Although not a genre exclusive to the console brand, the PlayStation 3 provided enticing first-party interactive drama experience through Quantic Dream’s plot-centric video games Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls – both of which have scored fairly well when reviewed on The Otaku’s Study. While Quantic Dream have yet to release a title for the PlayStation 4, the team at Supermassive Games filled this void by providing a strong interactive drama with their release of Until Dawn. Despite not being a flawless game and hardly presenting what I would personally consider a “scary” survival horror experience, Until Dawn still manages to provide a high level of production quality and an enticing storyline which effectively utilizes their promoted “butterfly effect” approach to storytelling.
Storyline / Character Development
One year before the main events of Until Dawn take place, a group of ten teenage friends (Ashley, beth, Chris, Emily, Hannah, Jessica, Josh, Matt, Mike and Sam) spend an evening at a lodge owned by the family of Beth, Hannah and Josh (The Washingtons) for a Winter getaway. After several attendees at this retreat decide to play a prank on Hannah, causing her to flee into the dark snow-covered forests, Beth decides to follow her. After witnessing a mysterious man and falling off a cliff, they are never seen or heard from again. Although nothing elaborate, this prologue provided a decent set-up for the rest of the game, and gave the development team ample opportunity to get players familiar with the basic game controls.
One year later, the remaining group members decide to meet up on the snowy mountainside to mark the one year anniversary of Beth and Hannah’s presumed passing. While some have seemingly attended hoping to console one another, catch up or have some fun; other members have had their friendships tested as they find themselves embroiled in complicated relationships. But in true survival horror style, their levelheadedness, trust and decision making skills are all put to the test as a series of mysterious and sometimes horrific events befall them all. Staying true to its title, Until Dawn is about the eight characters trying to survive the events that take place until the sun rises, and it is very possible that not everyone will survive the night.
Until Dawn presents a solid mystery overall, that can leave players wondering if the events are caused by a human entity or a supernatural force. While sinister death-traps and an eerie isolated cabin in the mountains may a tad cliche for the survival horror genre, this game does offer enough unique content to both pay homage to the genre and to stand out in its own right.
One of Until Dawn’s major features is its use of the ‘Butterfly Effect’, where the player’s decisions can have an impact on the progression of events that take place and who survives the experience. Although there are several scenes that are fairly static and only one main conclusion, a hefty number of events present one or more opportunities where the progression of events or the survival of a character hang in the balance. Sometimes taking a safer or more logical route can lead to a less ideal outcome. Alternatively, an event which took place a chapter or two ago can come back to haunt you or otherwise prove useful. In my experience, playing cautiously, I managed to complete Until Dawn with four characters surviving. Learning from ones mistakes, being reckless or just experimenting can result in some intriguing plot deviations, giving a reason to do more than one playthrough. That being said, making the storyline even less linear and offering more endings would have been a huge plus.
Although experiences may differ from player to player, the character cast ranged from the generally likable personalities to those that immediately got on my nerve. Each character represents a particular teenage personality stereotype, although do have room to grow provided they last long enough to receive more than an hour or two of screen time before being taken out. Not all characters are treated equal however, and given their roles in the plot, some can be killed quite early in the story while others can survive right up until a single mistake near the end.
While your own mileage may vary, I didn’t find anything presented in Until Dawn as particularly scary. In my opinion, there are better “horror” games out there for those exclusively looking for a good fight.
Not going into any specifics to avoid any spoilers, the latter chapters in Until Dawn felt a tad rushed, and would have benefited from more depth being provided relating to the events taking place. This is a minor problem however, as it reflects the rapid pace of events endured by the surviving characters. Also, while there is plenty of replay value given that players will not see every version of each scene in their first playthrough (Complemented by a fairly strict auto-save system), a single run-through of the story can easily be completed in a couple of reasonably sized play sessions. Neither of these were deal-breakers for me, and I found Until Dawn to be both well-written and intriguing. It is definately up there with both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls.
Design / Music / Voice Acting
Until Dawn was originally set to be a PlayStation 3 title, however this isn’t made clear when it comes to the visual department. Complemented by good attention to detail and some fantastic lighting, both the character models and environment designs are of a high standard, providing a sense of realism (in my opinion) to what is unfolding on the screen. The animation was also strong for the most part, however the sometimes awkward changes in camera positions occasionally resulted in characters doing an odd movement or two. I had no issue with the camera for the most part however, and while sometimes prohibitive, often gave a good view of what was taking place.
Suited to the survival horror genre, the music provided in Until Dawn shone during the more intense scenes where a character could potentially be in danger. But overall, the soundtrack was adequate and did the job well across the board. Voice acting however was one of Until Dawn’s most memorable aspects, with each voice cast member providing believable voices to their respective character. Coupled with the design, it really helped give an impression that you are controlling a live movie rather than a video game.
The gameplay of Until Dawn is fairly reminiscent of the approach taken by Beyond: Two Souls, albeit with less awkward combat. Throughout the game, you are given control of different surviving cast members, as you take from from Point A to Point B, hopefully surviving the journey given the possibilities and risks that lay ahead of them. Most of the routes in game are fairly linear so you don’t have the risk of getting lost, but there are opportunities to gather collectables such as clues and “totems”. Totems are the most interesting collectible on offer, granting players (although seemingly not the characters) a glimpse at a potential future event. Some of these depict a characters death and some provide guidance. It was an interesting idea, as the brief five second scenes indicate what you need to do or avoid in order to prevent a negative outcome from happening in the future. Many of these seemed more useful in later runthroughs however, as these scenes could reflect an event from a different route than the one you are following.
Asides from wandering around and collecting items scattered across the locales each character visits, most of the gameplay comes down to quick time events. Some of these are simple button presses, some require quick thinking to make a decision, and with others it is possible to not make a choice at all and progress with the story. A few also use a rudimentary aiming system, often representing the use of a gun. The pace associated with these scenes range from leisurely to rapid, and can be quite intense during some of the more action oriented situations.
Final Thoughts on Until Dawn
Although it may not be a particularly scary survival horror video game (in my experience), Until Dawn serves as a strong interactive drama title that delivers high production value, intriguing characters and an enticing storyline. Even if not all the outcomes were ideal, it did feel like many of my decisions were meaningful to the unfolding storyline. Should Supermassive Games decide to develop another interactive drama in the future, I look forward to seeing what they will be able to provide after their experience with Until Dawn.