Throughout the course of the new PS4 exclusive, Until Dawn, Peter Stormare, playing the part of a character referred to as The Analyst, will speak directly to you, the gamer. He periodically breaks the fourth wall to interact with you, asking you questions about what you fear, which characters in the game you’re fond of and which you don’t really care for. It’s an interesting idea, and the game adapts a little based on your answers to make your experience a little more personal. And so in the interest of keeping things meta, I’m now going to address you, the reader, directly, and ask you some questions. I can’t promise the review will change as per your answers, but I’m fairly confident I know what the answers will be so it won’t need to. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Let’s begin. Have you ever heard anybody use the phrase “getting presidential” as a euphemism for having sex? Have any of your friends ever offered you advice on how to take a girl to the “bone zone”? Have you ever referred to your own penis, or have you ever heard anybody else refer to theirs, as “Air Force One”? If not (and let’s be honest, it’s likely not) then prepare to be incredulous at how the cast of Until Dawn speak to each other.
Yes, the dialogue in Until Dawn is, at times, jaw-droppingly awful. Earlier in the year many of us laughed our way through the first episode of Life Is Strange as the cast hella spoke to each other not like real people, but like what an alien might imagine teenagers talked like if all they had to go on for reference was a ’90s Limp Bizkit music video and access to the Hot Topic website. The dialogue in Until Dawn in the opening few hours is like the bastard offspring of the worst moments of Life Is Strange and the script of one of the crap straight-to-video American Pie sequels that we all tried really hard to forget about. It’s all horny teen banter as written by people who can’t remember being teens. Or indeed how to speak. It’s actually borderline offensively bad at times, to the point where I laughed out loud playing the game. And I’m talking full on belly laughs, too. I positively howled on more than one occasion, cringed more times than I could care to guess, and remained in a constant state of bewilderment for most of the opening hour or two of the story. This game is something else.
But the secret weapon that Until Dawn wields is that it’s not aiming for high art and has crash-landed face first in the gutter. Supermassive Games have aimed to pay homage to the teen slasher movies of the ’90s, and boy, have they ever nailed it. While appalling dialogue, paper thin characters, and a nonsensical, trope-laden plot might be a deal-breaker for a game like Heavy Rain, for Until Dawn they’re almost a necessity. The implausibly hot and frequently annoying cast of teens are all together. We’re introduced to them. We hate them. And then something awful happens and they have to band together, finding courage inside that they didn’t even know they had, as they try to make it through the evening alive. It adheres to the classic formula of dozens of movies from that era, and if you’re like me, and you remember renting movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer from Blockbuster with a group of friends, Until Dawn will likely make you feel nostalgic. Like the movies it pays homage to, Until Dawn is all about dumb characters doing dumb things in a dumb story, while you sit in the comfort of your own home, shouting, “Don’t go upstairs!” at the cretin who hasn’t thought their escape routes through. This is every stupid teen horror movie you ever watched, rolled into one, only in this horror story, when you shout, the kids can hear you.
Set in a cabin in the woods in winter, Until Dawn tells the tale of eight friends having a weekend break. Like any good set of friends, one year prior they decided to trick one of their group, Hannah, into believing that the guy she was in love with was interested in her, and filmed her taking her shirt off with him as she thought they were heading, well, to the bone zone. For whatever reason, Hannah wasn’t all too happy about this and ran away, out into the night. Her twin sister, Beth, chased after her, and neither of them were ever seen again. The rest of the group decide to meet up again one year later at the exact same cabin, with some even mentioning that they feel a little guilty about what happened to Hannah and Beth, as though, you know, it was their fault or something. They naturally decide to meet up at the cabin at different times (why didn’t they all take a bus together?) and in the pitch black of night during a snowstorm. After a few meet and greets, a little bit of drama thanks to who’s dating who, and a whole lot of cringe inducing sexual innuendo, we’re ready to get the party started.
There’s Samantha, the only one of the group to protest last year’s deadly prank. There’s Mike, the guy who thinks “Air Force One” is an acceptable name for his penis. There’s Jess, Mike’s girlfriend, who apparently also thinks that “Air Force One” is an acceptable name for Mike’s penis. There’s Emily, who used to date Mike, but now she’s getting presidential with Matt, another one of the group. There’s Chris, who wants to take Ashley to the bone zone, and there’s Ashley, who wants Chris to take her there, but neither have managed to pluck up the courage to do anything about it. And then there’s Josh, the brother of Hannah and Beth, who is only missing the big, floating neon sign above his head that reads, “This guy is probably the baddie”. There’s a heated debate between Emily and Jess over who gets to take a ride on Air Force One, and for the good of the group, everyone splits up to various parts of the cabin to take a little time apart. Things are getting tense, so let’s hope nobody does anything stupid.
So anyway, someone does something stupid. Josh decides that the snowy, dark, secluded cabin in the woods where his sisters presumably died a year prior is the perfect place to break out the old Ouija Board. Not Monopoly, not Scrabble, not even strip poker. The Ouija Board. Predictably, this is a bad idea. Hannah and Beth start talking to Josh, Chris and Ashley from beyond the grave, giving the three clues on where to look for the proof of who and what killed them. Everybody freaks out a little bit. Meanwhile, Emily and Matt have gone out into the blizzard to look for Emily’s bag which like, totally, you know, cost like, six hundred dollars or something. Poor, poor Matt. Mike and Jess have gone off to a separate cabin to have sex, which we know, because they inform us seventeen times on the short walk to their love nest. And Sam has gone for a bath on her own, presumably because she’s the only sensible one in the group, and she needs some time alone to consider how she ended up in a log cabin with this bunch of absolute clown shoes. It’s dark, it’s isolated, and the teenagers have split up. And so the classic horror template is laid out.
