The teen-horror film is a cinematic sub-genre that despite its celluloid popularity over the last forty years has seen very few video game adaptations.
The premise seems ripe for video game exploration, a group of young people encounter a monster (supernatural or otherwise) and are picked off one-by-one, usually whilst staying overnight in a charnel house of some sorts.
Very few cinematic trends seem so readily made for video games, these films usually take place within a single, isolated location, feature elements of hide-and-seek and have a cast of multiple disposable protagonists, ensuring that the threat of death can be a permanent fixture.
Besides the sixth generation’s Obscure and its sequel, teen-horror has remained relatively unexplored within gaming, despite seeming to share a target demographic.
As a big fan of the teen-horror and ‘Slasher’ sub-genres, Until Dawn piqued my interest, my enthusiasm being only slightly dampened by the revelation that it would be a Playstation Move title for Playstation 3.
In 2014 publisher Sony and developer Supermassive Games announced that Until Dawn would be switching to Playstation 4 and ditching Playstation Move though retaining some element of motion control through the use of the Dualshock 4.
Over the last year, through various trailers and game-play demonstrations, we have seen Until Dawn evolve from what was initially a glorified interactive movie, into a fully fleshed-out major exclusive release for Sony’s Playstation 4, a release that I could not have been more enthusiastic about.
Until Dawn takes place in an area called Blackwood Pines located in Western Canada. The player assumes control of a number of teenagers on a winter break in an area of Blackwood Pines owned by the Washington family, of which three of the group are members of.
Blackwood Pines has a colourful history; the latest episode has seen the Washington family become embroiled in a clash with the local native population over conservation of the area.
So far, so Hollywood I bet you are thinking and it is true, Until Dawn’s premise is a cookie-cutter teen-horror set-up. The most surprising part of Until Dawn is how effectively it incorporates video game design to subvert the clichés and tropes of the horror genre.
Initially Until Dawn’s cast seem like stereotypical characters but the game gives the player ample opportunity to shape the personality of each character by making often split-second decisions that not only influence the personality of each character but decisions that will drastically alter the events that will unfold.
If you have ever watched a horror film and bemoaned the terrible choices that led to a character’s death, Until Dawn is the game for you. Now you are in charge of those choices and your gaming prowess will dictate who survives and how satisfying the conclusion will be.
I consider myself to be a rather pragmatic and sensible individual and my initial play-through saw me making sensible and rational decisions for the group.
As a direct result of these decisions, my experience subverted the clichés so often seen in this type of horror fiction. For example, Matt starts the game as a stereotypical ‘Jock’ archetype, a stuffed letterman jacket of sexual innuendo, but by the end of my play-through he was probably the most sensible and introspective member of the group.
The two standout characters are Sam and Mike played respectively by Hayden Panettiere (Heroes & Scream 4) and Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). They are the two characters with the most room for development and given the most screen time. Initially starting out as the blonde damsel in distress and Machiavellian villain of the story, my initial play-through saw them become the de-facto leaders of the group.
I imagine player’s initial completion will garner similar results; gamers are so accustomed to playing a certain way, with an onus placed on survival above everything else. Until Dawn is not necessarily that type of game; it encourages multiple completions. In subsequent sessions I felt sufficiently liberated to experiment with the lives and relationships of these characters, the player really has freedom to choose their outcome. You might want an all-male survival group, or an all-female survival group, by carefully curating your decisions, you can achieve many different outcomes, or you might be like me and attempt to get the entire group killed as quickly as possible.
The game smartly uses a series of psychiatric sessions as a framing device, these sessions run by Dr. Hill played by Peter Stormare (Prison Break) doing his best Christopher Walken impression give an additional layer of player choice and depth, allowing the player to share their real-life fears or select their least-favourite member of the group… Emily, always, Emily for those wondering.
My initial concern with Until Dawn was how much game there would be, the humble beginnings as a Move title combined with Sony’s decision to lower the price from that of other major releases gave me cause for concern. Thankfully my worries were unfounded, there is as much game for your money here as with any comparable major release, though the run-time is nine hours, the pacing is wonderful and the game necessitates multiple completions.
The majority of your time with Until Dawn will be spent exploring various locations, during these sections you control your character with the left-stick, and direct their gaze (along with a light source) by moving the right-stick. These sections are often punctuated with one of two types of climax, either a brief action sequence involving quick-time button prompts, or with a series of on-the-spot decisions such as whether to run or hide, or whether to lie or tell the truth.
