Previously on Let’s discuss Until Dawn…
Oh man, I am so qualified to talk about this game, because I think horror movies are dumb.
Now it’s up to the gang to solve the mystery…and it’s up to you, the player, to keep them alive.
My theory is that Supermassive Games didn’t want to make a horror game.
I think the biggest thing about them is that I like what they represent instead of liking them because of who they are.
But let’s give Supermassive Games the benefit of the doubt.
You should judge a game by what it is, not what it isn’t.
*cut to black*
…That would have worked a lot better if I had a cutscene to sync up with those words. But forget it. Have some more words and forget about it. And also HAVE MORE SPOILERS.
Now then. As you’re likely aware by now (at least I hope you are, otherwise why are you even reading this), the key thrust of Until Dawn is that you’re tasked with guiding eight teens with surviving a night alone on a mountain once their reunion party goes awry. Since the whole game is a mash-up of horror movie conventions, that means it’s up to you to deal with psychos, traps, abandoned mines, insane asylums, the mysteries of the past, grudges, and of course, monsters. More on those guys a little later.
It’s more than possible to clear the game without a single death of the core eight characters. Granted some of the requirements are more obtuse than others, meaning that you could be as likely to save a life as you are to roll snake eyes; still, it is possible, and in a sense it’s the goal of the player. Well, unless they’re the sadistic sort and want to kill everyone just for kicks. That’s also possible, even if it takes a long time (top-billed characters Sam and Mike can only die in the climax). Either way, the thrills aren’t what I’d call wall-to-wall; the reason for that is because there’s a very stop-and-go nature to the game.
Most of the player’s time will be spent wandering around spooky environments, searching for clues and examining objects on the way to the next trigger in the story. Given that the majority of the clues found are all a ruse, hindsight makes it all a bunch of busy work. That said, in terms of setting up an atmosphere where there’s a perceivable threat -- the fear that something is going to get you if you’re not careful -- Until Dawn does a pretty good job of it. It’d be even better if it didn’t bank so hard on jump scares or fake-outs, but I’ll gladly take what’s on display here.
The fixed camera angles and aesthetics make for a pretty effective horror game overall. You’ll spend plenty of time in the Washington’s lodge, but what should be a cozy place full of fun and warmth is made cold and dark, and just as uninviting as the snowy forests that surround it. Thank the big twist for that; Josh is the one who set up the lodge to be so terrifying so he could humiliate his pals, but by extension? He gets under the player’s skin long before the big reveal. As intended.
Until Dawn shouldn’t work as well as it does, considering that it can undercut its tension and atmosphere with the trappings of horror movie schlock (jump scares, for example). But taken as a whole, it’s eerily effective. Part of that has to do with the stress of keeping the eight teens alive (you don’t know how many times I wondered if I had kept Jess alive once she dropped out of the story), but part of that has to do with the world Supermassive Games put on display.
I mean, on one hand there’s a scene where Matt and Emily are threatened by -- hope you’re sitting down for this -- a bunch of curious deer. It’s not exactly the most tense moment, and while it is apparently possible for Matt to die (as the group’s sole black guy), that can only happen if you go out of your way to screw up. On the other hand, there are sequences like the exploration of the mines and the asylum -- or “sanatorium”, as it’s called in-game. And some of those sequences are among the most unsettling I’ve ever been through in a game; Mike’s late run through the sanatorium network gave me flashbacks to Comstock House in BioShock Infinite. That’s a good thing -- excluding the fear and unease generated, but you get the idea. Supermassive Games knew what’s up.
To be fair, they had a pretty strong asset: the game’s real enemies, the wendigoes.
If they were in any other game, the wendigoes would probably be a minor inconvenience at best. The stretched-out Gollum cosplayers would get gunned down or blown apart en masse, so that the player could progress without a care. In Until Dawn, wendigoes are a much bigger threat. It’s not just because you can’t reliably count on the crew to have a weapon on-hand; it’s because even the slightest encounter with one -- however much it’s dictated by the story -- means that a character’s life is in danger. They’re big, they’re fast, they’re super-strong, and they’re relentless in their pursuit of prey. Even a direct shotgun blast isn’t enough to stop them entirely; their skin is pretty much like armor. They’re still kinda-sorta vulnerable to fire, but killing them is a last resort because it releases their evil spirit into the air…and then it can infect someone else (who takes up cannibalism on the mountain).
