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Until Dawn review: The new canvas of horror

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Horror is a canvas for indulging fear. Whether it’s woven by actual gore or whispers of things unseen, horror allows us to engage with a view of the world that is both too real and yet impossible to accept. This contradiction that pulls us is where the song of fear comes from - and whether we hum along or try turn the volume down, horror succeeds when the melody is played. Whether you want to listen is up to you, but the song continues to play.

Until Dawn, a PS4 Exclusive by Supermassive, is a game in love with the themes of horror - and seems to want to play all of them at once. The problem is these melodies become discordant and the game’s major failure is its insistence on being a Jack of All Trades, rather than a Master of one.

But when Until Dawn focuses its approach, it succeeds beautifully. It’s clearly created by lovers of horror - and made by people who want you to be in on the tropes they play with. The creators know that you know horror - everyone does.

Consider the setup: Young, conventionally attractive, privileged people return after a tragic event took place a year ago, to the same lodge in the mountains; the event led to the disappearance of their twin friends. When these surviving friends return to get some closure about their loss, all is not as it seems and they are each being hunted.

As indicated, it’s very similar in terms of genre of many third-person character-choice games. This isn’t about killing a million zombies or solving puzzles in order to continue; you play multiple characters, from fixed camera positions, making choices - from dialogue to which path to flee down - that constantly play out and shape your own game. I was constantly surprised how deep and meaningful choices actually were; how subtle the changes in characters tone were to each other; how one choice so obviously led one character down a path she otherwise would not have.

Of course, as I said, you’ve seen this story setup before. Cabin in the Woods, by Joss Whedon, is almost exactly this. Cabin in the Woods was itself riffing off a million other similar stories, like Evil Dead.

Until Dawn isn’t trying to be original in its story, but is original in how it tells the story. What makes it original is a central feature of the game known as the Butterfly Effect, based on an illustration by scientist and pioneer of chaos theory, Edward Lorenz. That is, according to Lorenz and others’ theory, the flap of a butterfly's wings on one side of the world could be part of a series of causes that lead to a tornado elsewhere. In terms of story, that means one tiny choice leads to a devastating consequence or different state later.

But this isn’t merely a concept hidden behind algorithms: It is a menu in the game, that lets you easily track your decisions. You’ll be notified of your decisions when butterflies explode on to the screen and you can immediately see what just happened.

The end state of the game isn’t about keeping everyone alive, but reaching the end of the story; some characters can die and the game continues. My first playthrough, I ended up with only three dead. It’s possible to finish the game with everyone dead, no one or, it seems, everything in between.

The focus for the game of course is the characters. This is true even from a design perspective, when you are idle: the camera angle switches to a direct focus on a character’s face - at that moment, you can see what they’re feeling from their expression and breathing.

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Supermassive must be congratulated for having such a wonderfully diverse cast of various races. It’s wonderful seeing a mixed race couple as being unremarkable and merely accepted. While this was lovely, it would’ve been great if there was at least one same-sex couple. Maybe next time.

Second, the performances are fantastic - helped by some of the most frighteningly-real, high quality graphics I’ve seen. Indeed, aside from Lucifer in Constantine, Peter Stormare delivers his best performance in this (I’ll get to him later).

Some of the dialogue was teeth-clenchingly bad - “Didn’t you hear me over your sluttiness?” “We’re going on a sexcapade!” - though it’s mostly forgivable. But tied to this is that the characters are rather indistinguishable in terms of being flat.

You could’ve switched any of the characters and none of their dialogue would’ve sounded that odd coming from any of them. They’re just that unremarkable. They’re all a bit funny, a bit mean, a bit flirty, like to tease and scare each other, randomly display knowledge and intelligence,  and so on. They’re annoyingly average.

This kind of approach to the characters is embodied in how the game introduces you to them. It gives their name then the game asserts their qualities: Intelligent, Caring, etc. This seemed a bit like an RPG mechanic. This could’ve been fun, since we then get to roleplay as each one - except none of those qualities particularly show up. What does “Intelligent” mean? Why are you telling us someone is “Thoughtful”?

Compare this to characters done by, say, Telltale or Naughty Dog: You didn’t need to be told Clementine was smart in The Walking Dead, or that Ellie was resourceful and smart in The Last of Us. Both showed that all the time in how each girl responded. Their abilities stand out because they showed them, not because we were told them.

I don’t think we can apply the “Show don’t tell” rule to games as rigidly as other mediums, but Until Dawn seems to be “Show and never follow through in a meaningful way”.  The characters are not particularly interesting; indeed, when they actually rise above being flat as the paper they’re written on, they become annoying. The first interaction we see between one woman and another is an immediate fight over a man, where each one calls the other “slut” and “whore”; a couple walking to the cabin joke about future sex for the entire - the ENTIRE - journey; one man encourages another man to view a female character as a piece of meat ripe for the taking.