The plot of the game essentially boils down to a mash up of a number of different horror movies. There’s some I Know What You Did Last Summer, a couple of nods to Scream, some Cabin Fever, and even a little Saw thrown in there, before there’s a sharp turn in the narrative, and the second half of the story lifts elements directly from another horror movie that I won’t reveal here. The first half of the game, for my money, is certainly more enjoyable than the second, but even after the third or fourth eyebrow-raising plot development, the game never felt like it had derailed thanks to the schlocky nature of what Supermassive Games have done here. Until Dawn is a game that wears its influences on its sleeves, and makes no bones about what it is, and what it’s trying to do, and that’s one of the reasons that it holds together so well. You know exactly what you’re in for with this game after the first hour, and so when something patently ridiculous happens, you just have to run with it.
A normal chapter of Until Dawn will throw you into control of one of the eight kids, and you’ll get a small section of story to take part in before control will switch to one of the other eight kids, doing something else concurrently. Playing the game is as simple as walking around and interacting with objects. There’s clues to find, and some very light puzzles to solve, but the majority of your playing time is spent talking to people, making decisions and taking part in QTEs. Conversations are interesting in that you can help shape the personality of each character as you see fit by making slight dialogue choices that alter how characters act. You can opt to be aggressive if someone gets in your face, or you can attempt to pacify the situation. These choices often have implications later in the game, rather than an immediate repercussion. Similarly, the choices in the game usually amount to which direction to go, or other simple decisions, that don’t immediately scream out to you as having potentially deadly consequences, but can often lead to serious trouble. That’s where the butterfly effect comes in.
The butterfly effect is a choice system that determines, essentially, who is going to get out of this game alive. It’s implemented in such a way that you can’t really see the strings controlling the proverbial puppet show, and one of the great successes of the game is that it unfolds in a way in which you’re never really sure which choices will end up with someone getting iced. That, along with QTEs that can result in the permanent death of characters rather than just a game over screen, means that Until Dawn never stops making you feel tense. A butterfly symbol popping up on screen lets you know that what you’ve just done will have some consequences, but you don’t know what those will be. And so it could be something as simple as you picking up and looking at an object, meaning that object isn’t in the same place it was, which might make it out of reach should you need it in a pinch, or it could be something as significant as falling off a cliff seconds after your ill-fated decision was made.
What’s really interesting about the system, though, is how organically everything comes together when you can’t see what’s happening behind the scenes. A second play-through of the game will reveal how some of the events of the game come together, and which decisions really matter, but in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to tell that this is a choice based game at all. It feels like a story that has been made this way, even though you’re shaping it, and that’s about the best compliment you can give to a game like this. The story, while being utterly unbelievable at times, always remains engaging thanks to the interactive elements and the fact that you know that any choice you make could spell death for one of the characters. And while the characters in the game start out as people you probably want to see get chopped up by a deranged killer, as the game goes on, their various quirks can become endearing, which means perma-death can be a bit of a gut punch. Mike might start the game as a bit of a jerk, but come the end he’s basically transformed into Nathan Drake. Watching your favourite character die a terrible death that’s of your own making (I’m sorry, Ashley) is surprisingly affecting.
The characters becoming more engaging as the game goes on is down, in part, to this being a nine-hour horror movie rather than a ninety minute one, but also thanks to the excellent voice acting. The production values in the game are top-notch throughout, with fantastic sound design – you’re in for a treat if you’ve got surround sound, by the way – and high quality graphics, but the voice acting in particular is really worth note. While I spent the opening hour or so laughing at the way the characters speak to one another, once the set-up is out of the way and things start getting nasty, it’s hard not to feel for the poor kids. Some of the characters fare better than others thanks to how much they get to do in the narrative, but on the whole, the dialogue is never delivered in a way that feels stilted or forced, and conversation feels natural. Characters like Sam and Mike are particularly well done, and come across as good, or often better, than what you’d traditionally see in this genre. Peter Stormare, though, has the most fun playing a flamboyant psychiatrist. It’s like watching Mads Mikkelsen playing Hannibal in an episode of Goosebumps, and it’s a lot of fun.
Whether you like Until Dawn or not will most likely be down to a couple of things. What are you expecting? And do you like teen horror movies? If you’re expecting high art, or psychological horror, you’re out of luck. It’s not a new Silent Hill. This is a big, silly ’90s teen slasher movie that you can take part in. It wears its influences on its sleeves, and it’s never pretentious about what it is. I instantly found myself in love with the camp dialogue, the cheesy story, and the constant peril our plucky teens found themselves in, and since that’s what Supermassive Games were aiming for, you can’t really knock them for it. Until Dawn is a game that has cult hit written all over it, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Sony turn this into a franchise. So grab a couple of beers, load up on snacks, and ask yourself, “Are you ready to take a ride on Air Force One?”
This article was originally posted on www.soundonsight.org