This story has some spoilers, but we’ve tried to minimize it by providing more general advice –Ed.
If you’re reading this, chances are you stayed up all night to play Until Dawn. And you may need some help.
The Sony PlayStation 4 video game is an interactive horror experience that has lots of different story branches and endless possibilities. It pays homage to The Butterfly Effect, the chaos theory idea that suggests a small change in a system’s initial conditions can result in huge variations in a later state. 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.
In Until Dawn, eight teenagers are trapped at a mountain getaway with a maniac. Your job is to enable as many of the characters to survive the night, until dawn, as possible. The game is really challenging because you don’t get second chances. When a character dies, he or she is gone for good. It’s a form of “permadeath,” where, if you make one small mistake, you have to invest another 10 hours in order to get the ending just the way you want it to be.
I’ve played the game through two and a half times (here’s our review), and watched a bunch of teenagers play it too. Here are my best tips, starting from the general and leading to more specific tactics.
First, it’s a good game that will hold your attention. Enjoy it on your first playthrough. And after you’re done with it, play it through again to see just how many of the young friends you can save. On the first pass, you’ll face a lot of surprises, jump scares, and plot twists. Those won’t be as riveting on the second time around, but the challenge of saving each friend will lure you onward. You’ll have more fun on the second time around if you play with friends who haven’t seen it. Watching their reactions to the surprises is priceless.
Navigating the game
Track your progress. When you are playing the game, hit the R1 button on the DualShock 4 controller. That will call up information on your character. You’ll see the character’s traits and how much the character likes the other friends in the group. That’s useful information that will constrain the character’s behavior.
Hit the R1 button again and you’ll see the clues that you’ve picked up. If you read these clues, you’ll find some extra information and even updates on what you’ve discovered about the missing twins, Hannah and Beth, who disappeared on the mountain a year earlier. Later in the game, these clues will start to make a lot more sense. In the meantime, you have to make sure that you explore every nook of the landscape to make sure you find each clue.
If you tap the R1 button again, you’ll see clues related to another mystery in the game, dubbed 1952. That will make sense later. Tap it again and you’ll see clues for the “mystery man.”
The next R1 screen, Totem Prophecies, is very important for your survival. You can find Native American totems along the way, usually off the obvious path, throughout the game. These can signify Death, or the potential death of the character who finds it; Guidance, a tip for navigating a future scene; Loss, a foreshadowing of a death of a friend; Danger, for possible threats coming; and Fortune, a possible lucky paths. Each totem is accompanied by a short video that gives you a hint at how to survive a future scene. Pay attention to those videos until you understand what they mean, and make sure you scour the environment to find as many totems as possible.
The last R1 screen is dubbed Butterfly Effect. It is a record of the critical decisions that you make and can change the course of the game. There are 22 such decision points, but each one also has various consequences or downstream effects. These decision points are a record, and they make your playthrough unique, as if you are crafting the story and are in charge of the destinies of all of the characters. These little butterflies are reminders of the power that you hold.
The full game has 10 episodes and takes about 10 hours to play.
How to play for survival
You can play the game any way you wish. You can make decisions based on how characters would likely behave, or you can make decisions that you think are for the characters’ own good and are likely to lead to survival. Emily, for instance, starts out the game as a bitchy character. She isn’t likely to make decisions that will save other people. She’ll just want to save herself. But you can try to make decisions on her behalf that help her survive. And, if you want to fully explore the storyline that accompanies that Emily, then you’ll want to keep her alive as long as possible. In other words, don’t deliberately try to kill off Emily or any other character, if your goal is to survive the night.
Graham Reznick, co-writer of the game with film maker Larry Fessenden and developer Supermassive Games, told me in an interview that there are essentially eight main stories to go with all eight characters. That’s because any single character can die along the way, and a single death shouldn’t signal the end of the game. If you prematurely end one of those stories, you’ll be missing out.
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.
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. You’ll do well to think about this character and the change that takes place over time.
Another tip is that the characters aren’t always as they seem. Under pressure, you find out who your friends are. You can see some characters change for the good and others change for the bad. This is another reason why you shouldn’t write off annoying characters at the beginning of the game.
Master the game controls
You have a choice of playing with motion-sensing movements or pressing buttons on the DualShock 4 controller. I chose the button-mashing because it felt more precise.
The game mechanics are a lot like Heavy Rain, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Beyond: Two Souls. When you get to an action sequence, you have to press the button that shows upon the screen — triangle, circle, or square — as quickly as you can before a timer runs out. If you mess up, something bad will happen. Your character, who is being chased by something evil, may stumble. A single mistake doesn’t always lead to death, but it can. For the most part, you can expect a character to die if you make a series of blunders with the controller. I found that it paid to look down at the buttons just before a big action scene just to raise my awareness of what to push.
