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November 5, 2015

Let’s discuss Until Dawn (Part 1).

Oh man, I am so qualified to talk about this game, because I think horror movies are dumb.

Well, maybe that’s too strong of a claim.  It’s not like I think every movie in the genre is dumb, or that the genre in its entirety is dumb.  But I’ve had some bad experiences in the past, and not because I got scared out of my gourd.  I actually WISH I’d been scared out of my gourd, because in theory that’s what horror movies are about -- making you forget that there’s a screen between you and the action, and making you feel just as vulnerable as the victims du jour.

I’d like to think that horror movies aren’t just vehicles for gore and murder, because that’s not what horror movies are about.  (Nor is it about busting out the baps, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Call me naïve, but I would have thought that a horror movie that can’t scare is a terrible horror movie, just like a comedy that can’t amuse is a terrible comedy.  But I got dragged to see The Thing remake, the Friday the 13th remake, Legion (ostensibly), and sat through no shortage of offerings on TV.  Too many of them have been a slog, and I’m ready for a change.  I’m ready for the good stuff.

That brings me to Until Dawn -- a game that I can’t decide is amazing or awful.

So here’s the setup.  One night, a bunch of college-going teenagers (shut up, they’re totally teenagers) get together at their pal’s mountain lodge.  But instead of enjoying the snow and having some good, wholesome fun, the majority of them opt to spring a prank on Hannah Washington, a nerdy girl who has a crush on resident hunk Mike.  Hannah ends up humiliated and runs through the woods, prompting a search by her twin sister Beth.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t end well for either of them; something forces them to the edge of a cliff, and the twins make a lethal drop to the ground below.

Cut to a year later, and the teens are all getting back together at the same lodge -- on the anniversary of the twins’ death (though officially, it’s said they just “disappeared”).  It’s a plan orchestrated by their brother, Josh, who opens up his wintry retreat to try and move past the tragedy.  Eventually, all eight of the teens are assembled at the Washington’s lodge, so they can -- in Josh’s unfortunate words -- “party like they’re fucking porn stars”.  But things start going awry once again, because it’s obvious that there’s still something creeping around the mountains.  Now it’s up to the gang to solve the mystery…and it’s up to you, the player, to keep them alive.

It should go without saying, but everything after this sentence is going to be THE ULTIMATE SPOILERS.  Ready?  Okay!  Here we goooooooooooooooooo!

Here’s the thing about Until Dawn: I’m actually convinced that it’s the ultimate con job. 

Supermassive Games made a game that’s, in the eyes of many, a mixture of every major horror movie in the past half-century or so.  And while that’s true -- for good and for ill -- I don’t think I can fully buy into it.  Call it a case of me over-reading into things (that’s kind of my thing), but having finished the game, I don’t think Until Dawn is just “all of the horror movies”.  If anything, the horror elements are a diversion -- maybe even a distraction from what the devs really wanted to make.

Don’t get me wrong.  I agree with the sentiment that this is a David Cage/Quantic Dream game done well…inasmuch as a David Cage/Quantic Dream game can be done well.  But the question that’s been on my mind is whether or not Supermassive Games had to make Until Dawn like this because it wouldn’t sell otherwise.  What do I mean?  Well, I’ll explain.  But first, I have to make an assertion: Until Dawn’s cast is almost a point-for-point recreation of the Persona 4 cast.

I’m not even joking.  The parallels between the Investigation Team and the teens are uncanny -- so much so that I made some charts.

Those comparisons aren’t ironclad, of course; I’m still debating whether Sam is the Chie-parallel or the Yukiko-parallel, considering that Sam plays to the “final girl” role pretty hard.  Whatever the case, it’s hard to avoid making comparisons -- and weirdly, the comparisons don’t stop there.  Until Dawn is practically more mystery than horror, in the sense that the terror in the first half of the game mostly comes from these goofballs trying to spook each other (with many, many, many jump scares).  Supposedly, there’s a psycho on the loose, so it’s up to the Nu-Investigation Team to figure out the truth behind the murders of two innocent women.  And then the truth is revealed, and…well, I’ll get to that.

It’s worth noting upfront that there are actually Social Links in the game.  They’re not called that, of course, but the resemblance is uncanny; say the right things to the right characters, and their relationship values will increase (and of course, story events will play out differently).  I didn’t actually test it out in my playthrough, but based on what I’ve read, having low enough relationship values -- or just saying the wrong things -- can actually lead to a couple of deaths.  There’s a part of me that’s convinced the Social Links aren’t quite as controlling or impactful as you’d think, which extends to the personality traits/stats that raise and lower depending on your actions (take lots of shortcuts with Mike, and his bravery will max out, for example).  Still, their inclusion tells me something about Until Dawn’s intent.

