Here’s a genre of horror in gaming we haven’t touched upon yet – the interactive drama survival horror. Although, I’m not certain that it constitutes as its own genre as there are really only two games that come to mind, being 2015’s Until Dawn by Supermassive Games and Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. But if there are any more games of this design out there, please do let me know and I’ll get onto the genre police right away and have interactive drama survival horrors officially instated as an official genre with their minimum three title requirement. Either way, today we’ll be examining the PS4 exclusive Until Dawn and seeing what happens when the Goosebumps choose-your-own-adventure books that I used to hide in the school library from the other kids are made digital, injected with young adult horniness, and a lot of blood and gore.
The real challenge is trying not to kill off the annoying ones
It’s hard to talk about the story without talking about the gameplay as the nature of the genre (interactive dramas are a little more common than interactive drama survival horror e.g. Detroit: Become Human) is directly built around the branching narrative thread mechanics that is its main attraction. As such no two play throughs are ever the same, as the advertisements say, due to the game’s ‘butterfly effect’ system that swears even the tiniest decisions can greatly increase and decrease the character’s chances of survivability. With that said, the main premise of the game is that a group of friends are returning to a holiday lodge on a snowy and isolated mountain one year after the accidental death of their two friends at the same lodge through bullying by said group of friends. From the get go we’re not made to like any of the characters but as the game cleverly posits you in the shoes of each of the seven characters at one time or another (sadly Rami Malek is not playable). In doing so you get to see the inner workings of their mind and how they engage with the other characters, forcing relatability. Naturally players will feel more drawn to one character over another (I personally only liked Hayden Panettiere and Mike because he was hot) and wanting to keep each character alive as they all split apart in their own storylines can be challenging. As much as the game boasts the variety of narrative threads to follow, it is rather linear in where characters can go and what they can do, and is more about finding clues along the way to keep your characters from biting the dust while trying to say the right things to get them to bang while being chased by a creepy clown murderer. The story is quite stellar in its pacing though and keeps the mystery interesting and unfolding in an intriguing way, making sure that players are always engaged.
Quicktime events are not the same thing as fun
I loathe quicktime events, as do a lot of gamers. They’re a cheap way of forcing suspense and risk by making the player press a random button at the exact right time to keep them from dying or stumbling. Until Dawn is full of quicktime event sequences that have the player choose betweeen safe and treacherous paths while escaping danger ot trying to save someone. Too many stumbles in the quicktime events and your character fails, and choose too many safe paths your character fails. Outside of these sequences a chunk of the gameplay is made up of exploration and the aforementioned gathering of clues. But what Until Dawn really brings to the table to innovate the genre (easy to do when there’s only two titles in the genre) is its adaptive horror system. Acting as prologues to each story chapter is the appearance of Peter Stormare (Fargo) as a therapist for the actual player. His purpose is to recount the events of the game, judge the player for their actions, prod them with questions about their decisions, and most importantly to create a pyschological profile of the player. The therapist will ask the player to tell them which they find scarier, spiders or snakes, scarecrows or clowns, barns or caves, knives or guns, and will change certain aspects of the main story to enhance the horror value for the player. While this is certainly welcome and a fun experiment, it isn’t implemented in any meaningful way other than some graphic changes in certain scenes i.e. the killer chases you with an uzi instead of a letter opener.
When you can’t decide, choose everything
For a game so centred on making their players meditate on their choices and regret them later for not being careful enough, the developers certainly did not share the same philosophy in putting the game together. Don’t get me wrong they clearly love the game and love horror as a whole, but the game is a bit weird and unfocused when one considers the amount of tropes and directions they’ve thrown into the title. The beginning of the game sets up a stalker slash slasher kind of thing, but then there is also a scene with a ouija board (on which I have given my opinion.) which sets up a ghost story, but then there are torture dungeons which feel like Saw, and then things start to go supernatural, and then we go to a mental asylum for reasons, and there’s a cabin in the woods too. All the different directions, plus how keen it is to change things up via the adaptive horror mechanic, leaves the game feeling a bit unrefined. Although for lovers of horror they might take it as pure fun and as a love letter. Until Dawn does also boast some top notch graphics, production design, and aural atmospheres that certainly tie the horror elements neatly together.
Until Dawn is not at all an until yawn
I’ve played this game three times, once when I was 17, another when I was 19, and another when I was 20 which actually was me watching my non-gamer friends play it together for the first time. One of the greatest things about Until Dawn is its core cinematic experience which really lends itself to players not adept at gaming mechanics or keen on contesting with a gun, approaching enemies and a health bar. It really is a lot of fun to play and its story and characters drive the experience more than anything if you push through the quicktime sequences. My only other gripe with the game is its sort of variability in narrative – if characters die it’s more likely that they just won’t show up in following scenes rather than entire narrative threads ending which limits the stakes a bit. Actually, that reminds me, for all the sluething you do to keep your characters alive and all the careful dialogue choices you make to ensure good feelings between the cast, there are a few random choices and quicktime moments that can kill your character in an instant which felt horrendously unfair (see, the final chapter). But all in all I highly recommend playing this game and can’t fault its entertainment value enough. Three Cthulhus out of five. More to be read here.(3 / 5)