That initial scene sets up the real meat of the game. A year later, the brother of the missing girls brings back the friends for an evening on the mountain to help get some closure on the matter. That’s when everybody has to try to survive until dawn. Every now and then you find totems that are omens of what is to come. They can signify a coming death, guidance, loss of a friend, danger, or good fortune.
What I liked about the game was the constant push and pull between a situation that the storytellers force you into and the notion that you can get these characters out of trouble. In a real horror film, you have to watch helplessly as the characters make dumb decisions like opening a door into a dark room, armed with nothing but a candle. When you play a character, your job is to explore around you and make sure that you pick up any clues hidden in the environment that could help solve the mystery of the missing twins.
A fluttering butterfly appears whenever you make a choice that will lead you down a different path of the story. The game adds tension and foreshadowing around those choices with totems. When you find one of these, your character or one of your friends will soon encounter death, luck, or something else. If you prefer, you can make your decisions by tilting the DualShock 4 motion sensor in one direction, or you can make your choices with button pushes.
You can play the game over and over because each choice you make will lead to a different outcome. Were you really right to save the pretty woman, or should you have saved the beefy guy instead? Those life-and-death moral dilemmas will have no right or wrong answers. But if you make a choice that leads to the death of a character, the game will show you where you made the fateful decision.
The characters change under pressure
Some of the characters start out very likable, like Samantha, or Sam, played by Hayden Panettiere. I also had a favorable initial reaction to Chris, played by Noah Fleiss, and Matt (Jordan Fisher). I definitely didn’t like the annoying characters Emily (Nichole Bloom), Jessica (Meaghan Martin), and Mike (Brett Dalton). I was a little mixed on Josh (Rami Malek), and Ashley (Galadriel Stineman). Those were the biases that I started out the game with. I’ll say that Hayden Penetierre’s performance was top notch.
These impressions were either reinforced or changed over time as I saw how the characters reacted under pressure. Some thought only about their own survival and were very transparent about that, all the while remaining helpless. Others changed to think more about saving their friends and taking control of their own destinies. These impressions matter because sometimes you make a life-or-death decision about which character to help or save.
But each choice you make on behalf of each character can go one of two ways. It can be consistent with how you think that character would behave. But, since you are independent and can choose as you wish, you can make the character behave as how you think they should behave. In some ways, you can change the character’s behavior and choices, at least to the degree that the game’s writers will let you.
If you’re catching on, the game is intriguing because you are the puppet master over eight characters, and the game designers are the puppet master over you. And then there are the characters, who, as they evolve and change, will surprise you with how independent they are. Adversity brings out their bravery or cowardice, their intelligence or idiocy, and their best and worst behavior.
Intermissions with the psychoanalyst
There’s another character who observes what you are doing in the game and talks to you about it during the intermissions. He is a seemingly professional but malevolent psychiatrist, Dr. Hill, who interviews an unseen character during one-on-one sessions in an office. In between episodes, the psychiatrist interviews the character, who is evidently the psycho killer. You never see the character’s face as he or she is talking to Hill. But with each new encounter, the psychiatrist asks you how you are enjoying the game, as if he is not speaking to the character but to you, the player.
“The analyst stands in for the video game designers and the writers as we are creating the game,” Reznick said. “When you make a movie, you see one story. The story the filmmaker wants to show. What’s exciting about narrative based games is you can take that similar approach in filmmaking and then explode it out so the designers and writers of the game create a narrative environment for the player. The player becomes an implicit collaborator. But the player doesn’t know what all the pieces are.”
That messes with your mind a bit. The analyst asks you questions about which character you like more and which things make you scared. You feel the tension in Dr. Hill’s voice, and you see the sweat on his face. The answers you give affect the game.
If, for instance, you decide that a post card with an image of a scarecrow makes you fearful, that post card will show up later in the story when you find it in the house. The psychiatrist episodes get more and more disturbing, as if you the player are descending into madness, and you have to think about whether you are saving the characters or killing them.
This is a very interesting twist on the plot that shows that Supermassive is getting its money’s worth from its Hollywood writers, and it’s one of the things that will keep you playing Until Dawn.
Great music and sound
The theme song of the game, “O Death,” performed by Amy Van Roekel in the opening credits, is a haunting ode to Death, and a very appropriate one for the game. The musical score is an original work by Jason Graves, a composer who created the music for The Order: 1886, Evolve, Tomb Raider, and Dead Space. He’s got a knack for horror, and there’s a fine interview with him in the bonus content. As for the sound, Until Dawn is great at using it for creepy effect. There’s a howling sound that you can’t tell if it comes from a person, a wolf, a monster, or something else. That sound is another thing that scares the bejeesus out of the characters and you. We take the music and sound in a game for granted, but in this one, it’s part of what makes the game so memorable.