I guess the main idea here is that wendigoes are a serious goddamn threat. And it’s because they’re a threat -- because they’re established, however late, as an ancient threat that effectively uses the mountain as their hunting ground -- that they’re genuinely scary. Sure, their looks and sounds play into that, with motions that you’d expect from jittery, perpetually-hungry sub-humans. But the important thing is that they emphasize the player’s vulnerability. There’s no flawless defense against them, even if they only see motion; in the eyes of the eight teens, survival is pretty much a matter of luck and furious prayer.
The threat of wendigoes makes exploring the world of Until Dawn downright nerve-wracking, to the point where I didn’t want to encounter them ever again in my playthrough. That’s an accomplishment.
It’s true that the game can affect players on an emotional level; it reels in those who bite, and forces them to go at its pace. That’s a good approach, but there are downsides. Speaking personally? There are things about Until Dawn’s implementation of wendigoes that bothers me, because I’m me and being me is suffering. From a story perspective, they’re kind of problematic -- and most of that has to do with “the stranger”.
There are plenty of shots throughout the game that feature a mysterious man lurking through the mountain retreat -- and since it’s still in the midst of Josh’s ploy, the player has no choice but to assume he’s the psycho killer. But the truth is that the stranger is actually a good guy; he’s a rugged and uncouth survivalist who’s been taking on the wendigoes for ages with his traps, weapons, and even a fully functional flamethrower. Fair enough, I suppose, even if his expertise on the subject immediately raises his death flag into the stratosphere (you don’t even learn his name before he gets beheaded).
So here’s my question: why did the stranger try to go all one-man-army on the wendigoes? He’s known about them for years, to the point where he killed the wendigo king (incidentally, the creature that made Hannah and Beth take a lethal fall). So why didn’t he tell anyone? Why didn’t he explain to a single person that the mountain was full of nightmare creatures, especially when he has no shortage of proof to go by? Further, how is he the only one that knows about wendigoes when the mountain -- while not used extensively 24/7 -- is open to the public? Failing that, how did Josh not find out about the bloodthirsty monsters in the time it took to set up his spooky mansion?
I don’t know, man. It just seems like they could’ve just made the wendigoes suddenly awaken once every so often -- on fateful nights, or when their malice reaches a fever pitch -- and left it at that. Ditch the stranger and let the gang find out about the wendigoes through clues that actually matter. I know it’s kind of silly to expect every horror movie to follow a perfect, logically-sound plot from start to finish, because I’d bet that in a lot of cases there would be no movie. But it gets to me. The logic of the moment can’t always be overshadowed by the emotion of the moment -- and it definitely can’t long after and it’s time to deliberate. I’m glad the wendigoes are in, and they are an effective threat, but I wish they could have entered the plot more smoothly. Or sooner, if we’re being honest.
This post is supposed to be about the gameplay, but really, there isn’t all that much to say. Like Quantic Dream’s “finest”, it’s a guided experience that alternates between walking around with a character and exploring an environment, using QTEs to interact with objects, and using said QTEs to make it through action segments. If you’re being cynical, you could argue that the whole examination of clues and objects sequences is there to show off the power of eighth-gen consoles; The Order: 1886 did something similar, after all. Still, it’s hard to imagine a simpler way to interact with an area. (Well, there ARE motion controls, but I opted out of those.)
The biggest issue is one you could lob at plenty of other games: movement is MUCH too slow. I get that it’s to help set up the atmosphere -- or mask super-secret loading times, potentially -- and it wouldn’t make sense to let the player run at top speed whenever they want. But in general, there isn’t enough justification for having these people walk around at a cringe-inducing pace, especially when there’s a “run” button that lets you move about 5% faster. It gets really silly when there actually is a reason to run -- to check out a strange sound, or see if a friend is okay -- and you can’t go much faster than a brisk jog while wearing a ball and chain. The Flash, you are not.
The plus side is that the gameplay isn’t quite as rudimentary as “Press X to Do the Thing”. (Weirdly, I don’t think there’s a single time where X is one of the on-screen prompts -- which should help anyone looking to minimize mistakes.) It’s true that there are instances where you’ll be asked to press a button quickly or take a hit, and risk the dreaded Bad End. But Until Dawn also has you making choices on the fly using the right stick. In a lot of cases, they’re not in binary, black-and-white options; you aren’t forced to choose between “fly into the sunset” and “stick your head in a blender”. They’re legitimate choices that make you think carefully about your next course of action, especially since -- in your first playthrough, at least -- you don’t know what leads to death and what doesn’t.