My theory is that Supermassive Games didn’t want to make a horror game.  They wanted to make a big-budget visual novel, but they had to sell it as a mash-up of all the horror movies around -- the dumbest of the genre well among them -- because otherwise, no one would have bought in.

I’d argue that Until Dawn is one hell of a slow starter.  Oh, sure, Beth and Hannah bite it pretty hard in the opening, and it’s made plainly obvious that something is out there on the mountain, but for ages there’s nothing but an implied threat.  One scene after another will deflate itself because -- surprise!  It was nothing.  Just more pranks by people whose pranks ended up getting two people killed.  And when there actually is something, it’s in a scene that’s more of a slow burn -- the implication of violence to come, rather than the genuine horror and high tension one would expect. 

Mike and Jessica are a good example of this.  The end of one of the earlier chapters has them heading off to a cabin to go “land some critical hits”, and it’s a breezy trip for most of it.  At one point, Jess throws a snowball at Mike, and when he gets ready to throw one back, she’s gone; she shrieks, and then the chapter ends.  So a monster nabbed her, right?  Nope.  It was just a prank to scare Mike.  And then they run through the forest to reach the cabin, for fear that some kind of animal is going to eat them…and then minutes later, Mike’s looking to get Jess in the mood again, which prompts a substantially-longer sequence where Mike has to set the ambiance (with the reward, I suspect, being the right to see Jess take off more of her clothes).  And then Jess actually gets nabbed for real. 

I’m no horror expert, but I feel like Until Dawn drags its feet when it comes to getting to the scary bits (that actually matter, and aren’t just jump scares).  I mean, the point of a horror movie’s opening minutes is to set the tone and atmosphere, isn’t it?  The game’s plenty competent at flexing its AV muscles to do that -- it really is a good-looking game, trips to the uncanny valley aside -- but I feel like it’s undercut too often for my tastes. 

Did we have to have a scene where Chris dresses up as a hooded stranger and rushes Sam and Josh?  Or was it just there because otherwise there wouldn’t be a chase scene to make people think that things are happening?  And again, it deflates the tension of the game overall.  Instead of all these false alarms that pull everything back down, why not build to something steadily with subtlety and airs of unease?  Why create these constant tonal U-turns and diffusions of the overall story when the end goal is terror unrelenting?  Or was the goal actually to not create terror, and just go through the motions as any terrible horror movie would?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  It’s like I said: this game is a con job that tries to convince people to play a big-budget visual novel.  It’s not about the scares, the death, or the things that go bump in the night.  It’s about the people.

That’s, uh, not always a good thing, though.

The weird thing about me and Until Dawn is that in a lot of ways, I don’t care about how scary it is, or how well it apes horror movie conventions.  Even when that stuff gets into full swing, it’s not my big takeaway.  As I’ve said before, characters create opportunities; they’re the biggest assets a story could possibly have, regardless of the medium or the intent.  So with the Nu-Investigation Team well in the midst, they’re the focus and very literally the game’s assets.  Pared down to basics, they’re a measure of the player’s skill and success; the more you manage to keep alive, the better you are at the game.  (Naturally, the achievement/trophy for keeping everyone around till the end is “They All Live”.)

So the implication, then, is that the Nu-Investigation Team is likable.  They’re people that you’d want to keep alive because of how endearing they are, and how much they mean to you.  It’d be like putting the Classic Investigation Team in the same spooky scenario; if their lives were in danger, you’d do your best to protect them.  You’d want to see more of Kanji being Kanji, and Chie being Chie, because they’re endearing.  Lovable.  They -- well, any good set of characters -- mean something to the audience, even if they aren’t real. 

With that in mind, how does the cast of Until Dawn fare?  Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh...

I’m torn, honestly.  I think the biggest thing about them is that I like what they represent instead of liking them because of who they are.  There’s no denying that they’re an interesting bunch, but are they likable?  Are they people I’d want to follow to hell and back?  Not really.  They’re stock as all get out, which is problematic in its own right -- but the bigger issue is that they don’t get the time to develop that they really need.  They do develop, granted; Mike goes from a joker and one move away from infidelity to a stalwart hero willing to sacrifice himself (and will, if you screw up).  But I wanted to spend more time with them.  I wanted to see where they go, and what they do.  That doesn’t really happen, at least not to a substantial level.

