Playing With Fear: UNTIL DAWN
Horror has always been an interactive genre - be it written stories, movies, tv, or classic radio shows - allowing yourself to be frightened by fiction requires high levels of immersion and suspension of disbelief, and good old imagination. Good horror is a personal journey for each audience member, and as such video games have always been uniquely primed with the potential to deliver great horror experiences.
Welcome to Playing With Fear where one horror-infatuated gamer brings you the best (and sometimes worst) of what video games have to offer those who like to be scared. Horror & Survival games are experiencing a great resurgence right now. We’ll explore the best games of the current generation, the previous generation, and explore survival/horror games of the past and look towards future releases as well.
Continuing the Best Horror Games for the Current generation
To borrow a line; And now for something completely different. As we work our way, hand in hand like children being led deep into the haunted woods (okay that analogy got weird) through the best horror games available for our current gaming generation, we have to stop and have some fun. Because it is a oft-forgotten fact that being scared can also be fun. I mean, isn’t that was haunted houses are all about? Well, actually haunted houses scared the crap out of me as a kid trick-or-treating so, well anyway. Horror can be, and occasionally needs to be, fun.
Enter criminally underrated developer SUPERMASSIVE Games and their 2016 PlayStation 4 exclusive Until Dawn. When the game originally premiered, it was a PS3 Move title (remember the Move? Talk about scary) that was so over encumbered with teenage slasher cliches it made Cabin In the Woods look less like a cover band and more like an original classic.
- See because Cabin In The Woods is all about using cliches and tropes as humor and...nevermind you get it. That movie is awesome. -
The game disappeared for a bit and when it returned to life and the public eye it had been polished and transformed from joke gimmick title to must play horror experience. I use the word experience very deliberately because while this is of course a game, it’s less playing and more on experiencing what is happening to your characters. I’ll get more to that, because to some it may sound like a bad thing and it’s not at all.
Until Dawn is what happens when you give a great development studio some choose your own adventure books, some classic 80’s slasher flicks, and a cast of B level Hollywood talent (Raimi Malik before Mr. Robot, Hayden Panettiere after Heroes, Grant Ward before the only Marvel TV show no one watches) and wraps it all up in the best gift wrap of all; a coherent script.
Set in the snowy mountains of western Canada, a top an isolated peak in the Redwoods. It's a simple yet effective setting familiar to horror fans. On the anniversary of the disappearance and assumed death of two sisters a group of friends returns to the family home to reunite and remember their lost comrades. The opening sequence of the game actually has you play through this catalytic event which occurred during another vacation for this ill fated group of friends. As is often the case the story is much stronger in its first two acts prior to the true identity of the threat being revealed. The story shares both a classic slasher-hunts-teens trope as well as dipping its toes into some historical supernatural elements in the third act. As I always, I want to avoid spoilers because the game does take an unexpected turn in exposing where the real danger lies and the character's motivations behind the violence. The writers balanced what is essentially two different stories very well into one.
The game actually excels in a number of areas where horror games (and a lot of movies) tend to stutter. The script and story are surprisingly coherent for a horror game and a teen slasher story. The characters are well written, and while there is some of the expected cheesy horny teenager dialogue, it is not overbearing and fits the game and its characters. The game also manages to carry eight separate playable characters, all of whom are very well acted in both performance capture and dialogue. It was a very pleasant surprise.
Until Dawn is also visually impressive in its art design and the visual fidelity of the world, taking full advantage of the PS4 at the time, being one of the better looking games at that stage in the console’s life.
Gameplay has you controlling all the characters at different points in time, moving between them from chapter to chapter. In a smart design move, you never spend too much time in the same place which builds a good sense of anxiety and keeps you wanting more. The basic gameplay is focused on exploration and quick time events, as the player explores, looks for clues, finds hidden items and devices, and engages in dialogue trees with the other characters. None of the gameplay elements are tricky and all of them work. Only once did I claim a poor outcome on the QTE not working correctly, and if I’m honest I probably just screwed it up.
SUPPERMASSIVE made the focal point of their game the Butterfly Effect system that they built. Everything you do in the game - items you do or do not find, choices you do or do not make, your dialogue choices - effects what happens later. Discovering a tool early on in the game may seem insignificant until later on when you return to that area and now have access to it. When you trigger a Butterfly Effect moment a small visual cue on the screen lets you know that you’ve made a permanent change to the game world. The game will also feature small flashbacks from time to time, if a character experiences or remembers something that another character saw or did. It is a brilliant system that really delivers on the all too common claim that player choice determines a games outcome. In this case though it is true. All the characters can survive, or die, and it is solely dependent on your actions and choices.
Right...this is a horror piece. Is the game scary? Absolutely. The environment - be it outside in night during a snowstorm, or indoors exploring the gigantic erie ski lodge - is creepy as all hell. There is never a moment where you don’t feel like something is coming right around the next corner or hiding just out of sight. The design for the games slasher-killer is at once original and horrific, while feeling just familiar enough to let you think you know what to expect. The games supernatural element is nicely tied in to reality which really helps add to the overwhelming sense of dread for these eight kids stuck on a mountain top. There are classic jumpscares, there are the long-lasting senses of impending doom, and there is the insane stress and anxiety with having to make life or death decisions in seconds or less. My wife and I played this game together, I with the controller and us collaboratively making decisions, and we were both on the edge of our seats over the course of the three nights we played through.
Until Dawn hits all the right notes that fans of campy teen killer flicks never find in games, while maintaining enough integrity to be legitimately scary. And lets not forget, it’s also just a lot of fun. Once you finish the game and see the outcomes of all your mistakes, you’ll be dying to restart because the replay value is very high.