It’s what decides whether or not Ashley stabs Josh (disguised as a murderous psycho) with scissors, which in turn decides whether or not Josh punches her in the face, which in turn decides whether or not Chris punches Josh later. Alternatively, it’s what decides whether Sam gets captured and becomes another part of Josh’s revenge scheme, or if she escapes him (by hiding) and throws a wrench into the works. Granted some choices matter more than others -- by a wide margin, arguably -- but the important thing is that Until Dawn at least puts that first playthrough in the player’s ownership. He or she is the architect of fortune; it’s still possible to screw up, of course, but the important thing is that the game makes for a personal bond. And with it, a sense of responsibility.
Until Dawn brings up its “Butterfly Effect” mechanic with all the subtlety of a thirty-car pileup. It’s mentioned when you start a new game, complete with cinematic pans over butterfly wings. It’s a part of the Native American culture that ties into the mountain and the wendigoes. Chris even mentions it by name on the way to Josh’s lodge, just in case the player is an idiot. It didn’t need to go that far; it should be understood when the core conceit of the gameplay is that you’ve got eight lives on the line. But I guess that, much like Josh’s revenge scheme, it’s all about putting up smoke and mirrors. Deception. Illusion. Forcing the audience to play on its terms, even if logic and the truth suggest otherwise.
Which choices matter? Which ones don’t? That’s debatable, but you know what? You can pare that down to two direct answers. Answer one: they don’t matter at all. You’re playing a video game, not actually playing the guardian angel to a bunch of stock archetypes. Turn off the console, and you’ll never have to worry about Chris or Matt or Emily dying. And even if they do, it doesn’t matter; they aren’t real. Neither are the wendigoes. Nothing in the game matters, save for how much entertainment it offers up. How well can it trick you? That’s the clincher.
The alternative answer: every choice you make matters. There may not be a huge, perceivable payoff immediately, in the long run, or at all, but they’re still choices. They’re what pull you out of the real world and drag you kicking and screaming into the game world. You have a goal, and you have to use the means available to reach it; it just so happens that those means involve guiding these people toward a happy ending. They can be annoying and shallow and dumb (notice that there’s no intelligence stat for anyone in the game), but merely by existing, they deserve to see brighter days. And you have the power to make that happen. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?
So I guess ultimately, for all the game’s problems and little issues, I still like Until Dawn. I don’t think it’s the greatest game ever, or that it’s utterly amazing. But think about its contemporaries. Think about the state of the games industry upon its release. We’re in an age of empty sandbox games and forgettable big-budget thrill rides -- a world where we’re still more likely to know the nuances and character arcs of guns than the people who wield them. When Ubisoft decrees to the dirty, unwashed masses of gamers that they’ll deliver upon us three Tom Clancy games that just barely avoid blurring into one another, then that’s a problem. When another company -- any company -- provides anything even slightly beyond the norm, then that’s a solution. It’s hard to hate that.
So why am I pissed off? It’s because I have to point fingers -- but not at Ubisoft, or EA, or any of the usual suspects. I’m pissed off at these guys.
Having played Until Dawn, it’s obvious what the issue is. Supermassive Games reminds me of the slacker in the back of the class -- the goof-off who doesn’t pay attention, cracks wise, and acts like he doesn’t have a care. But when he’s actually tasked with doing something -- from the simplest task to a massive project -- he immediately shows that he’s got talent, and plenty of it. He’d just rather spend his time making kissy faces at all the pretty girls.
I know the game represents the company’s creative vision, but I have to ask: did someone force them to make a game styled after horror movie schlock? I’d imagine not. And that’s the problem; given how well they nailed so many conventions and so many mechanics, it almost seems like they took the easy way out so they could get back to making kissy faces. If they applied themselves to something more, then what would happen? Could they do more than rely on the outlines of characters, or an onslaught of jump scares? What would happen if Supermassive Games really got to cut loose?
I want to see that happen. I really do.
I don’t know how well Until Dawn has done in terms of sales or overall critical reception. Well enough, I assume -- at least if it got a mention at Sony’s recent convention and a VR spinoff. But you know what? I genuinely hope that Supermassive Games NEVER MAKES ANOTHER UNTIL DAWN GAME. That universe has been tapped, or at least tapped enough. I want them to move on. Take on other genres, and other stories, and other casts. I want them to show me, and the world, what they can do now that they’ve got both gamers’ attention and curiosity.
I’m ready for more. Gamers are ready for more. And if Supermassive Games can deliver, then they should deliver. I know what the slacker can do now -- and I expect great things from them in the future.
I also expect them to tighten up their visuals a bit more. Boy, did they dip into the uncanny valley at times.