relative Wreav. Wreav is an ass, basically, but he’s there to hit on the same plot points.
In Give Yourself Friday The 13th (Er, Until Dawn), we see a robust attempt at a narrative that quantifies the Butterfly Effect: the notion that, with divergent paths, differing choices will lead to increasingly disparate outcomes. Much like Mass Effect, you’re still confined within the framework of a specific narrative, but unlike Mass Effect, it doesn’t feel like the universe has a way of balancing itself out if you screw up. This takes place both via the choices made in the narrative itself, and in the decisions you make in the psychiatrist visits that are interspersed throughout the game. These start out incredibly meta, but they actually integrate themselves perfectly into the narrative once the twist comes out.
When I say that this game attempts both meta and deconstructionist, I should lay out the difference between the two terms. Meta is to tap on, or to outright break the fourth wall, while deconstructionism is to unpack and analyze layers of a genre’s narrative, throughout the course of that narrative itself. In that way, I suppose deconstruction typically is “deeper” than meta; meta can be simple and straightforward if it wants, whereas deconstructionism tends to require some level of critical thought and reflexive close-reading of their own narrative on the part of the creator.
Or, put it this way: Meta is that episode of TV’s Supernatural where the brothers find themselves in an alternate reality where they star in a TV show called Supernatural. Deconstruction is the first Bioshock dissecting the video game trope of mission-based gameplay (Would you kindly?).
And really, some of the choices and consequences you’re given in Until Dawn are so simple, so in-your-face, that it’s like the game is having a chuckle at your expectations. Did you pick spiders when the psychiatrist asked you which thing scared you more? Hope you enjoy seeing a tarantula crawling across your screen when you’re given the POV of a security camera at one point in the game’s static-angle style (Imagine a derivative of the old-school Resident Evil camera style, but without the crappy controls), or a jar of tarantulas that’ll be on the psychiatrist’s desk during your next visit, because that is a thing that sane practitioners keep on their desk.
And on that note, when you play, don’t try to be “cool” and cheat the psychiatrist’s questions by lying. The game is being extremely honest with you when the creepy, personal-space-invading psychiatrist tells you that you’ll have a more enriching and enjoyable experience if you answer honestly.
The gameplay treads a line: it’s more situational than the average triple-A title, but it’s more interactive than, say, a Quantic Dream experience like Beyond: Two Souls. There’s an option to control the game using only the PS4’s motion controls, although that sounds like a nightmarish idea for me (and not in a good way), so fortunately the option exists to use the joysticks. There is one feature, however, that uses the motion controls in an incredibly immersive way: there are times when you will be tasked to not move the controller at all, because your character can’t move at all lest they be spotted by whichever dicey thing wants to enjoy some Human McNuggets.
These sections are super-tense, combining the fear of being hunted with the immersion of being forced to freeze. You’ll find yourself holding your breath (The Gamespot review mentions this as well, so it’s not just me) to keep from moving the controller. Of course, you could just ruin it for yourself by turning off rumble and putting the controller on the nearest flat surface, but some of these ‘don’t move’ segments come at you too fast to do that. Some are choreographed, but some come quick. That…is actually not necessarily a compliment, though, because there was at least once where I didn’t feel like I was able to react fast enough to not move. And if you happen to play games most comfortably in a position where it’s not as easy to suddenly just freeze like you’re doing tableaus in a play, well…I can’t really help you there. But despite its flaws, ‘Don’t Move’ is a truly interesting use of the motion controls, and a wonderful immersion device for a horror game. Molto benne!
One of the subplots might either disappoint you, or you’ll find it clever; without spoiling anything, I’ll say that between the gritty elements and the supernatural elements, one of them is a red herring of sorts. The slasher side of things takes from both the old-school body-counters like Jason, and from the new school of ‘torture porn’ like Saw. Two scenes in particular so deliberately riff on Saw specifically that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone cut Tobin Bell a cheque. But the slasher subplot also deals – and I’m getting into somewhat spoilery territory here – with mental illness, and the decisions that are made when you combine intense personal grief with a serious mental illness. Later in the game, we’re given an opportunity to see what this character sees, and it is truly disturbing and frightening: I went from hating this character for what he did, to understanding exactly why living in this horrifying, exhausting state could drive someone to such extremes.