Likewise, when you’re called upon to aim and something and shoot it, you have to do it quickly. If you miss, or you run out of time, death is almost certain. Don’t be unprepared for these moments.
One of the key mechanics is doing nothing at all. At the beginning, as you play Samantha, you have to keep the controller as still as possible in order to feed a squirrel. And if you choose not to shoot a squirrel, then you’ll have a chance to be in harmony with nature throughout the game. When I saw a teenager playing the game shoot the squirrel, I saw the Butterfly Effect image flash, and I grimaced for what would come down the road. You also are called upon to hide and remain still at various times by keeping the controller motion free. At those times, I learned to put the controller on the ground quickly and then pick it up fast if I needed to do that. Stillness means life.
Making the right choices
If you have been picking up all of the clues, you’ll generally have enough information to make the right choices for survival. But sometimes, the outcome will be random. Sometimes the right move is to run, and sometimes the right move is to hide. Either move can randomly lead to somebody’s death. If you make the right choices based on the clues discovered, you’ll generally come out with more survivals. Whether you can save everyone depends on a lot of luck when you are faced with choices such as “go left” or “go right.”
You’ll face a lot of moral dilemmas in Until Dawn. You’ll develop an ethical code for the horror story and how you’ll behave. You can’t save everybody, and sometimes you have to choose between two evils, saving one character over another. The game makes you think about who you are saving. Are you saving someone because he or she is cute? Or are you letting someone die because they’re somewhat annoying?
Some typical horror flick tips apply that will help you avoid dumb deaths. If someone is banging on a door, and you don’t know who it is, you are not obligated to open it. Don’t willingly split up two friends to send them separately in their own directions. United we stand, divided we fall.
I’m pretty certain you’ll get emotionally attached to at least one of the characters. And if that character dies, you’ll go into mourning and play the game again so that you’ll be able to save him or her.
Beware of traps
This is a horror game, written by Hollywood horror film veterans. They like to be puppeteers. They put a lot of jump scares in the game. They also like messing with your mind by laying traps for you. If something looks like a trap, then you might just want to avoid it.
Remember who the enemies are
You have to be aware of the enemies and what they’re likely to do. And it pays to remember that the environment can be your enemy. When you run into a wolf, it makes sense not to attack it, but to try to make a friend out of it. If you have been killing off animals like crazy, this is probably not going to be an option. You have to remember there are real threats and real killers out there, and you don’t need to make more enemies than necessary.
Read what the faces tell you
You should also pay attention to the facial expressions of characters. If a character looks like they’re hiding something, that’s no accident. You can get just as much feedback on a person by watching how they behave, rather than listening to what they say.
At the same time, be wary of false choices. Often, you are forced to make a choice without perfect information. You have to do it on a timer, in a split second. Don’t forget there can be a third choice: doing nothing.
Don’t make assumptions
It’s pretty hard to figure out the mysteries of the game before the revelations tell you what is going on toward the end. But if you’ve been listening to everything I’ve said so far, you’ll be well served to pay attention to everything, focus on the details, and don’t assume that small things are unimportant. In fact, as the Butterfly Effect theory suggests, small things are very important and they are among the best clues to what is happening.
When the chips are down, you may have a choice between saving somebody else or saving yourself. If you are patient, stay cool, and don’t panic, you may find that you can fare better. You may be able to save yourself quickly. But if you play the game so that others have a better chance of survival, that could maximize the number of survivors. And if you have made a poor choice, you may still have a chance to recover. If you make a series of good choices after a blunder, you may very well wind up in a better position.
Play it again
If you’re ready to play again, you should check out the individual episodes, which are playable as self-contained missions after you’ve finished. You should play those missions to see how you could have saved a character who died. Once you’ve done that, you can go back to the beginning and start a new story. When you start a new story, you won’t be able to play those episodes again. This form of trial-and-error will save you time. Better to replay an episode for an hour than to replay the whole game for 10 hours in order to find out how to make one critical decision.
What are your own tips? Please offer them in the comments. But please try to avoid major spoilers. Oh, and the game has a lot of gruesome scenes and typical horror film gore. I wouldn’t recommend you play it with young kids. Some scenes are terrific and fun, but the next may be filled with swearing, sexual innuendo, or horror movie gore.
In the end, don’t worry if your attrition rate is high at first. It’s exceedingly hard to save a few 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.
It’s not an easy game, but it’s definitely replayable.