This post contains minor spoilers for Until Dawn.
On my fifteenth birthday, long after the party had ended, a couple of friends and I were sitting around in my bedroom. I was looking up guitar tabs for my friend Jones, who was casually strumming the chords to Tom Green’s anthem about checking for testicular cancer. My other friend Josiah was playing through Resident Evil 2, and had gotten to the section of the game where Leon has to delve into the sewers. To get there, of course, requires a crowbar. The game designers decided it would be a good idea to call this item the “manhole opener.” For a couple of kids who were delirious from lack of sleep, there was no higher form of comedy. It is a running joke that still pops up in instant messenger conversations and Christmas cards fifteen years later.
Until Dawn, the recently released horror game from Supermassive Games is, like the many films from which it draws inspiration, best enjoyed as a social experience. During my time with it, I constantly found myself wishing for either an engaged audience—through streaming—or friends on the couch (as in the case of that Resident Evil 2 game from years before). It’s one of those games that are made better by engaging it with other people nearby, as if it were made for committee-based decision making. Some of the most cringe-worthy lines in the game, most of them delivered by Emily—that most polarizing character of the game—would be made even better in the context of an audience of more than one. Likewise for other key reveals, such as what exactly is stalking our cast of kids.
But I didn’t have a bunch of friends to go through Until Dawn with. I was flying solo, finally deciding to play it after spoiling just about everything that could be spoiled through other people’s videos and editorials. That I’d read a lot about the game, how to progress in certain situations, probably cheapened my enjoyment of it a little bit. Because I knew how to progress in order to keep my characters alive, and had watched videos featuring possible deaths, I didn’t feel the sorts of surprise the non-educated player might. My wife was somewhat invested, but since she’s not a fan of scary movies, she tended to watch from around her monitor as she played Star Wars: The Old Republic.
As far as standing out among the genre itself, the game functions as a sort of meta-commentary on modern horror,with roots in the “torture pornography” of the Saw series of films, the 1980’s slasher film boom, and the new wave of supernatural, curse-inspired fare. It’s that latter part of the story which feels unearned and less than successful. Hopefully later installments—and God, please let there be future installments—will correct that a bit. And its insistence on narrative importance, meaningful actions that can later impact the story, is a key conceit. Decisions made early on can greatly impact who lives and dies later in the game. The game uses a mechanism called The Butterfly Effect to reference these shifts in narrative and consequence. Sometimes these decisions’ results are immediately,blatantly telegraphed, and other times it’s not evident until near the conclusion of the game. It’s one of Until Dawn’s greatest strengths, offering an astounding amount of replay value. That you can end the game with almost all its characters alive is a refreshing change of pace for a game which apes the conventions of horror. Likewise that all involved parties can die in horrible, brutal ways.
But this is also a distinct weakness, a glaring problem. Because Until Dawn is focused on narrative first, it uses a harsh and unforgiving system of save states and checkpoints to drive the story forward, with no way—at least until completion—to change what has happened. Accidentally move because a dog barked outside your house and startled you during one of the scenes where holding your controller perfectly still is necessary? You’ll have to go back and replay that part later. Decide to give a character an item that could save another’s life in a tense encounter? Maybe next time. Accidentally press the wrong button during one of the game’s copious quick-time challenges and fall into a grinder? The show must go on.
It’s something that should, at first, provide enthusiasm. This is a game that will always be “beatable,” in the sense of starting from the beginning and seeing credits. The fail state as an interruption in your progress does not exist. There’s no need to spend time,at least immediately, replaying a section of game in order to move forward. This is fantastic if you look at Until Dawn as an exercise in game rental. You can easily pick it up from a video store or kiosk and finish it within a day or two. But being able to go back in time and play through specific sections at will would be an interesting thing.
Perhaps another problem is that while the game does offer copious amounts of choices and consequences, there’s still a fairly finite number. Certain characters will always survive until the game’s final scene, regardless of the choices you make until then. There are not a thousand ways to die, only like twenty, and some of them feel unearned.
For all intents and purposes, it’s those two characters that have the greatest narrative weight in the entire story. In the game’s final minutes, all the onus is placed upon them, and the rest of the cast feels sort of like window dressing. I found myself wondering at times what might happen if different configurations of characters were available for that final scene. Or other scenes, really. How would Chris and Ashley’s experience in the mines have differed from Matt and Jess’s? What about if Emily had pointed a gun at Mike instead? Or if Mike hadn’t survived his trip to the sanatorium? Sam and Chris would have a much different conversation if they were the ones to venture up to the radio tower, I’m sure.
Obviously these are things that exist as hypotheticals because of intangible concerns like cost and development time. It would be expensive to use the fancy motion capture cameras and recording equipment to tease out all of these narrative threads, many of which don’t exist to serve to tell the story that Supermassive wanted to tell. But because Until Dawn is an interactive work of fiction, there’s a sense of wanting to interact with it even more than is already possible.
I only had the opportunity to play through it once—as a rental—and therefore didn’t get to experience it as people who own it do. But it’s a game and a setup I want to return to. I am thankful for its subversion of the fail state as a thing, but also because of its thematic details. It reminds me of games like the Super Famicom version of Clock Tower, except without the annoyance of being unbeatable because I am bad at video games.
Here’s hoping that Supermassive takes the things that work—the infectious nature of playing it with friends or an audience, the value of relationships between the characters, and the branching narrative structure—and improves upon them. It could be through even more choices, even less linearity among its branching decisions, and greater community engagement inside the actual game itself.
But it is a fantastic premise, an intriguing way to play, and something I am looking forward to seeing much more of. Hopefully with friends who share the same warped sense of humor.
Douglas J. Fresh, or Doug Messel, is a freelance writer and former retail professional whose other writing can be found at Just. Words. Writing., his personal portfolio site.