Yeah, yeah, you can’t compare a game you could beat in a couple of days to an eighty-hour JRPG, but even then Until Dawn’s progression is an issue.  The characters could have been more than stock archetypes, but I suspect that a major problem comes from the fact that there are more characters than the game has room for in the story.  Matt and Jess drop out for a HUGE portion of the game if you keep them alive; it gets to the point where they don’t even show up for the climax.  Characters split up constantly and spend huge swaths of time alone or separated; apparently, Sam spends hours in the bathtub for some reason.  Even if you’re trying to have everyone be super best friends forever, it’s hard to keep the synergy levels high -- because the needs of the plot outweigh the needs of the player.

I would have loved to spend more time with these characters, because there are glimmers of hope in most of them.  Even if she’s supposed to be the alpha-female popular girl archetype, I don’t have any problems admitting that Jess is my favorite character.  She actually has a character, after all; she’s bold and sassy, but there are layers to her that only start to be revealed when it’s time for her to exit the plot.  On the guys’ side, Matt’s cool because he’s a nice guy who’s constantly getting dumped on by everyone else, including his girlfriend.  But he takes it all like a champ, and he’s endearing for it.

There’s a moment in the game where you have a chance to pick who your least favorite member of the Nu-Investigation Team is.  I imagine that a LOT of people picked Emily, because every single element of her character is geared toward making her as unlikable as possible.  Honestly, I think Sam is the worst character in the game; Emily can get annoying, but at least she’s never dull.  Sam is.  She’s kind, and brave, and smart, and friendly, and strong, and cool, and pure, and everybody loves her.  Except me, because she’s got nothing to her besides being Miss Perfect.

Also, here’s a fun fact: you can pretty much spoil who’s wearing the thickest plot armor thanks to the game’s opening credits.  Because if you know who’s playing who (like I did), then you realize there’s no way they’re killing off top-billed actors like Claire Bennet and Agent Ward.  Not till the very end, at least.

I’d love to talk more about Chris and Ashley, but really, what is there to say?  The game describes Chris as humorous and protective, and that’s kind of true depending on which choices you make (and if you can tolerate Chris’ “humor”).  But it still feels insubstantial.  There are moments where he does become amusing, and even likable, but it’s more like a taste test.  I’m still hungry for more, even after finishing the game.  Same goes for Ashley, only even more so; after the first few cutscenes, she spends the rest of the game scared or in a panic -- which is kind of the point in the later game, because her fears very nearly lead to the group killing Emily. 

Something tells me that sequence is only there to give the player a chance to kill Emily “the bitch” themselves if they wanted to.  But let’s give Supermassive Games the benefit of the doubt.

If it sounds like I’m super-down on Until Dawn, then…well, that’s because I kind of am.  Like I said, the characters offer up more of a taste test than anything filling; the taste is good, no question, but it’s painful knowing that that’s all I’m going to get.  If this game was supposed to be a visual novel, then it’s hampered by the need to play the big dumb horror movie -- which in itself is a problem because it brings in all the baggage of big dumb horror movies.  But despite my complaints, this game has more than enough saving graces.  And here’s one of them.

Jess may be my favorite character, but Josh is arguably the best character.  One of the big reveals is that the Washington lodge reunion was all orchestrated by Josh; since the Nu-Investigation Team’s prank led to the death of his sisters, he decided to have his revenge by pranking them right back.  So over the course of a year, he spared no expense in setting up props and contraptions to turn the lodge into the ultimate haunted house -- up to and including the placement of fake evidence to give the player red herrings about who’s behind the madness.  Josh even fakes his death with a trap straight out of the Saw movies, complete with a body double (filled with pig guts, incidentally) torn in half. 

The truth is that Josh is a much more disturbed person than his joking nature would suggest.  The death of his sisters has weighed on his mind for ages, to the point where he suffered from depression, needed therapy, and was on no shortage of medication.  So while not every member of the group is technically responsible for the twins’ death, in Josh’s mind it makes sense.  It doesn’t matter if Sam’s a pure little snowflake, or if Chris (and Josh alongside him) drank himself into an impromptu nap.  Everyone is his enemy, and he needs his revenge -- which just so happens to include uploading the night of horrors onto the internet to preserve their humiliation for ages.

Once Josh gets outed as the culprit, he pretty much turns into a fusion of the Joker and Daffy Duck -- for a little while, at least.  But even then (and in retrospect, by extension), it’s hard not to sympathize with Josh.  Two wrongs don’t make a right, and thanks to the other story twists he ends up putting himself and his friends in actual danger, but in his eyes, what he’s doing is justified.  At least, it starts off that way; there’s no telling of Josh actually realized the error of his ways at story’s end, but I’d like to believe that he saw the need for redemption before the credits rolled.