Again: Notice what I remember about these characters is when they’re annoying because the only other time is how they died.

For a game that is survival horror, we need to have an element we want to survive. Until Dawn characters are not that: they’re bland ciphers I kept alive for the sole purpose of finding out more of the story and spending time in the fascinating, beautiful world. I felt nothing when they died, only annoyed that there was now a part of the world I would not see and amused at the brutality of some deaths.

Again: The performances are excellent - but they’re given bad material. I watched a behind-the-scenes clip of one character who apparently was a vegan and “animal lover”. I could not have told you that despite spending nearly ten hours with her. None of that was shown (not even in the boring title card).

Despite this fumble, it’s not enough to really tarnish the experience - it’s just disappointing that a character-focused game has such loudly annoyingly average characters.

The game is episodic in structure, giving you a reminder of your choices and consequences, of previous chapters. This is quite a nice way to be accessible to those who only play in hour spurts (due to busy schedules). In between chapters, you interact directly with an analyst, Dr Hill, played by the malevolently brilliant Peter Stormare. Here, you answer some questions and, depending on your answers, some parts of the game change.

This will remind some of you of the “Psych Profile” mechanic in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. However, it’s not as engaging as I thought it would be and as the game continues, his influence and meaning dissipate. It beautifully seems to break the fourth wall when it starts, as he talks about you “playing this game” and so on. It’s brilliantly done in the beginning and it feels particularly creepy, because I felt addressed.

When he disappears is also when, unfortunately, the game does a complete turn around and starts to play a different melody - despite it being a variation of horror. It doesn’t sit well with what the game has presented in the first part and takes a turn that makes it even less interesting.

You can predict the who the “clown-faced killer” is quite quickly and your expectations won’t be wrong; it’s also easy to guess the plot early on. I didn’t mind that I was right - I minded that the game tried to subvert my expectations by just throwing up its hands and going “but look at that scary thing!” (this will make sense when you play the game). I didn’t mind that my expectations of getting the story beats were met; I minded that the game did nothing more than go “Yeah, we knew that you knew!” and then throwing a horror trope it doesn’t properly build up for the latter part of the game.

I had hoped that the game would try use the incredible choice and consequences mechanic as central to its story: For example,  having the “masked man” is someone different depending on my style of play (and each character could’ve been given a motivation). I was hoping the Analyst parts would themselves actually be about me, the player, throughout the story.

There are a whole lot of fine mechanics already in the game - but the game seems too scared to have followed through with interesting uses of them. None of this means the experience you do get isn’t good: it’s fun, fantastic, sometimes scary.

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The game is in love with jump scares, so if you are prone to any issues related to sudden frights, be warned. There were too many jump scares - even though, each one genuinely made me cry out. There was one sequence where there were three or four jump scares within the space of 3 minutes. It felt a bit ridiculous. This was a glorified haunted house, even though it was building tension.

The game tries some interesting mechanics; it deliberately doesn’t offer your checkpoints or allow you to save. But it does offer magical totems you find that show a snapshot of a future event. The event will look meaningless until… it isn’t. Almost every totem I found becomes meaningful in helping you make a choice later, since you will recognise the environment and scenario on display. It’s an interesting balance of not empowering the player too much, but also making it valuable.

Further, you find clues that shed light on the mysteries in the story. Some of these inform character choices and interactions - I watched as one character pieced together some clues I’d found with him. If I had missed out on these optional clues, he would’ve had a different response to the situation.

The other interesting design is when the game asks you to remain still. You have to hold the controller perfectly immobile, while something terrifying happens on screen. I failed these, despite being still or because I breathed wrong. Because you can’t redo these parts, it felt horrible - I wanted to scream at the unfairness of it, but I realise that fits the theme. I liked that something as silly as twitching from fear made a villain see me and had devastating consequences. That is an excellent integration of the PS4 DualShock controller - and highlights, this is indeed a PS4 Exclusive.

I had a lot of fun with Until Dawn: if I had friends, it would makes for a fun party experience, a great alternative to horror movie night. The graphics are stunning, the animation superb to the point of being unbelievable (I struggled to believe I was controlling people, due to everything being animated brilliantly, from their ankle adjustments to how they looked around); the sound is excellent and the horror designs worthy of some Silent Hills.

Further, it’s just the right length - I clocked in about 10 hours because I was searching for all the hidden totems and clues. And it begs to be replayed, since each playthrough will - genuinely - be different. It’s not scary as a Silent Hill game or Alien: Isolation, but it was fun scary. Don’t expect to get a meaningful story or even a smart one - but I know I had a wonderful time with it and look forward to giving it another go.

Tauriq: Twitter / MWEB GameZone: Twitter | Facebook

"ne tiny choice leads to a devastating consequence"

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