Erik Fattrosso ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Developers like Quantic Dream and Telltale have been trying in recent years to create a new type of videogame; a game that plays almost like an interactive movie, where player choice meaningfully drives the course of the narrative. They’ve both had ups and downs in their attempts (mainly downs in the case of Quantic Dream), but a new studio called Supermassive has come along and set the new standard for the genre with Until Dawn.
Until Dawn is a narrative driven game that genuinely feels like you’re in control. You alternate between playing as 8 different teens who to return to the secluded cabin in the woods where two of their friends went missing the previous year. It’s a concept as old as horror, and the dialogue and characters are both intentionally reminiscent of 80’s slasher films. The narrative is strung together with talks with a psychiatrist between chapters. He speaks directly to the player, and it is in their hands to decide who lives and who dies over the course of the night that the game takes place. The game prides itself on its Butterfly Effect system. Seemingly small choices can later have huge outcomes, and each of these is tracked on a menu page so that you can easily see what caused various situations. It’s a great system that helps you to see exactly what’s happening.
Until Dawn’s controls are both simple and intuitive. You use the two analog sticks to move your current character and whatever they may be holding, usually a light source. Any actions are contextual; ranging from things you can take your time with to split second quick time events. While most times QTE’s are something to be avoided, they work wonders here. There are no repeats or reloading in Until Dawn. If you miss a QTE, there will be negative consequences – anything from a minor inconvenience to the death of a character. The harshness of the penalty for messing up makes you care about what would otherwise be a boring and outdated game mechanic. It occasionally goes a bit farther, by throwing you instances where you must keep the controller completely still. These are a nice addition, and they help to keep you on your toes. There’s also the Sony mandated “program a use for the touchpad or we shoot a puppy”, so you’ll also find yourself swiping on the Dualshock 4’s touchpad to flip pages in books or unlock phones.
But all is not perfect. The Butterfly Effect is really cool when it stays in the background. The problem is that whenever the player makes a decision that affects it, there’s an obnoxious visual cue that briefly covers the screen. It really rips the player right out of the scene and reminds you that you’re playing a game. The plot also has some missteps. The first two thirds of the 7-8 hour story are both tense and interesting. There’s a radical twist in the story in the final act, and it threatens to derail the whole thing. All of the subtlety present in the rest of the game is swiftly removed, and plot holes start to stack up. This is also about the time where it starts to become clear that maybe some choices don’t matter as much as you were led to believe. Players may struggle to remain engaged for the last 2 hours, instead starting to pick apart where their choices were once again just a trick. The illusion of choice has been the biggest issue in this genre since it started, but in defense of Until Dawn, this is the best we’ve gotten to removing it.
It’s not a perfect game, but it’s still worth a couple playthroughs. There are enough real differences to justify several runs to see all the various things that could’ve happened, although too many plays can start to rip the illusion apart completely. The faltering final act is a disappointment, but not terrible. Even at its worst, Until Dawn is the peak of this genre. If you have any interest in horror or interactive storytelling, there’s no reason to miss this one. You’d be hard pressed to find a more compelling way to spend a Friday night.