That really is the main idea behind the story, and what at least tries to elevate Until Dawn into something besides visceral schlock: it’s a story about redemption more than it is about horror.  The Nu-Investigation Team has their reunion to move past the tragedy from a year ago, and ease their guilt -- but Josh is there to remind them just how much damage their little stunt did. 

Some of the game’s strongest moments are when the characters are forced to acknowledge their guilt, and go from a bunch of terrible pranksters to people who are capable of feeling and understanding.  They come together, connect with each other, realize what they did, and make bold stances that let them go beyond their archetypes.  Ashley in particular has one strong moment where she stops cowering and speaks like she’s got an inferno in her belly.

There were times when I didn’t care in the slightest about Until Dawn’s horror aspect; honestly, it reached a point where I wanted to just sit these people down in the lodge and have them talk things out for the entirety of the game (effectively turning it into Let’s All Get Together and Enjoy Each Other’s Company…Until Dawn, If Possible).  In a game with Social Links -- and by the plot’s demands, heavily concerned with at least half the cast shacking up -- the expectation is that those bonds would be developed thanks to cutscenes, dialogue choices, and relationship values. 

And you know what?  I would’ve been fine with that.  I wanted to see Mike and Matt talk over boundaries, knowing that there’s still a spark between the former and his ex-girlfriend Emily…who is Matt’s current girlfriend.  I wanted to see Chris bond with Ashley in better circumstances than a night filled with terror.  I wanted Sam to have a character beyond “is perfect”.

But what I wanted most of all was for the gang to reconcile with Josh, and vice versa.  His grief and anger are justified, but they shouldn’t have to be the end of the discussion.  I wanted to steer the characters toward him and show that there’s still a bond, and that they can all move past the tragedy.  Honestly, I thought that was what the game moved towards, given some of the dialogue choices.  One character after another offers kind words and support to Josh, albeit before his reveal as the manic mastermind.  It would’ve been the ultimate closure for his arc, their story, and the game at large to save Josh in his time of need -- and however briefly, however incompletely, from himself.

That didn’t happen.

I don’t think Matt and Jess ever even learn about Josh’s ploy in the main story.  (Maybe Emily, because she missed out on the actual reveal, and I’m not sure if they actually explained the truth in full to her.)  Josh himself ends up dropping out of the plot once the horror stuff kicks into full gear.  Chris, Emily, and Ashley become dramatically less important as the game progresses, excluding the occasional action sequence.  Mike and Sam do the most legwork, but they do so while separated from the rest of the cast -- and the cast at large tends to act like they’re on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall once it’s time for the plot (such as it is) to take over.

What gets to me is that I have a sneaking suspicion that those story elements -- the redemption and reconciliation -- are all just happy coincidences born from me reading too deep into schlock.  From what I can gather, there are only two ways for Josh’s story to end; one of them ends in death.  The other is dependent on whether or not you find one piece of evidence way late in the game, which is hard to miss unless you’re plowing through to the next cutscene.  That means everything up to that point is pretty much pointless filler in terms of “choices that actually matter”.  All that potential ends up getting squandered.  Frankly, I’m not even sure if the characters themselves were aware of the potential; Sam’s the one who finds out Josh suffered in silence, and I have my doubts she explained anything to anyone.

I wanted these eight people, rough around the edges as they were, to be friends.  But overall, I never got the chance.  And that seriously bums me out.

Supermassive Games dangled a carrot on a stick -- and when I jumped for it, they yanked it away so I could fall on my face.  Until Dawn could have been so much more…which is odd, because despite my issues, it already is more than expected.  They could have gone with the bare-bones requirements needed, but they didn’t.  They got me to care about these people, and their dilemma, and made me want to give them all a happy ending.

But I screwed up.  I went in hoping to keep all eight alive, but I lost Matt and Ashley.  It was so frustrating, knowing that I blew it -- but the more I played, the more I realized something.  I wasn’t mad because I lost the chance to give characters I loved the conclusion they deserved; I was mad because as a gamer, I’d lost the chance to prove my skill.  I’d gone down from S-rank to A-rank, or passed a couple of collectibles, or just missed setting a new high score.  In the end, I hadn’t done enough to completely care about them -- and neither had the game.

It’s so frustrating.  So very frustrating.  But on the other hand?  You should judge a game by what it is, not what it isn’t.  And taken in that respect?  Even if Until Dawn doesn’t give me what I secretly wanted, what it does offer is…substantial, to say the least.

See you next time.  Maybe then, I’ll have nicer things to say about the game -- or just confirm whether it’s good or bad.  That’d be swell.

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