Editors note: This review has some minor story spoilers.
The new PlayStation 4 exclusive psychological horror game Until Dawn may go down as one of the finest collaborations of Hollywood and gaming.
Such collaborations have been tried for decades with underwhelming results, and this title could have been just one more cheap game version of an easily forgotton Hollywood horror B-movie. But the collaborators at Supermassive Games and horror film writers and directors Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick took their time to craft an ingenious and intricate story, and they made full use of the next-generation console’s ability to create realistic human characters that really look like people in a horror movie.
The result of the four-plus years of work is a riveting, scary game that gives you a chance to save the characters in the story from making all-too-familiar mistakes in horror movies. Because the story is interactive, the experience is much more immersive and emotional. You can get to know the characters and feel much closer to them as they evolve, unlike the stereotypical characters who fill the body count in typical slasher movies. In the story, eight young adult friends are trapped on a remote mountain getaway after they find that there’s a killer loose among them. Your job is to make snap life-or-death decisions and save as many of them as you can as dawn approaches.
On the scary meter, Until Dawn ranks pretty high, as the creators actually tested the game with playtesters who were hooked up to biometric monitors. If a scene didn’t scare people as much as it could have, the developers went back to the drawing board. I measured my own pulse myself during part of the game. After one “jump scare” scene, my pulse shot up from around 70 to 108 beats per minute. I had plenty of little heart attacks while I played the 10 episodes of the game — twice.
But the title isn’t just about scaring the crap out of you. It also makes you ponder the relationships between characters and why you try harder to save some characters than others. The choices are not always black and white. The writing is really good and contemporary, with plenty of lines that will crack you up, like when a character says “Unfollow” after facing a psycho.
It’s also a story with a lot of foreshadowing and multiple layers. There’s a meta layer in the story where an analyst starts questioning you, the player, about how you think the “game” is going. The conversations with the analyst are just one part where you realize that nothing is as it seems on the mountain. And as the characters and story change, you realize that Until Dawn isn’t as predictable as you thought.
A long development cycle
Supermassive Games and Sony have been working on the game for a long time, enlisting the seasoned horror filmmakers to concoct a story with a lot of branching storylines. Until Dawn was originally scheduled to be released on the PlayStation 3 with PlayStation Move motion controls. But the game was redone for the PlayStation 4 and the Dual Shock 4 controller, which also has motion-sensing capabilities. The new game has episodes that are akin to TV show segments. Between the two different games that were created, there are 10,000 pages of dialogue. There were so many branching stories that each story becomes like a main story unto its own, said Graham Reznick, co-writer of the game, in an interview with GamesBeat.
“We decided to rewrite everything,” said Reznick, regarding the switch from the PS3 to the PS4. “The PS4 had more facial animation and that meant that the actors could be much more nuanced and tell the story through a more cinematic dialog language.”
The game mechanics are similar to Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, where you have to periodically make binary choices, like hiding or running, to save someone’s life. You also have to be able to press the PlayStation controller buttons quickly and accurately in fast-moving situations. If you miss enough times, you may be sending a character to his or her death.
But the interesting twist that Until Dawn brings to the plot is the theory of the “Butterfly Effect,” or the chaos theory idea that suggests a small change in a system’s initial conditions can result in huge variations in a later state. The name was coined by Edward Lorenz, and it comes from an example where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause subtle changes that affect the path of a hurricane weeks later. In the game, your smallest and biggest decisions can affect the outcome of the evening and who will survive “Until Dawn.” Sometimes, seemingly trivial choices will mean the difference between survival and death.
What you’ll like
Ultrarealistic human face animations
Most game publishers advertise their games as “cinematic.” But this lives up to that claim. I’ve never been fooled by 3D graphics as much as I was in this game. The human faces look real. The movements of the characters still need work, as does the degree of interactivity. But when you’re staring at the face of one of these characters, it’s truly an amazing feat.
The title combines Hollywood actors with next-generation facial animation technology from Cubic Motion, the company whose animation tools also created the face capture of actors in games such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Ryse: Son of Rome.
As I noted in a preview, I saw from the outset that the characters are stunningly realistic, as if you’re looking at the real actors and actresses, rather than video game animations. Several times, my family members saw me playing the game and they asked, “Is that a movie or a game?” (It’s not a game I would willingly show one kids, though).
I caught a glimpse of the face of the cockiest male character, Michael (played by Brett Dalton), with a tear dripping from one of his eyes. It made me consider just for a moment that there was something deeper behind his always-macho facade. And for the most part, the close-up animations of each person made me feel sympathy for each character, rather than the usual sense of hate because they were about do something stupid that was going to get them killed. You form an emotional bond with the character and fear for his or her safety. And this only happens because of the quality of the motion capture and 3D animation.
