Until Dawn (PS4)
Developer: Supermassive Games
Release Date: August 2015
Finished: October 2019
Released in August 2015 from developer Supermassive Games, Until Dawn brings a new perspective to the interactive drama based games that have grown and prevaled on this gaming generation of consoles. It shares a similarity with its peers in adopting the butterfly narrative approach to storytelling, allowing the users inputs to directly shape and amend the story dependent on your actions or indeed, inactions on occasion. It acts, almost as an antithesis to the bland and insipid, inconsequential nature of open world games and environments, perhaps its greatest attraction for me personally. I’ll concede its a cliched notion but certainly, for those that long, that crave for the emotive state of your actions have actual consequences, these forms of personal interactive dramas are a welcome relief and certainly work to leave you with the lingering sentiment of what you could have done differently.
Despite a minimalist approach to advertising, perhaps alluding to a lack of faith in the final product or conversely, full confidence, Until Dawn was a commercial and more importantly, critical success for the studio, adding to the foundations of the console being the platform for successful interactive dramas complemented by the releases from other studios such as Quantic Dream. Speaking at Eurogamer in 2015, then Sony boss Shuhei Yoshida admitted to the fact everybody being “surprised by the positive reaction” the game received on its launch with a growing trend of streaming and a willing audience to watch the multitude of endings and decisions. If narrative was your main focus, Until Dawn was a title that delivered this with aplomb, truly delivering on the premise of the butterfly effect in its structure.
As with its peers on this generation of consoles such as Beyond and Detroit from Quantic Dream, many of the same faults and issues do present themselves and it would be disingenuous to suggest this is the perfect blend of substance and style. Indeed, for all the strengths and merits of the narrative, there is a great deal to be critical when it comes to the actual gaming mechanics and raises this question of the frustrated games developer unable to push through into cinematic storytelling. Certainly the influences in this particular gaming world are more abundant and clear in contrast to the work from Quantic Dream, that whilst borrowing certain themes and structures from authors such as Philip K Dick attempted to craft a more original narrative. Here, the inspiration of the Hollywood slasher movie permeates almost the entire experience with a cast of characters almost walking, talking cliches saved perhaps by a strong cast of memorable and distinct performances for each of the eight students.
If and when you do happen to lose a member of the group, the main narrative pivots around your friends surviving the events transpiring around you ‘until dawn’, you do feel a slight sense of loss of not seeing their path through to fruition. I’ll concede, given the relatively short length of this game I had formed an opinion fairly early on there were no redeemable aspects of these characters, so in tune with certain cliched individuals we’ve all seen a number of times before. As my experience drew to a close, I will admit I was perplexed and even a little forlorn despite my best intentions and endeavours I hadn’t managed to save more than survived upon the mountain that night. As a drama, I was engaged, as a game, I have to say I was left wanting.
Every Decision Has A Consequence
The game utilises the ‘butterfly effect’ narrative structure, whereby your actions or inactions have consequences to the characters around you. As a result, there are a plethora of endings and finales to witness dependent upon you actions, it certainly enforces the notion you are shaping and forging the story to a greater extent in contrast to open world titles which tend to maintain the status quo irrespective of your actions. At its core, the game is structured around ten chapters and a core cast of eight American teenagers as they arrive at a mountain cabin to spend the night.
As events unfold they attempt to survive the night coming up against a variety of threats and menace which in truth will be familiar to anyone who has watched a slasher movie over the last two decades. Who survives to the end is entirely dependent on your actions and decisions, the game adapts the narrative to fit someone’s death, it never felt in its entirety you had fundamentally broken or changed the running plot when someone passed or you made an error in judgement. I will admit in the opening chapters, there was a certain temptation to allow bad mistakes and decisions to be made to allow a more sinister fate for certain characters, however in retrospect, I do wish I had finished with a happier conclusion.
I enjoyed the fact equally on reflection there was no load or save function built into the game, certainly the game does auto save during the course of the narrative however in the absence of being able to reload a chapter following a lapse in concentration or a mis-timed QTE does give the consequences of your actions a real measure of weight. It’s the closest save system I would argue, I’ve experienced that finds the balance between the lack of save systems on the original consoles of our youth and the modern countenance of allowing you to save at will and removing any sense of consequence to your actions.
