Review: Until Dawn

This review is 99% spoiler-free and was written in front of a live studio audience, namely my Chucky doll. Which I sincerely hope is not alive, though that doesn’t stop me worrying about it occasionally. The 1% which could be considered a spoiler doesn’t involve any discussion of plot events or characters, but you will know more about the game going in than if you had never read it. You probably shouldn’t read any reviews of the game at all if you care about spoilers that much.

In reference to one of our culture’s most beloved slasher film, I will mark anything potentially spoileristic with the most relevant signifier of upcoming danger: the words DUH DUH.

Long time Arcadian Rhythms readers may be dimly aware that I have a preoccupation with the American slasher genre. I pretended to review the Scream 4 iOS game / marketing app a few years back (although I gave the game itself the appropriate amount of space and attention and just talked about slasher films instead). Similarly, my review of the surprisingly likeable Saw 2 game quickly devolved into using a torture porn game as a springboard for talking about the state of horror movies, which I then used as a springboard to talking about the thing I actually care about: American slasher films. What can I say, I have my biases and my interests, and the last thing I would ever do is allow something so unnecessary as responsible journalism to get in the way of that.

Rest assured, this entire article is going to be about games, not slasher films. DUH DUH: No it isn’t, it’s mostly about slasher films again.

Slasher films have an odd relationship with the games industry. In their cinematic form, they are frequently shallow, cheap, poorly produced, formulaic, narratively broken, stupid, mean spirited, uncomfortably slanted towards a brutal hardline Judeo-Christian morality system and, strangely enough, not actually scary. This all combines to make them odd bedfellows with video games.

Most recently, attempts to slasher up your gaming experience have been existed in a world apart from the vile clusterfuck which we call ‘AAA’ games, existing solely in the weird side of mobile gaming, or somewhere in the PC gaming space, waiting diligently for a Steam Greenlight which may never come. And yet, films continue to be made, enjoyed, and bring in big money for those who produce them, so it’s inevitable that games continue to try and muscle in on that success. Industry differences between games and movies means that this rarely works out the way it’s intended.

The primary appeal of a slasher movie for a Hollywood producer is that people expect the direct-copy classic formula to be applied, and given these meagre expectations they can be made very cheaply, so when marketed well they can make returns thousands of percent beyond their budget.

The closest thing we have to this in games is something like Flappy Bird or Crossy Road, but the crucial difference is that (despite the optimistic efforts of vulture-like publishers), simply making yet another Flappy Bird doesn’t bring in Flappy Bird money. This is largely due to two key differences between cinema and gaming: firstly that gamers don’t desire another similar product as much as movie-goers do, as they can simply continue to play the original product, and secondly, the market is considerably more saturated and anyone making any kind of direct-copy genre game is competing against an endless tide of other publishers doing the exact same thing.

Slasher films are not known for their substance, though some beautiful and brilliant outliers do exist. This means that outside of the genre fans, most punters are up for a slasher film every now and again, safe in the knowledge that they are dipping into something silly and fun and familiar for approximately just over an hour. There’s certainly a place for games which can be played in less than an hour, but they don’t tend to be big money-spinners. Full priced games are expected to have longevity, and free to play games demand long-term engagement for profits, so where does that leave a game which is designed to be played just once, for just over an hour? Probably not making thousands of times its budget in profits.

Ignoring economic concerns in favour of artistic concerns, there are yet more issues in transferring the genre from the cinema to the console.  Perhaps the most important element of the slasher formula is this: The Killer Always Wins. Well, anything that always wins doesn’t gel well with games. Who does the player play as? The victims – well, they’ve already lost. The killer – well, they’ve already won. Where’s the game?

Both Scream 4 (iOS) and Friday the 13th (NES) tried to fix this by putting the order in which the victims are offed at the forefront of the gameplay. Okay, we know that everyone will die except one character, but there could be strategy regarding which order they die in, and therefore gameplay involved in executing the strategic decision. But there’s a problem with that too: strategy games aren’t scary.

We expect horror in video games to be scary. We don’t expect slasher films to be scary, unless we’re between the ages of 0 and 14, but no matter what age we are or who we are – horror games are meant to be frightening. Whatever that weird cultural or maybe just inherently human thing we have that makes us continue to enjoy these films despite them not being scary or arguably even interesting – it simply loses its power once we have a controller in our hands. In the eyes of most players, a horror game which isn’t scary is a failed horror game.

So if it’s fair to say that this genre is only really successful in movies and not in games, what’s the logical conclusion?

Until Dawn

We start with a very familiar setup – ten shallow belligerent teenage pricks are in a cabin in the woods, drinking, bitching at each other, exhibiting stereotypical behaviour and generally ‘partying like porn stars’. It’s night time and there might be someone outside.

Welcome to Until Dawn, a cinematically-styled ’80s slasher movie game. The person who might be outside might have a knife. Where the story goes from there, maybe you can guess, and maybe you’re right – I will say no more.

Gameplay takes the form of exploration, QTEs and choices. Occasionally, those choices are timed. That’s pretty much it. As per usual in this type of game, you spend more time watching narratives play out than you do interacting with the action, and for the most part, the choices you make affect how the plot is delivered, as opposed to what the plot actually is. There are some really effective jump scares here, but it’s not all shallow easy frights – there’s real suspense too, plus a very well constructed atmosphere, and strong writing to hold it all together.

Fair disclaimer here: I loved Heavy Rain, and I adored Beyond: Two Souls. I realise that this makes me the uncoolest dude in the uncool dude club, but there you go. Interactive movie games and me fit together, and Until Dawn is my favourite of the lot. It’s smarter and more interesting than the others I just mentioned, and for the most part better acted (although Beyond: Two Souls has some truly outstanding performances that outshine that of Until Dawn in their best moments).

