You’ll probably recognize all of the tropes present in Until Dawn if you’ve seen any horror from about 1978 to the present. You’ve got a spooky cabin in the woods, several young friends with personalities ranging from horny jock to bookish waif, a homicidal maniac on the loose; basically, it seems like very little to actually surprise you at a first glance. However, Until Dawn represents something uniquely special and rarely seen in video games today, and that’s what kept me engaged from the opening credits to the final killer cut.
The game begins with a harrowing prologue focused on a terrible tragedy. Following the incredibly gruesome opening, the narrative sets in for the slow burn, taking time to establish the scenario and characters. Sure, it seems incredibly unbelievable for these same friends to revisit the site of their fallen comrades one year later (it’s like they’re asking to be killed, really), but it’s all in service of setting up a creepy yarn with a focus on the individuality of the participants. Best of all, you get to outline the main personality traits of these victims during these early chapters. You’ll get the chance to play Mike as a dismissive jerk or romantic Casanova at the same time you’re trying, or failing, to make Chris the sympathetic friend who’s attempting to keep the group together. You can outline these characteristics based on the main ways you interact with Until Dawn, namely dialogue-based decision making and Quick Time Event moments. I know that many gamers are going to turn up their noses at these types of mechanics, but there was something almost classy about choosing to flat out destroy my boyfriend in a snowball fight or give a chance for his ego to grow just a bit.
These moments play into the best thing Until Dawn has going for it. The game works on the principles of the butterfly effect, though, thankfully, not the Ashton Kutcher movie of the same name. Seemingly small decisions can have drastically different effects on the narrative of the game. Perhaps an early moment causes a rift between two friends, which leads to a conflict later in the story. Maybe you choose the safer path to save another person, but that precious time results in their incredibly gory death. Choices compound and build off of each other to create an intriguing web of possibilities and variable outcome. Rest assured, all eight friends can survive until the next morning, but they can all end up dead before help arrives, too.
A narrative-based title like Until Dawn lives and dies based on its ability to feel both engaging as a narrative and allow for a great deal of player agency. As someone who continually figures out the ending of a movie during the first twenty minutes of the adventure (and that’s not ego stroking, merely a result of watching WAY too many movies), I was surprised at how many times Supermassive Games kept me guessing and pondering what exactly was going to happen next. Moments of violence are both shocking and devastating, especially when you know that your actions were the direct cause of the carnage on screen. There were times when I rolled my eyes at a seemingly out of nowhere turn in the story or awkward moment that broke with reality, but Until Dawn manages to craft a fun and often surprising tale that holds together quite well under severe scrutiny. Yeah, you’re going to get that moment of a character stupidly running towards danger instead of away from it, but that’s half the joy of the whole horror experience. Clues and revelations that seem almost disparate from each other manage to find common ground and keep the game grounded in its world and rules.
And Until Dawn has pretty much perfected the classic jump scare moment in a horror movie by also bringing an increased level of tension and dread that we just don’t get out of many “horror” games these days. Of course, some of these moments are little more than an innocuous door slamming closed or loud violin squeal that turns out to be merely an ally coming to save the day, but the fact that any missed QTE can result in death kept me fingers tightly grasped on the controller at almost all times. When the danger and potential violence rears its ugly head, pressing the triangle button can become a nerve-wracking experience. I have to give a great deal of credit to composer Jason Graves, who you may know from the Dead Space series. His music fills nearly every scene with a great deal of malice and perfectly sets the scene time and time again.
Outside of the dialogue options and QTEs, you’ll spend a lot of time guiding one of the friends through an environment with a pretty awkward control scheme. It often felt like I was swimming the character through the world instead of walking them around, but thankfully, the game never asks you to fulfill a time limit or overcome a dangerous moment during these exploration portions. You’ll get a chance to uncover clues related to the danger looming in the snowy night, and scattered totems allow you to glimpse potential paths and outcomes before you actually come to them.
Unfortunately, these moments left me slightly on edge for the wrong reasons. You’ll want to explore and find everything you can interact with, but there’s the constant fear that you may trigger the next story encounter before you’ve had the chance to find that crucial tidbit of info. I was frustrated at times and yearning to reload a previous save in order to get the most out of a given playthrough, but Supermassive allows only one save file for Until Dawn that constantly updates with every decision you make. Take my advice; go with the flow and let the chips fall where they may, and you’ll enjoy the game as an experience instead of a list of objectives. I was also hoping that there might be some light puzzle solving or more interaction with the world, but the developers were focused on creating a narrative vision instead of making it feel more like a “game.”
Finishing the game allows you to revisit individual chapters to make different decisions and directly see their impact. Unfortunately, I was often left wondering where some of the bigger branching points were located in the story. Until Dawn would have benefited from a structure similar to Virtue’s Last Reward, where you can see every possible decision on a branching web instead of a stifling chapter-based arc. Some decisions can even impact multiple parts of the story, which means you’re probably better off just restarting the adventure instead of taking it in pieces. This also means that you’ll be seeing a lot of the same scenes over and over again if you want to experience every permutation of the story. In this way, some of the ambitiousness of the story in Until Dawn ends up slightly damaging its replayability. Several of the characters also feel a bit thin in terms of narrative impact, as they can disappear entirely from the story or end up dead with almost the same result on the rest of the cast.
Of course, the biggest challenge facing Until Dawn comes down to personal taste. Horror games, much like movies, appeal to a very specific audience, and that will most likely determine how much you enjoy Until Dawn. Not a fan of the original Halloween or more recent You’re Next? Well, this may not be the game for you. My wife and I are big horror movie fans, so this game was an absolute delight in our household. We actually made our own little game out of it, debating our decisions back and forth and chastising each other when things went wrong. Yes, I did something incredibly stupid during one particular exploration scene, but she also got a character killed when she kicked me out of fear when I was trying to hold the controller perfectly still. I’d say we pretty much evened each other out in the end.
I apologize if this review came across as slightly vague, but I really don’t want to spoil some of the fun to be had in this horrific tale. Take a second to ask yourself if you’d be interested in watching a fun horror movie. If your answer is “yes,” then you’d probably do well to give Until Dawn a try. The most important aspects of a good horror story are there; the characters are fun, the story makes sense and keeps you guessing, and some of the scares are a riot. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this game holds up better than the vast majority of horror dreck that’s out there right now, and I’ve seen just about every horror movie worth a damn in recent years. It may not have the emotional undercurrent and incredibly personal nature of something like The Babadook, but it’s a game that could have you screaming like Jamie Lee Curtis running away from Michael Myers. Just remember to run outside when you’re given the chance. Or, ya know what, maybe that’s not such a good idea after all.