It is as if the combination of Cubic Motion, 3Lateral technology, and the Killzone Engine in this title has almost gotten us across the “uncanny valley,” or the long-held idea that the more animators try to create realistic human faces, the more there’s something spooky about the image, and the more it eludes their grasp.
Interesting gameplay choices
Sometimes the best thing is staying still. The game uses a motion-sensing Dual Shock 4 controller. Early on, you learn that making no choice at all, such as letting a bird be, is the right move. Sometimes you have to hide. In that case, your job is to keep the controller as still as possible. If your hands are trembling, then you’ll lose for certain. You might as well put the controller on the ground.
In the very first scene, the group of friends plays a poor-taste prank on one of the girls, Hannah, luring her into one of the men’s rooms at 2 a.m. on the promise of secret tryst. But most of the friends are hiding in the room, ready to snap pictures of the unaware visitor. The victim runs off into the snow alone, followed by her twin sister, who wasn’t in on the prank.
Running off alone is, of course, a major no-no in a horror story, and it is one that you can’t do anything about. Your job is to do something that helps them avoid a horrible fate. The women started running off into the snow and quickly found there was something spooky out there besides growling beasts. One of them finds a totem that signifies “death,” and you know you’re about to decide something important. You have to choose whether they should run through shortcuts or stay on a path. Eventually, they wind up on a cliff, trapped by their pursuer, and you have to choose which one of the girls will survive.
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.
What you won’t like
Sometimes there aren’t enough choices
It’s exceedingly hard to save three of the characters. It basically takes multiple playthroughs because they die so randomly. On my first run through, I was able to save only three of the characters, and I felt pretty good about that. I did, however, feel like I had been cheated by the storytellers who stole two characters away from me. On my second try, I was only able to save five of the eight characters, and I didn’t really see a clear path to saving them. Each choice you make is supposed to be informed, but there are some random ones in there to throw the player off, Reznick said.
The worst feeling you can have is to play eight hours of the game and then suddenly lose a character that you care about because you chose to go left instead of right. Usually, the game designers aren’t cruel puppeteers. But that’s when it feels like they are. It raises that question about how easy or hard a game should be. When the consequences can be so disastrous in terms of the player’s time — they may be forced to start over if they really want to keep someone alive — then this is a pretty harsh design.
The totems do give you information that can help you make informed decisions. But after two playthroughs, I haven’t had the exact outcome I wanted.
You won’t be surprised on second playthrough
Until Dawn encourages replaying, so that you can meet the challenge of saving all eight of the friends. As you might expect, there are a lot fewer surprises the second time around. But Reznick pointed out to me that it’s a great game to play with friends. You can sit through a session with them and watch them make their choices.
I did this with my oldest kid and her friends. I got a kick out of seeing their choices and watching their reactions. But the joy for me, of course, wasn’t as great as it was the second time around. I almost wish they would spin around the plot so that it really is a different story the next time around. That might have ballooned the narrative to 100,000 words. But maybe that’s the kind of game we could create ten years from now.
The awkward 3D navigation
Walking around in Until Dawn is a slow process. You can’t really run on your own. And the characters tend to bump into a lot of obstacles as you try to navigate through the weird, third-person perspective in a semi-3D space. It’s like a Resident Evil game in that respect, and it’s really annoying. It draws attention to the fact that the movement of the characters isn’t perfect, and it wastes a lot of your time.
Still, because there are clues hidden in the environment, you feel obligated to visit each spot in a scene, just so you don’t miss any critical clues.
Cheesy horror elements
Like other horror movies aimed at young adults, Until Dawn has its cheesy moments. There’s a bit too much sexual innuendo, a lot of swearing, and a lot of gore. That means you won’t want to show it to kids, even if you think the other aspects of the game are cool. There are also a lot of “jump scares” that are simply there to put you on edge. Your tolerance for these scenes depends on how much you like the horror genre. What saves the game is a good sense of humor and self-awareness when it comes to the cheesy stuff.
The title is rated mature, and it has some of the typical tropes of Hollywood slasher films, like excessive gore, horrifying scenes, foul language, and suggestive sexual innuendo and scenes. But if you can get past that stereotype and your usual reaction to Hollywood horror, you’ll find that Until Dawn is one of the most original and polished games in the interactive horror genre.
The game really lives up to its promise and vision, and that’s a rarity in an age of hype.
I played the game twice, just so I could see how many characters I could save. I also played individual episodes to figure out just how I could play that episode in a new way and save a character that I had lost. I found that it held my attention through more than 25 hours of game play so far, and I’d like to play it some more, Until Dawn.
Until Dawn is available on August 25 in North America on the PlayStation 4. The company provided GamesBeat with a copy of the game for this review.