There is a puzzle element in addition to the interactive story parts, in that you will locate totems as you play through the game. You’ll find a fair few more if you explore thoroughly or figure out optional environmental puzzles. These totems come in different flavours, and show you imagery of potential future events, which work as clues for you on upcoming choices. They might be subtle, obvious, deviously faux-obvious, or they may be cryptic; but whatever they may be, keeping your characters alive requires careful examination of the totems. I speak from experience when I say that they can be easy to misinterpret, and that doing so is entirely your own fault for not putting enough thought in, and also severely punishable by a game which cares not who lives or dies.

In addition to the totems, there are a host of narrative clues to pick up which fill in details, mostly for you as a player but also occasionally for the characters, these also allow you to interpret the plot better and make better choices.

Savvy players who gather up all the clues as they progress and carefully consider their options will tend towards keeping characters alive – which seems appropriate from a game perspective, but creates a disconnect with the slasher movie tradition of killing off the cast one-by-one throughout the film. If you’re looking for a classic slasher movie experience, you may have to make the conscious decision to make the ‘wrong’ choice, which seems a little counter-intuitive. When you keep a character alive throughout a difficult sequence, you feel the sense of achievement you would expect from a game, but also a tinge of disappointment that it feels less and less like the films you’re meant to be emulating.

In my handwritten notes for this part of the review, I’ve written the following: “Fuck telltale, this game rocks, the end”, and then I’ve drawn an octopus with a man’s face on a skateboard. Let me explain. The “Fuck telltale, this game rocks” bit anyway, I am not able to explain the skateboarding man-faced octopus. After that, it will be the end of the review, as I believe my notes make clear.

As I’m sure you’re aware if you read this site, AJ and Shaun are the two guys who provide approximately but slightly less than 100% of the content, whereas me and a few other people provide approximately but slightly more than 0%. There are a number of ongoing feuds between us, all good-hearted and friendly, in relation to various videogame related topics. The one which tends to strain the good-hearted and friendly nature of our disagreements the most is not, as some would believe, LA Noire (it’s a fantastic game which is full of love, DO NOT listen to AJ, he knows nothing), but the Telltale Walking Dead games. The reason for this is that Shaun and AJ are inexplicably sucked in to the maddeningly wrong idea that the Walking Dead games are good, along with the rest of humanity, because humans are all dumb-dumbs. The Walking Dead games are not good, and here’s why.

The Walking Dead has a story it wants to tell you. It gives you choices to make along the way, but whilst these choices seem free, they are actually a coin-flip as to whether you are gifted with content, or shafted by the absence of content. If you make the choice which was ‘planned’, you are lucky. You get cut-scenes and dialogue which reflect your choice. If you make the arbitrary wrong choice, you get a 3 second long cut-scene which shrugs off your choice and then thrusts you back onto the path you didn’t choose, minus the character development or logical plotting.

Here is a metaphor which I believe accurately explains my problem with The Walking Dead. I invite you to my house for a social occasion. Before you arrive, I think you’d love a nice glass of wine, so I carefully research and prepare some delicious wine. When you arrive, I feel obligated to give you a choice, so I say “Would you like some wine, or I have other drinks if you prefer?” Because you trust me and don’t think me a deranged lunatic, you believe this is a real choice. You don’t really want wine right now, so you say, “I’d quite like one of the other drinks please.” I haven’t planned for this. I am not willing to accommodate this. The choice I gave you was just for show, I didn’t expect you to use it. So I go out to my shed, pick up a dusty old vase which I’ve been using to collect my belly button fluff, take it into the bathroom to fill it with toilet water, then bring it out to you and throw it in your face, and then I bring you the glass of wine I was always going to bring you anyway. When you complain, I say “But that was the choice you made! If you didn’t like it, you should have chosen the wine in the first place.”

Is that over the top? No, I don’t think so. Fuck Telltale.

Here’s how Until Dawn deals with that problem: It gives you the information you need in order to tell whether the decision is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and then it lets you revel in either. Each of the characters you play as has a character sheet, and that gives you their intended personality traits, as well the ‘wrong’ personality traits you’ve given them if you have deviated from the pre-written scenarios. Imagine you have a character who is faced with a decision about whether to do something brave, or do something cowardly. You can check their character sheet and see that they have a Bravery rating of 9/10. This tells you that the right move for the story (if not the right move for keeping them alive, that’s a whole other question) is to make the brave choice. If you choose not to, you’ll break the story, but Until Dawn has always got an intimidating cheeky smile and a begrudging respect for anyone who wants to fuck with the program. Either way, you will not miss out on character development or plot; you may even see a more interesting plot if you break away from the script at the right time.

You will periodically be taken out of the story to indulge in some fourth-wall breaking interactions with your psychiatrist, played by the always brilliant Peter Stormare. Follow the script and he’s a forgiving, albeit unsettling guide for your journey. Go off-script enough and he’ll be in your face, bloodied up and screaming at you for not playing by the rules. The forefronting of this as a gameplay element is so much more enjoyable to be part of than The Walking Dead‘s passive-aggressive head-in-the-sand approach to the same concept. The latter feels as though the game itself has contempt for the player, whereas this new approach feels like you and the game are both sharing the same sandpit.

This is the part where my notes say “the end”, which makes sense as I promised no spoilers, and everything else I want to say would involve some of those. [Ed: maybe in the comments for those who’ve played the game?]

Happy Halloween, AR readers! [Ed: this review is late because Dylan’s drunken email about this article being finished pretty much read “this article isn’t finished yet”. Yes, we’re all pros here.]