Until Dawn – Together in the Dark
An abandoned mountaintop hotel. Built on an Indian burial ground. With another run down cabin nearby in the woods. Which is near an abandoned sanatorium. Which sits on top of an abandoned mine. You almost have to laugh at the locations and situations of Until Dawn, as it feels like the game’s creators did everything they could to cram in as many horror tropes as was humanly possibly. Even the teenagers who populate the game – the funny guy, the popular guy, the snarky girl, the nerdy girl – all fall under the same stereotypes you see in a lot of slasher horror as well. It’s the kind of mixture that shouldn’t work, or should, at best, be laughable, but Until Dawn nails it all, creating a creepy, frightening experience that makes you laugh as much as scream.
Twin sisters go missing after a prank gone wrong at the Washington Estate, a lodge built into Blackwood Mountain. A year later, their friends decide to throw a party in their honor…at the very same estate where they pulled the prank that made the girls run away. That…yeah. Even by horror movie standards, that’s really, really dumb. Unsurprisingly, bad things start happening as the group of dopey, sexy teens try to get themselves out of this mess and survive until rescue arrives in the morning. It’s up to you to keep them alive until the sun comes up.
Keeping a group of dumb, horny teenagers alive is simple, from a control perspective. Your main job is to make decisions for whichever one of the teenagers you’re playing as at the moment. This might be a dialogue choice about what tone you take when your girlfriend starts an argument because she’s a stupid jerk named Emily (who you too shall hate), or if you go left or right while being dogged by a killer. These choices are loaded with big time consequences no matter how innocent they seem, and often set the ball rolling for very bad things to happen later. The game saves the instant you make these calls, too, so there’s no turning back after you’ve screwed something up.
As simple as it is, this system makes everything feel realistic and terrifying. When something’s chasing you and your only options are hide or run, with seconds to make the call, it’s hard on the old heart rate. There is no way of knowing which is correct, so you fret, praying for luck to carry you through. That’s all it can come down to, sometimes, and with the game saving right after, there is no turning back if you get someone killed. The story is yours, told in real time with no turning back, and makes for an intense experience. These people can and will die over something as simple as a choice of direction, so there’s a powerful pressure with each decision. And sometimes the best decision is to do nothing, adding yet another thing to think about in the two to three seconds you have to make your call.
There are other inputs that’ll make your life more difficult. The game uses quicktime events where you need to hit the right button when it shows up on the screen. You have a very short window to hit these buttons, and these moments usually play out during chases or confrontations with the killer when you’re already stressed and panicked. There are also times when you must sit perfectly still, and these are brutal, especially towards the end of the game. At one point, I had the controller sitting in my lap, and my own natural twitching made me fail the event. The game continues whether you mess up these sequences or not, but again, there are consequences for your current character or the other teens. If you screw up too much on a chase, maybe you don’t find your friend. Maybe you get hurt and it affects the storyline. Maybe you lose your head permanently. And with the game saving so quickly, there is a tremendous pressure to do things well. Which makes you screw up more.
Your screw ups will look stunning, though. The game’s visuals are gorgeous, capturing the mountain and the dumb teenagers on it in wonderful detail. Most impressive is the face and lip syncing technology involved, which is eerily realistic. The faces and motions have all been taken from real world actors and carefully played using the in-game characters, resulting in some incredible performances from Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare. Stormare’s facial ticks as Dr Hill are especially unnerving, and it’s impressive to see that kind of thing captured by game technology. It really lets the actors cut loose and use their skills to the fullest in the game, creating some depth that can be surprising in a game that involves so many horror tropes.
Despite its heavy-handed approach to horror themes, Until Dawn is subtle and well-crafted, with an attention to atmosphere and just the right amount of jump scares. Unlike most games, there isn’t a lot of lead-up to the jump scares. If it’s going to jump you, it’ll be out of nowhere, making for a game that is less about the anxious lead-up to the scare so much as it is about making you feel constantly unsafe. There is rarely any indication when a scare is coming, and the creators knew how to space those scares out just long enough that the player becomes complacent. When the game does get you, it’ll be a surprise.
This skill transfers to the atmosphere, as the creators know that anticipation is an important part of frightening people. Errant sounds will play out in the empty woods, machines will rattle to life out of nowhere, and shadows will pass just in front of your view. The game’s locations are also all dark and foreboding, only lit by weak flashlights and a few stray light sources. It’s not the kind of pitch dark that can make navigating a horror game annoying, as is becoming common in many horror games these days, but rather strikes up a careful balance between darkness for atmosphere and light for navigation. It’s still easy to get around, but often just dark enough to make the player unsure what they’re going to run into.
Somehow, despite being filled with stupid teenage stereotypes, the game does a good job of making you care about them. These character grow, strengthening bonds with each other as they make their way through the game, and these are also affected by the simplest decisions you make. Like someone? Help them and talk nicely to them. Want to antagonize Emily? You can do that. All of these choices help develop the characters, and can endear them to the player in ways that most characters don’t manage in slasher horror. The game somehow takes a group of goofy teenagers in a horror story and makes you care for them instead of hoping they contribute to the body count. Until Dawn‘s writing makes you want to help these kids survive – an incredible feat for this genre.
Which brings us right back to those quick, luck-infused decisions. Until Dawn slowly makes you want its characters to live, and then, through fickle luck, starts killing them off or hurting them. Your decisions matter, but they matter in unknown ways just like real-life decisions. Did you just get someone killed via a choice in direction? Did you cause some terrible in-game event to flow with that little verbal jab at one of the boys? There’s no turning back, so the consequences, bad or worse, are your own, creating an experience that stresses, yet continually captures the imagination.
But will anyone survive on your run? Hope you’re lucky.
Until Dawn is available for $59.99 on the Playstation Store (PS4 Only).