I want to enjoy the experience and the game without the historical constraint of not being able to save my experience, that’s progress. Equally however, it’s refreshing to be able to experience the narrative space over a couple of days with only the nuclear option of erasing the entire saved game to reset your playthrough until you’ve finished the game. Designers, make me feel my actions have consequences and I’ll feel more absorbed in your digital worlds and playgrounds. Allowing me to break the structure as a digital crutch is a common short term fix that enforces an artificial notion and contrivance.
Certainly there is somewhat of a duality to the game, the first half utilising a number of common tropes and cliches common to the genre to the extent, what tension and fear it was attempting to illicit is unfortunately washed away fairly quickly as you begin to recognise and predict the outcomes and actions of the characters. Which isn’t to say there isn’t enjoyment in the experience, the ‘jock’ and the ‘bad boy’ arguing over a lost love, the unstable host of the evening performed memorably by Rami Malek, lust filled teenagers clambering to have sex in a variety of locations and climates which I’ll fully admit as I grow older did leave me concerned for their digital well being if they were to fornicate in the snowy outdoors.
As quickly as it builds towards the inevitable revelation of the menace outside, it pivots in a different direction which takes on a more gruesome and macabre shedding a lot of the humour and joviality of the opening chapters which tonally felt somewhat inconsistent and if not fully breaking the immersion, certainly fractured it to some extent. For me personally I enjoyed the direction, although certainly there was substantial room for exposition or an explanation towards the end. I hadn’t really enjoyed playing a teen slasher game, however as the game pivoted towards its closing chapters, it did start to come together. At the very least, I was left wondering upon the outcome of the characters I left behind in the digital ether.
“Certainly there is somewhat of a duality to the game, the first half utilising a number of common tropes and cliches common to the genre to the extent, what tension and fear it was attempting to illicit is unfortunately washed away fairly quickly as you begin to recognise and predict the outcomes and actions of the characters”
Quick Decisions and Lasting Consequences
There is of course an unwelcome sense of familiarity when playing one of these interactive drama games, a prediction of a strong narrative and ideally memorable and moving characters and experiences and inevitably, poor mechanics and controls. To its credit, there is a certain old school charm and homage paid towards other horror titles, the original Resident Evil springs to mind with character movement and direction feeling very familiar to those who experienced them in their original iterations, the so called ‘tank controls’. The game utilises a distinct camera mechanism that captures and follows the characters from wide angles as they approach corners and aspects of the map before changing perspective.
In this regard it certainly felt like old horror games like the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill games and created the impression and sensation of being watched and monitored as you progressed through the campaign. The world of Until Dawn is relatively modest in size in keeping with its peers however its ambition is commendable with the main lodge providing a variety of levels and areas to explore, an abandoned asylum and a sinister underground mine. You never really feel fully at ease throughout the duration of the campaign with a constant soundtrack and score creating unease, the camera perspective creation a feeling of being watched and visually, horrific conditions no rational person would ever rationally stay given a choice.
The game is fundamentally structured around QTE, Quick Time Events and timed decisions that feel conflicting and yet, honest in their application. I don’t especially enjoy QTE actions as they often result in you character performing actions outside of their typical remit and range. With a high degree of climbing involved for instance, having to rely continually on pressing the right sequence of buttons to ascend is tiring. I did however personally enjoy the chase aspect which forces you to decide upon a given path or direction. In some instances at least, on a number of occasions you are given a ‘fast’ vs ‘safe’ path to decide in a short time, given your attachment to the character often this felt like a crutch. Other times when presented with a ‘go left or right’ option it actually felt organic, you wouldn’t in person know which direction to take, instead relying on the lesser of two evils mindset and hoping for the best.
