Until Dawn is a 2015 video game developed by Supermassive games for the Playstation 4. In an essence, it’s a horror film simulator, right down to all of the tropes and cliches. You guide the protagonists along various plot paths of the story and see who makes it out and who gets chewed up by the monster/psycho of the week. Now, this sort of gameplay or idea in general is far from new. Games like Clock Tower involve you running away from a maniac wielding giant scissors, while Manhunt involves you playing the serial killer. Meanwhile, upcoming projects like Last Year, Summer Camp and the latest adaptation of Friday the 13th also plan on hitting the market in their own murder-happy fashion. Not to mention, there’s plenty of twists that go beyond just some boogeyman in a house. In fact, the mountains themselves hold an ancient evil to compliment many a horror classic. With that stiff competition ahead, what does Until Dawn that sets it apart from the crowd?
To get this out of the way, this is a simulator of crappy horror films. That’s not to say horror as a genre is bad, as it’s filled with some of the greatest films of all time, it’s just that it attracted schlock like no one’s business. And this game is an homage to that realization, for all intents and purposes. You control a bunch of hokey cliche characters and guide them on the path to ruin or the path to survival in one of many spooky horror locales. You have the meathead jock, the ditsy popular girl, the token minority character (who probably dies first), the responsible final girl, and so on and so forth. Of course, it’s up to you to play them up to their conventions. Or, as the player, you can make them more self aware in an attempt to make a faux-remake of Scream. When given this freedom as a gamer, who doesn’t want to explore the most gruesome endings when given the chance? It’s like a choose your own adventure book, where you seek the most awful fates possible while indexing the previous page. So, have a couple characters get picked off by the killer in one scene, while monsters down below pick off some more in the next; it’s truly great fun! Of course, if you don’t feel like being a sadist, you as the player must do all you can to protect the character the game is currently focusing on. After your choices play out, the game updates the status of your character before checking up on another to see how they’re doing. Double that with reveals of possible traitors among the cast and you have recipes for a very fun game!
Gameplay comes down to story branching buttons and as well as another mechanic, one I deeply loathe. Of course, I refer to quick time events. Done tastefully, they can keep the player engaged to help them be part of the suspense or action. In games like later Resident Evil titles, Heavy Rain or the like; they’re merely tedious minigames that detract from the joy and sometimes fluster the player. While not as aggravating as some of the above mentioned, it still becomes a tad grating after a while. At which point, I’d rather the character just die horribly as we move the story forward… somehow. It’s less gameplay and more so cutscenes with little moments of blinking buttons to make sure you’re still awake! (Also, someone remind me to thank Yahtzee for using that one first.) Which makes me wonder, who thought “poosh butten or ded” mechanics are engaging or interesting? And once you get past that, it’s not exactly a super long game either. That said, it’s the constant branching and “butterfly effect” that makes the gameplay. Your choices have direct consequences that will alter the course of the story. Do you take this direction to save your skin or take the dangerous route to get there faster? Do you inspect this creepy noise or leave it alone? Do you leave a friend behind to save your own skin? All in all, the game gives you plenty to ponder about throughout the entirety of it.
The story itself is a mish-mosh of campy b-horror nonsense. A buncha kids are out and about and there’s a killer on the loose. Or in this case, it’s a revenge story following a tragic trip to the lodge during the previous year. The following year, the antagonist tries to lure the remaining crew back to said lodge, while the rest go missing… and discover possessed horrors called Wendigos that lurk the mountains! Overall, some pretty interesting use of bait and switch. Of course, there’s plenty of other twists and turns involving who some of the wendigo are and what happened to friends both last year and this year, but both involve major spoilers. That said, the main story doesn’t change, save for character deaths as a result of your choices. The world feels larger than the game and story itself, as you play the same linear path over and over again, rather than the possibility of other stories (akin to many Choose Your Own books). Taking inspiration from the Betrayal board game above, there is tons of room for even more stories to explore. Perhaps DLC will address this. Don’t want a story about Wendigos? How about the ghosts of old ’49er Miners who went the wrong direction and froze to death? Perhaps the classic “burial ground” plot resulting in the living dead? Perhaps the Wendigo are just fabricated by a giant woman who kidnaps the characters (Ch’eni) to feast on them later? As for the endings themselves, most of them are some variation based on who dies/survives and when. Most of the endings are caused by actions in late chapters, well after the somewhat “From Dusk Til Dawn” style plot twist.
As for the characters? They’re very typical college-aged douchebags. They’re annoying, they’re frustrating, they may or may not be stupid (though, that’s the player’s fault). However, this was likely the directors staying true to the cheesy movies they were making an homage to. The characters themselves do have potential to become more than goofy stereotypes, all depending no how you guide them. Sure, you can hack them off because they’re idiots, but it’s also satisfying to make them become self aware of their horror tropes and try to break the mold as actual people… rather than stock characters. While a lot of games would force you to have Annoying Douchenozzle always act like Annoying Douchenozzle, this one allows for you to tinker with that. You want someone to have a change of heart or to rethink their previous actions? They can do that. That way, the blond character isn’t so ‘dumb’, the ‘token minority’ character isn’t there just to be a Red Shirt, the jockish character isn’t just some doofus bro-dude, etc.
All in all, it’s a decently satisfying game that puts you in the seat of horror director behind the cheesy horror production of “Until Dawn.” You have the power to revise the script, push the actors in bold new directions and even shape an ending you might think is better. In a sense, it’s a true horror movie simulator game. The Heavy Rain approach to game design might deter some people, as you’re basically (as mentioned) directing a movie, there’s still plenty to play around with and tons of things to keep you engaged. At the very least, it’s worth borrowing and seeing how many endings you can get. Would I recommend it? Maybe for keeps, but certainly to give a spin! It’s a pretty solid horror experience that moves with the player, despite the story staying pretty static. All in all, it gets 7 Creepy Wendigo Claws out of 10.