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Until Dawn – A Horror Great

I’ve recently finished Until Dawn and it’s going down as one of those games that transcends being just a game. It’s being added to a unique list, along with the original Tomb Raider and Mass Effect as one of those games that will be remembered for the experience and the fact it delivered something unique and new.

You should buy and play Until Dawn, preferably in a darkened room with the sound on really loud, like you would a film. Give it time and attention. The longer explanation follows. No spoilers.

It’s As Dramatic As Film

The primary achievement of Until Dawn is it’s as dramatic as a film, potentially more so than some films that hit the cinema these days. There are games that have come close to this, but they are by and large still games, so while their dramatic intensity is great, they are still sort of a step removed. I’m thinking of games like Mass Effect, which does a pretty good job of putting a dramatic science fiction epic in a computer game.

No matter how good Mass Effect gets though, you’re well aware it is a very good ‘game drama’, you’d not expect it to appear on the screen without a radical overhaul. Until Dawn is dramatically stronger in terms of the script and how the digital actors act to the extent the difference between it being a game and a film you get to make narrative choices in is significantly blurred.

A key reason this works is Until Dawn has realised the actors in the game to a scary degree of accuracy. This isn’t voice actors playing digitally created characters, it’s actual film actors in the game that have been realised with full motion capture. It verges on being the whole Gollum thing from the Lord of the Rings films in a computer game.

You’re watching Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville) play Sam and Rami Malek (Mr Robot) play Joshua. They look like them, act like them and in the strangest, surrealist and unsettling sort of way are as alluring as them in terms of their performances, character psychology and physicality. When Sam plays out part of an episode in only a towel it is both sexy and scary due to the characters vulnerability, exactly like it would be in an actual film.

Illusionism In Structure And Extras

Until Dawn is also very clever in how it is structured and packaged, doing everything it can to maintain the illusion that you’re experiencing a cinematic experience that you happen to be able to influence rather than a game.

The narrative in Until Dawn has a very good structure, which I can’t go into detail on since it’ll be a spoiler, but it’s suffice to say it plays with our expectations around narrative structures to do two things: keep the story surprising and layered and afford opportunities to alter the game through accumulating some information on the player (so, I believe). An interesting part of this is some of these narrative illusions are more powerful depending on the choices you make, I can’t say how, but I suspect some of the curtain is pulled back earlier, or increases the chances you’ll glimpse through it, on at least one key choice moment relatively early in the game. In retrospect, I made the better choice in this regard which I think improved the experience (but I’ll never 100% know, of course).

The episodic nature of the game is also played to the max. It’s essentially split into ten episodes as the hours countdown to dawn. The story is continuous, but the ends of episodes are recognised and, more importantly, so are the beginnings of episodes with a whole ‘last time on Until Dawn’ thing going. This really works and pulls you into the whole experience. I loved it anyway, but then I’m a sucker for consciously recognising and using the structures of TV shows and serials.

To what degree is choice an illusion? Like with all these games a large part of the narrative branching will have been decided upon with the goal of not making too much content that never gets seen. So you know you’re always making choices that impact common narrative, rather than shooting off down whole branches that risk never being walked. It works though. I never once felt like the illusionism of choice was ruining the game for me. It always felt like choice and fateful choice at that and that’s from someone whose play through, so I suspect from the odd post-completion spoiler, ‘avoided’ some of the choices with heavier repercussions.

The game is also packaged like a film release in the sense that as you progress through the game you unlock ‘making of’ extras which are really interesting. They work exactly like a films ‘making of’ extras do, which just goes to show how similar some of the processes are getting. I watched the extras for the game, I rarely do this with films. The only exception being the ‘big extra productions’ that appear on films like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (you can argue the ‘making of’ material is the reason to buy The Hobbit DVDs). Very good.

It’s A Very Good Horror Film

I’ve become disillusioned with horror films for a while now. They all tend to be the same. I think the last one I can call out as being interesting was Scream and that was a deconstruction. I have to go back further to the films Scream was de-constructing in order to find ones I enjoyed. I also liked Cabin in the Woods, but again we have a sort of de-construction going on. All the new ones are the same, primarily designed to make you jump with loud noises, images being thrown at you and a good dose of found footage. I like my found footage films, but it’s never overly translated well for horror films for me.

Until Dawn is essentially the best horror film I’ve watched in a very long time. Next time you think of going to see a horror film at the cinema buy Until Dawn instead, lower the lights in the living room and turn the sound up. It’ll probably be better than the 90-minutes in the cinema. The game did manage to scar me at many points as the story unfolded.

The game is better acted, has more layers, you get to influence who lives and who dies, and you will feel disappointments and elations in this area and the story is good.

Death By Timed Events

I’ve not delved too much into the mechanics behind Until Dawn after finishing it, but I’m pretty sure character deaths are heavily influenced by quick timed events. I’m not saying that’s the only factor, I’m pretty sure relationship choices may influence them as well, but it’s the most notable.

This isn’t great if you’re just not good at quickly noticing the event, recognising the shape and your brain connecting that with the up, down, left and right shapes on the control pad. I’m not, so it’s safe to say I lost some characters due to my inability to do this quickly. You face choices in these sequences as well as quick timed events, so it wasn’t he only factor, but it certainly didn’t help. As an example, I believe I lost Emily due to a stupid choices, which I realised wasn’t the best idea immediately after I made it and then I failed at a quick timed event. If I’d have made a different choice I’d have not faced the danger that killed her.

The other interesting mechanics is the need to keep the controller almost perfectly still. I was failing at this constantly and I new it was only a matter of time before it caused a death. I prepared for this a bit as ecology issues make it obvious this is going to occur more. I started playing the game with a pillow on my lap to reduce the impact of my body movements and my breathing. I also turned the rumble off on the controller which was making holding it still almost impossible!

It’s worth noting it possible for all the cast to survive Until Dawn. I suspect the odds are rare, but I understand it is possible.

Please, Do It Again?

The overwhelming feeling I have with Until Dawn is I want Supermassive Games to do it again. I have no idea to what degree Until Dawn was a commercial success or how costly it was to make, but I’d love it to have been commercially successful enough so they make more. They deliver a great experience, all the narrative choice of a Telltale game but actually within a cinematic experience that is still enough of game to deliver the benefits of both.

“I think that you should expect the team to build on what we’ve done with Until Dawn, whether it’s in horror or in other genres. A sequel in the traditional sense”

What I’d like to see them do is other genres. I’ve yet to process how well that would work out, or whether the horror experience was so integrated into the experience it would be hard to separate it out. It would be interesting to see it done though, such as Until Dawn experience around a political thriller? A procedural drama? I suspect that would work very well. A part of me would love to see some sort of science fiction epic done this way, but that may be harder to do. The quote above suggests sales are giving them the opportunity to think about it.

The series could go in another direction, in that I’m imagining how really scary and engaging this all could be if done in Playstation VR? The ability to ‘walk’ around the actors in the scene? When a door opens it actually happens behind you and you have to turn around. A more interesting approach, though I’d have no idea how they’d do it, or even it’s impossible, is to have you as a character while maintaining the acted narrative? Probably impossible as you’d be silent, but if they could break the disembodied camera problem without losing the scripted narrative that would be…unique.

In the meantime I’m going to have to satisfy myself with Life is Strange, but I have to admit, the exemplary experience that Until Dawn delivers, in terms of the whole package, is very hard to duplicate.

About Ian O'Rourke

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