You might not have heard of Until Dawn, a game that casts you as one of a group of horny teenagers spending a winter night on a mountain lodge inhabited by something stalking them, until this past week. Nobody would blame you.
The game was originally being developed by Guildford, UK-based studio Supermassive Games for the PlayStation 3 as a Move title and was expected to release in 2014. It ultimately switched to PS4 mid-development and has been released a year later with almost no fanfare from publisher Sony. It's a game that by all accounts seems like it was expected be lost in the great whirlpool that is the autumn release schedule, doomed to mediocre reviews, and a quick dump into bargain bins worldwide a few months into the New Year. And that's a shame. Because Until Dawn isn't just one of the most delightful, ghoulish surprises of this year—it's one of the best horror games ever made.
The game apes the design of another PlayStation exclusive, Quantic Dream's 2010 thriller Heavy Rain, letting you control a number of characters and make choices that will determine how the story takes shape and ultimately how many of these people make it through the game alive. If a character dies, they're lost forever, and the game continues on without them.
In Heavy Rain, this design was interesting enough to get people to play multiple times, but the game's plot was a flaming garbage heap, and there weren't "branching paths" as much as there were a lot of endings you could get depending on what choices you made. Heavy Rain's real problem though is that its characters didn't just didn't grow in interesting ways throughout the story. Ethan Mars is a father seeking redemption who either succeeds or fails in his journey to save his son from a serial killer and that's it. Norman Jayden remains a drug-addled detective who hates his partner even in the best outcome; Madison Paige goes from being a sexualized, courageous reporter... to being a sexualized, courageous reporter. There was just no character development for almost anyone. You played as stereotypes from thrillers: the desperate and the vengeful, the grieving, the crusaders—and there's nothing inherently wrong with using stereotypes, except that Heavy Rain didn't know what to do with them.
If Until Dawn had forced players to live out the stereotypes of its slasher film-inspired characters, it still would have been an enjoyable, gory romp through the woods at night. However, it does something far more interesting with its interactivity.
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The first part of Until Dawn spends a lot of time establishing who the cast is and basically offering you a superficial snapshot of each character. Here's jock Mike, he's a handsome hunk of meat. Here's Emily, she's a super bitchy prima donna and is maybe cheating on her boyfriend. Here's Josh, he's rich and sensitive and nursing deep emotional wounds from a traumatic experience. And so on and so forth until you've played as nearly every character and have come to understand their stereotypes.
And Until Dawn ultimately shines because it allows you to let these characters embrace their stereotypes and get slashed to ribbons for being dumb, horny morons; or you can make them live beyond the confinement of the roles that the game has sentenced them to.
I played nearly all of Until Dawn's seven hours in a single sitting, sipping coffee from my cup in one hand while mashing donuts in my mouth with the other, and it was like being stuck in a room with a group of people I didn't like (to the extent that I wanted them DEAD, mind you) and slowly but surely coming to appreciate them as the time we spent with one another revealed layers to their personalities. Mike turned out not to be the self-centered asshole I pegged him to be but instead a genuinely kind man who would risk his life to save his friends. I even came to have a begrudging respect for Emily, who just couldn't and wouldn't die, even in those few instances where I felt compelled to let her slip into the abyss. Likewise, a character I thought was brave and friendly at the start turned out, because of my choices, to be a coward.
'Until Dawn,' launch trailer
It's shocking how both natural and complex the character development is here. Part of this is because Until Dawn is cleverly written and structured, taking time to introduce us to these people and show us who they are before getting down to the nasty business, but more importantly it's because the game gives us the tools to change who they are, to allow us to shape them as human beings.
I can't count how many times I've watched a horror movie with some pals and we'd just scream obscenities at the screen as some dumb shits stood around in the dark while a killer crept up behind them. Actually being those dumb shits in Until Dawn is fascinating because it allows us to experience the terror of these characters in a way that just isn't possible with film or television, engendering a unique sort of empathy toward them.
Whatever ill will I held against Emily or Jess faded as they explored a deep cavern filled with unspeakable horrors, the absolutely awful and inexcusable stuff they had said in the game's opening was flung from my mind because I was them, fumbling around in the dark, trying my best to stay alive and away from whatever was hiding in the shadows, watching me.
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Most horror games attempt to be personal and intimate in an almost abusive way, with us playing from a first-person perspective as a monster sniffs our scent outside of the locker we're cowering inside, or we're being treated to our own gruesome death scene for failing some bit of gameplay. And make no mistake: failure is punished harshly here. Heads pop off, there's burning flesh, dismemberment—the whole bloody shebang. However, Until Dawn's attempts to be personal in a way that makes us care for the people on the screen, instead of wanting to see them gutted, is genuinely more exciting than any number of jump scares or weak attempts at psychological horror could ever be.
By focusing on fleshing out its characters and letting us control their development, the game reveals an unexpectedly powerful weapon to be used against the player that the majority of its genre cohorts have overlooked for decades: empathy by way of subtle, persuasive design. There's a lot of schlock and gore in Until Dawn, sure, but it's the game's bloody heart—one that beats with earnest love for both its genre and its own characters—that will stay with me for the years to come and guarantee many a Halloween night spent revisiting these lovely fucking idiots of mine.
Until Dawn is out now for PlayStation 4.
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