The game was purportedly conceived as a Playstation Move release utilising the motion controller dynamic prevalent in the last generation. Upon release, much of these mechanics were replaced with a traditional controller interface which was a relief. One of my main issues in terms of the mechanics with Beyond and to an equal extent, Detroit, was the use of motion control during combat, specifically shaking your controller frantically to release a hold or perform a specific action. Whether it was foresight or just good fortune, with diminishing applications for the motion control aspect in many releases, its use in Until Dawn is constrained largely to a smart puzzle dynamic that does feel original in its use but also thankfully only features on rare occasions in the second half of the game. Whether they continue to feature into the next generation we can only wait to see, personally I’ll be thankful when the light bar and tracking is a distant memory, I can only hope.
Visually and tonally, there is certainly a consistent colour palette and aesthetic that permeates the entire experience and playthrough. As we come towards the end of this generation of consoles and you begin to see the frayed edges of graphical ability and prowess, you witness titles of this scope and size with a conflicting mixture of detailed character models and motion capture standing in contrast to muted backgrounds and surface textures. Certainly the world and night time setting does suggest and require a certain level of darkness and shadows to be a consistent presence, it just seem whilst a part of the horror genre, it also serves to mask some of the shortcomings of either the studio or perhaps, the limitations of the system hardware itself in being able to produce consistently highly detailed environments to support the rich narrative it’s crafted.
Overwhelmingly, perhaps the greatest impression and realisation to take away from Until Dawn, it is fundamentally a ‘smart game’ in its design if not the final outcome. I enjoyed the fact for instance the music was scored to increase in volume and intensity depending on the circumstance, growing louder as the player encountered a threat for instance a nice way to build tension. Equally, whilst not a mechanism I enjoy using, designing the experience around Move as an exclusive at first with the use of the wand controller to use the torch was a nice touch and certainly using traditional controllers does leave you feel wanting for a more immersive methodology. Combined with a save system that doesn’t allow you to course correct and a system that reacts and changes to your decisions, it’s a technical accomplishment that deserves to be experienced and praised.
“Overwhelmingly, perhaps the greatest impression and realisation to take away from Until Dawn, it is fundamentally a ‘smart game’ in its design if not the final outcome.”
It’s hard to end this particular review without resorting or concluding with a similar sentiment I expressed in relation to the games from Quantic Dream. The narrative and presentation is undoubtedly the games strength, the cast and performance whilst portraying somewhat cliched tropes and stereotypes performed admirably with the material they had. It’s hard to disguise the fact it feels like a split narrative, the American teenage slasher homage followed by ode to a low budget horror movie. Until Dawn wears its influences proudly and in a way is perhaps one of its greatest strengths as you are aware of the tropes, cliches and supposed direction before misdirecting you and leaving you as the player with a genuine sense of frustration and dread as those decisions you often deride and mock in a movie, are your decisions. Your actions have consequences so if your inability to resolve the teenage romance has fatal consequences, that is your fault, and your journey.
I still contend as a game in its purest sense, a heavy reliance on quick time events and a loving homage to the walking mechanics of games such as Resident Evil which were frustrating on their release and practically archaic today was a strange approach to adopt but does work in this context. However, on balance it does still feel like style over substance with some great performances from a strong cast let down by repeated quick time events whose inclusion it feels serves to give purpose to this title as a video game as opposed to an interactive movie on Netflix. That said, clearly a significant amount of work went into the design and creation of this game and to find fault and dismiss the game based purely on the playing mechanics would be disengous and dishonest.
You could argue perhaps there are to many elements and ideas coming together that unfortunately don’t work as a combined experience and stop short of being an all time classic. I wouldn’t argue to place this game in the pantheon of the greats but equally it’s one of titles that define this generation of consoles, for better and for worse. Sometimes less is more and with an almost conflicting and disjointed narrative shift half way through the game, you do find yourself wondering what might have been had either approach prevaled in their entirety. That said, in the short time I spent exploring the Albertan mountain top, I’ve come away with deeper lasting impressions and memorable experiences than the entirety of my playtime in the sprawling open world of Mafia 3.A smart, technical achievement in what it accomplishes, wrapped in the shroud of familiarity with its homage to a well known shroud but acts as a means of familiarity to its audience and results in a pleasing and memorable experience.
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