Console: Playstation 4
Start Date: January 31, 2016
End Date: January 31, 2016
Until Dawn is one of the few Playstation 4 games that I’ve been interested in playing so far, so I was stoked when my pal Jonnie Whoa Oh got the game and invited me to play it with him. Unlike our adventures with Game of Thrones, which took over a year to get through, Jon and I plowed through this one in a single coffee-and-Tostitos-fueled day of video game playing. Warning: There will be spoilers here.
The game is about a group of teenagers (mostly played by recognizable TV stars like Hayden Panettiere, Agent Grant Ward, and Mr. Robot) who go to a remote ski resort for a weekend of partying, only to find themselves targeted by a killer. The marketing for the game really played up the “slasher movie” angle, which intrigued the hell out of me because even though there have been a billion survival horror games, I can think of very few which tackled this particular subgenre. Plus, Until Dawn is a Quantic Dream-esque “interactive drama” type of game, and that seems like the perfect marriage of gameplay and theme to me. One of the most oft-mocked things about slasher movies is that the characters all make stupid decisions – the entire Scream franchise is built upon this trope, for instance. Pair that with gameplay based around the player making all those game-changing decisions, and you have a recipe for something really interesting.
And for the first half, the game really delivers. The characters are fun, the settings are great, and the slasher/whodunnit tone is in full effect. The choices you make seem to genuinely matter, too. The game keeps track of these via a “Butterfly Effect” system…
…which allows you to look at how your choices have directly impacted the story. There are a handful of annoying instances where any option chosen will just circle around to the same outcome, but those are few and far between. For the most part, this system is pretty effective.
In addition, in between each chapter is a segment featuring Peter Stormare as a psychiatrist, with the player as his mysterious unseen patient. These interstitials are pulled almost wholesale from similar segments in the Wii game Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, in that the way you answer Peter Stormare’s questions affects the gameplay experiences you will have later on… except this is done with significantly less subtlety than in the Silent Hill game. When Peter asks you if you’re more afraid of spiders or snakes, for example, it’s not difficult to imagine the impact your answer will have on future jump scares. Still, if nothing else, these segments were pretty interesting plot-wise.
Jon and I had a lot of fun, during the first half of the game, theorizing about who the killer was. We came up with some good ideas that were kinda-sorta correct, but when the big reveal happened, it was genuinely surprising and fun and interesting. It would have been a great ending, but unfortunately the game was only half over.
How did the game continue after the reveal of the killer, you ask? SPOILER ALERT: The answer is Wendigos. It is revealed, out of nowhere, that the woods are filled with fucking Wendigos and they are the true enemy. I wish I was joking, but that is really what happens. I cannot even express how disappointed I was that this unique mystery/slasher game suddenly became just another Resident Evil clone where you have to run around fighting hordes of stupid-looking monsters.
In addition to all the other stupid things about this stupid development, it also renders the Peter Stormare segments entirely irrelevant. Up until this point, these parts were heavily tied in with the “murderer” plot, giving little clues to the killer’s identity and motives. Once that plot is resolved, these segments continue but now feel completely pointless. It’s almost as if the developers made two separate games and then mashed them together.
Another major complaint I have is more of a complaint about mainstream video games in general: I am so goddamn sick of motherfucking Quick-Time Events.
From Heavy Rain to Uncharted to everything Telltale puts out, the Quick-Time Event seems to be the go-to device that AAA developers use to make cinematic games seem a little bit more action-y. It’s a goddamn plague on gaming, and developers should have more faith that their story-based games can stand on their own two feet. It would be unfair of me to single out Until Dawn for following the same trend as everybody else, but man does this game abuse the hell out of this shit. It fucking sucks.
As my partner through this adventure, Jonnie Whoa Oh ended up with a more charitable opinion of the game than mine. I think a large part of this is that he is not really a horror movie fan, and therefore was not as familiar as I was with the nuances and tropes the game was exploiting. Though he also thought the Wendigo transition was awkward, he did not find the concept to be as inherently lame as I did. And one of his major complaints was something I actually liked about the game – that it’s possible, and even probable, to get all your characters killed throughout the course of the campaign. We ended up with only Hayden Pantierre left alive at the end, and while I thought that having a “final girl” was the perfect conclusion to a horror game, Jon was more disappointed that our decisions led to the other characters’ deaths. It was interesting playing this game with a non-horror fan, and while I disagree with many of his thoughts, they do remind me that most of Until Dawn‘s mainstream audience is probably coming at it from his point of view rather than mine.
And ultimately, this isn’t a bad game by any means. For at least the first half, it’s actually an incredibly engaging, extremely unique experience that’s worth playing. I was just majorly disappointed at how much it lost its creativity in the back-end. Perhaps one day slasher fans will get the video game we truly deserve – but until then Until Dawn is probably as close as it gets.