The control scheme is simple but it all works fantastically, ensuring that the majority of your concentration will be focussed on decision making, rather than any elaborate control set-up.
As with almost all games, the motion controls are the inferior option, gamers looking for precision will want to opt for the default controller-based setting.
My major criticism of Until Dawn would be that it is not particularly frightening. There are a few nice jump-scares throughout but the game’s structure becomes somewhat formulaic and predictable. The action set-pieces feel detached from the exploration and as such the player never feels in any danger as they explore the various locales of Blackwood Pines.
Despite this criticism Until Dawn is an engrossing experience and a worthwhile entry into a survival horror genre that is experiencing something of a renaissance in recent years after almost a decade spent on the sidelines.
Until Dawn is a gorgeous game, its Hollywood cast’s performances are captured in incredible detail with their facial expressions reacting in real time as you manoeuvre them through the atmospheric locations.
The visuals are often stunning with the use of lighting being particularly great. As you move through the locations, you will often be carrying a light source be it a torch, lighter or mobile phone. The light reacts dynamically with the environment creating expressive shadows and an eerie atmosphere.
Where Until Dawn’s presentation really excels is in its use of fixed camera angles, paying homage to classic survival horror whilst also evoking the feeling of watching a horror film.
Until Dawn’s camera privileges the spectator, the player will often see dangers that the character they are controlling is unaware of.
During play, I often felt like a movie director, rather than empathising with the character I was controlling, I felt compelled to sadistically put them through unpleasant circumstances and the game encourages the player to torture these characters, particularly on multiple play sessions.
The character models are brilliantly animated and amazingly expressive. Rather than the player feeling frightened, this often results in the player feeling as though they are the ones frightening their avatar.
If you momentarily pause before descending an ominously dark staircase for example, the camera will switch to a close-up shot of the character’s face as they bite their lip to stifle a quiver or manically shift their eyes to react to a creak in the floorboards.
The end result is a horror game that whilst not particularly scary, is deliriously entertaining.
The use of light and fixed cameras sometimes evokes the Spencer Mansion from the original Resident Evil and its subsequent Remake, high praise indeed.
When video games have notable voiceover and motion capture actors the emphasis will undoubtedly centre on their performances and Until Dawn is no exception.
There is a certain degree of intertextuality in Until Dawn with many of these actors having a history of working in the horror genre, Jordan Fisher from television’s Teen Wolf and Galadriel Stineman from HBO’s True Blood.
The cast performs admirably with every actor delivering a competent performance, there are a few cheesy lines, some are self aware, others perhaps not but for the vast majority of its play-time, Until Dawn achieves parity with similar Hollywood productions. When you consider that an average film’s run-time is around ninety minutes and Until Dawn can last anywhere between seven and ten hours, that it can achieve comparable quality, is a testament to the high level of writing talent that worked on the game.
Until Dawn is a celebration of popular horror fiction and it is obvious its creators have an appreciation and knowledge of the genre and its conventions.
Whilst exploring the environment, venturing into more ominous locations will often trigger musical cues, these cues are effective in suggesting danger or fear and create an unsettling atmosphere of dread, not necessarily for the player but certainly for the character they are controlling.
Until Dawn adopts a television mini-series presentation style with a ‘Previously on…’ recap before every new chapter and its love for TV serials is apparent, it even has its own signature theme tune, the haunting ‘O Death’ that is a memorable song that ties the audio presentation together nicely.
A comparison to David Cage’s Quantic Dream studio would be far too easy and perhaps not all that accurate. As good as they are, Cage’s games often seek to merely imitate Hollywood and as a result often end up missing the point of being a video game, not taking full advantage of the medium’s capabilities. Until Dawn pays homage to horror cinema but also offers players something unique to gaming, the ability to shape and influence the narrative they are experiencing.
For all their bluster, very few cinematic video games offer the interactivity of Until Dawn and in a crowded release window Until Dawn has stood out as the most memorable experience for me.
For those with an interest in horror films, Until Dawn is an essential experience, whilst also offering a glimpse into the future of interactive experiences and player choice.
An essential exclusive title for Sony’s Playstation 4 and a genuine contender for Game of the Year.