Though, I actually would have liked to see more of the surreal, disturbing visions from his perspective, because the scene where his delusions are given voice is one of the creepiest and most disturbing in a game full of creepy and disturbing things.
The actual supernatural elements are based on Native American folklore, which is always welcome; they offer up their own take on a monster that’s previously been in American pop culture in shows such as Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow, and…I’ve just given it away, haven’t I? But suffice it to say, Until Dawn’s take on this creature is visceral, cool and above all, scary.
For the record, I absolutely hated the ending that I got the first time around, but the game does a pretty good job of making you feel like an unsatisfying, bleak conclusion is your fault, and you can usually trace the chain of cause-and-effect back through the butterfly effect that led you there. Sometimes, though, it’s not so clear: for example, in the ending I got, a character indirectly caused the death of a more likable character…because that character was honest with her in an earlier scene, which to me seemed like a far better option than lying. That said, once you’ve beaten the game, it lets you go back and re-play any chapter you want, such as if you screwed up the finale.
But by-and-large, you’re not in the dark when it comes to making these choices. You’ll often be forced into scenarios where you have to act and think fast (You’re outrunning a monster, LEFT OR RIGHT QUICK QUICK TIME IS TICKING!!…but if you look past the prompts to the far wall, you see a sign saying that the LEFT leads to the elevator), and there are quicktime events – but if the whole point of the game is to place yourself in these intense scenarios where you need to react on a dime for immersion purposes, this is a pretty solid use of the heavily-contested QTE format. It fits far better here than in most games.
Although, maybe I’m biased on the QTEs: this is a PS4 exclusive, and the PS4 buttons are so distinctive and ingrained in my muscle memory that I never missed a single QTE. And don’t worry, the QTEs are simply button presses, with none of that “do a half-circle from top to bottom in one second and you’d better hope the controller registers it!” nonsense.
And more to the point of not being on your own, you should constantly be on the lookout in the environment for small native totems, which you can pick up and they’ll give prophetic clues as to good or bad things that could result from your actions. They’re colour-coded into several categories, such as death, fortune and danger. Some are obvious and will put you on the lookout to make sure they do or do not come to pass, while others are a little more cryptic and confusing.
The sound design is wonderful. Sound is such an essential component in horror games: just listen to those perfect sounds of footsteps in Silent Hill 2 on the long, ominous walk that begins the game, and you’ll be a believer. Until Dawn’s acting is pretty good on the part of the actors: particularly, the actor playing “that character” who turns out to really have a screw loose is very good at dropping hints in his somewhat disjointed performance earlier on that something is not-quite-right with the character.
Even though it’s a different genre, Until Dawn feels like it succeeds at being the game that The Order: 1886 only tried to be: a cinematic experience that stands as a credit to the PS4’s library. It’s not a system mover even if you’re a die-hard horror fan, and I do wish that the butterfly effect system had even broader effects on the plot, potentially to the extent of even having multiple, different ending scenarios based on your actions. In fact, that was what I had been hoping for, and the game’s choice system is a little more like Mass Effect than I had hoped: the choices you make are cloistered within a specific narrative, rather than radically changing the fundamental elements of the story. Not that that’s a bad thing – just a question of my own expectations.
But Until Dawn does manage to say some interesting things about its own genre, hiding deconstructionist subtext underneath characters who appear at first to be cliché and stock. If you dislike the idea of being pressured into making on-the-go choices that will relentlessly come back to bite you, then maybe Until Dawn isn’t for you. It’s possible to save-scum if you do so very quickly after realizing you’ve screwed up, but in this context I’d say that’s as much cheating as peeking is during hide-and-seek.
If you’re a PS4 owner looking to play a well-made triple-A horror game in the dark this spookster season, run out and buy Until Dawn. It might just click with you in a big way, and you’ll end up losing track of time and playing it until…well, you know.
Three out of four native totems. There are flaws, but they’re manageable. It’s great!
Protip: sometimes nothing is the right thing to do. In pretty much any part in the game where you’re given a choice to hurt an animal, doing so will not end well for you.
Cross-posted under Analysis because of the brief discussion of meta/deconstruction.