“Adolescent-hunting horror”: a review of Until Dawn
It sure has been a big year for video games about teenagers. Since February we have been getting a steady stream of episodes of the high-school, time travel, mystery girl drama game, Life Is Strange. Now we have the Playstation 4 exclusive, adolescent-hunting horror of Until Dawn.
Until Dawn has a classic ‘slasher movie’ premise. One year after the disappearance of their friends/sisters, a group of teenagers have decided to return to the remote, snowy mountain cabin from where they disappeared, and try and have the wildest, most youthfully exuberant weekend possible, to honour their memory. Ah yes, spending a weekend in the wilderness where an unsolved police case took place to drink, hook up, and argue with exes: the ultimate mark of respect. What could possibly go wrong?
Naturally, it gradually transpires that everyone who came away on this trip is in grave danger. What Until Dawn actually allows you to do is make snap decisions about how each of the characters in the game responds to the inevitable life-or-death, fight-or-flight situations, which these characters end up in. Which character will you let hold the gun? In a chase will you risk a short cut that strays off the path and into the darkness of the woods? These are the choices you will make that will determine the fates of these vulnerable characters as the mysteries surrounding the killer, and the remote mountain, unfurl.
Caring about the characters is crucial in a game like this, where the drive to keep them alive (or not) is the core appeal of the game. It may not be obvious in the opening hour or so of the game, but the cast of characters in Until Dawn are really expertly crafted. A big part of what made me so invested in these characters is the absolutely stunning 3D models, which were created for this game, especially in the faces. These are characters that are modelled off real, flesh and blood actors whose faces you will recognize from television and movies. They are given such amazing detail that I often found myself ogling the beauty of the freckles across Sam’s cheeks, or the pores on the nose of the creepy psychiatrist character as he stares directly through the screen, meeting the gaze of the player.
But it’s more than just the models. Throughout the game you switch between taking control of eight different characters, each with their own flaws, strengths, and complicated histories with the other seven. As you first start the game there are some characters you will find inherently likeable like Sam or Matt, and there will be others like Emily and Jessica that you are almost guaranteed to find annoying or horrible. But after guiding them through the various hardships the game presents (or failing to, as the case may be), I reached the end of the game with quite a strong emotional connection to every single one of these characters. Each play through of Until Dawn is just four hours long, but by the end of it you will be so invested in the wellbeing and safety of these characters that you will feel compelled to play again almost immediately – just to see if you can’t do the near impossible and save them all this time.
I won’t say that the game doesn’t have a few flaws though. Firstly I was actually quite surprised that all the relationships in the game were heterosexual. I was talking to a friend who felt the very same way; it’s really noticeable and odd that none of the sexuality of the characters was shown to be queer. Sam is the only character (from memory) who doesn’t express any sort of romantic or sexual attraction to any of the other characters. So at least there’s at least some room there to project whatever you like onto her.
Another thing I feel is well worth mentioning, is the way that the story takes a massive turn in the middle of the game and ends up looking and feeling very different. I honestly don’t know how I feel about this. Because although I still felt like the game was good (again, the characters hold the whole thing together) it basically turns into an entirely different story, with a different premise. These new narrative elements certainly form an unexpected twist, but they steer the game into territory, which I didn’t necessarily sign up for when I decided to play the game. Whilst I didn’t mind it so much, I know that there will be a lot of people who will, so bear that in mind.
Another thing worth considering is how you feel about jump scares. Until Dawn is a horror game built entirely around creating situational tension, manipulating and withholding visual information, before suddenly startling you with a threat (or a teen prank). Again, this isn’t something I find particularly troubling, but I know there are people out there who can’t stand being frightened in this very manipulative kind of way.
Until Dawn is a very ambitious, risky game to be made on such a big budget. It represents a lot of money being gambled on a bold idea and, despite my couple of hesitations about it, I think it is a masterpiece. It is a game that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and wanting to return to. I think it’s a game that ought to be studied and understood, in the hopes that this formula can be refined and reused in a host of new and innovative ways. Not only is Until Dawn one of the best games I’ve played this year, it also marks an important first step into a new direction for emotional and engaging storytelling in video games. Along with other ambitious young adult games like Life Is Strange it’s hard not to feel like 2015 is the year the youths are taking over.
Until Dawn is available now exclusively for the Playstation 4.