Supermassive's blood-in-the-snow survival horror is shaping up to be an unexpected success.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Do you like scary movies? Personally, not really—and I'm not too moved by horror games, either. When I'm at play, the last thing I want is to be creeped out by some combination of savage pixels and sinister AI. I can't play through all of P.T., I just can't. Shreds my insides. And Capcom's new Kitchen demo? Don't even. More action-orientated fare, like the Resident Evil series, sure, no problem. But as soon as video games ratchet up the suspense in a way that can't be remedied by munitions, I generally check out.
But I want to play more of Until Dawn, Supermassive Games' forthcoming PS4 exclusive that puts the player in command of a host of (not-quite-teenagers-anymore) characters who attend a get-together at a remote mountain cabin on the anniversary of a very unfortunate event. The memory their gathering marks makes up the game's prologue, a short sequence where twin sisters Hannah and Beth go missing in a blizzard after a prank goes badly, never to be found. It's their brother Josh, played by Rami Malek (Need for Speed, Short Term 12), who insists that the same gang reconvenes a year later. Also amongst the cast for this photo-real-enough game are Hayden Panettiere (Nashville, Heroes) as Sam, Brett Dalton (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Mike, and a delightfully hamming-it-up Peter Stormare (Fargo, Dancer in the Dark) in a role that I won't reveal here because spoilers.
Anyone who's ever watched a slasher flick where twentysomethings playing teenagers are picked off one by one in some faraway location where there's no mobile signal and the electricity is shot can work out what happens next. It's soon enough evident that the group has been joined by at least one more person, who might just have a thing for hanging lippy kids from meat hooks. But if it sounds like a cavalcade of clichés about to come crashing down a peak of seen-it-before expectations like an avalanche of I-don't-need-to-play-this shit, wrong.
I thought that way, too, until I played a substantial preview of the game, adding up to about a quarter of the total experience. Until Dawn delivers on preconceptions while simultaneously subverting them with mirthful relish, knowing fully well how fear and fun are most powerfully felt when alternated, scattering surprisingly effective jump scares across its opening couple of hours as it gently nudges up the tension without the player realizing how invested they've become. And how it achieves this still feels like a mystery, as it's not like Supermassive makes it clear which of these might-be victims you're supposed to be rooting for. Given she's the starriest name, it may be Panettiere's Sam who ultimately emerges as the designated hero figure of the fiction (pun intended), the one who's going to make it out against all the odds. But any number of these kids, all of whom are player-controlled at various points, can die, and several will. I'm fairly certain that it'll be impossible to go the whole game with your entire complement alive.
Until Dawn plays much like a Telltale game: It's heavy on adaptable dialogue, with response options directing conversation according to whether or not you want to be understanding or an outright dick (most of the time), and the gameplay is broken down into limited sections of free-roaming exploration (premonition-spilling collectibles!) and QTE sequences where one mistake can have significant consequences. Miss a prompt when scaling a busted-up lift shaft—the hillside setting hides a network of dilapidated mine tunnels—and you might not make it to the surface in time to prevent another character's grisly demise. And just like Telltale's best, sometimes doing nothing is the right option.
The generally attractive Umbra 3 visuals (there is some lip-sync stutter, a few frame rate dips, and the preview build's atmosphere is just occasionally broken by a graphical glitch, like a rifle disappearing from a character's still-gripping-something hand—but nothing major given I'm not playing final retail code) position the game closer to a Quantic Dream production, and much like that studio's Heavy Rain, once a character is dead, that's it, they're out of the story, which adapts to incorporate their fate. Unlike Heavy Rain and its follow-up, Beyond: Two Souls, Until Dawn doesn't feel like it's on rails, like it'll just keep on going whatever your decisions. From the very beginning it stresses the relevance of the butterfly effect in chaos theory when making your decisions: the "right" move at one stage can easily lead to a fail state moments later.
The game is structured episodically, each chapter lasting around 30 minutes, give or take, which makes it feel like a TV production in a fashion that 2010's not-aesthetically-miles-away Alan Wake failed to translate on account of its less-frequent breaks. Stormare's time to shine comes between these episodes, each introduced with a "previously on Until Dawn" montage reminding you of the choices you made. All I'll reveal about his role in proceedings is that it's tied into (what I felt was) a clever way of tracking how you're playing the game. It's testing you in more ways than the very obvious challenge of keeping these kids from harm. Say no more.
Even if you choose not to use Until Dawn's motion control option—it was originally being developed for the PS3's Move peripheral—there are times in the game where movements beyond your thumbs have a direct effect on the action. The slightest twitch of the pad when the screen demands that you keep it still can have you fail a particular section. Later, this mechanic will undoubtedly play a part in a life or death situation, but in the game's early scenes this means feeding a squirrel or scaring it away, and either keeping a torch steady or winding Josh up by flicking away to see what that noise was, coming from elsewhere in the basement. What was that noise, anyway? You'd better go and investigate.
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As my main, played-from-the-start preview is wrapping up I see my first significant death. It wasn't unavoidable—I'd messed up, and fixed that other character's fate in the process. (Replaying it, and nailing my QTEs, it's possible to produce a very different outcome.) In a shorter section from later on in proceedings, I'm again faced with my hesitance directly influencing the (surely deadly, although it's not made explicit) squishing of a colleague. And that's how Until Dawn works: you've flexibility to shape the narrative to come up to a point, but a flurry of butterflies in the top left of the screen indicate that these choices have now set the future a certain way, and there's no going back from it. The game (so far) isn't any gorier than your average ...Last Summer or Scream series movie, and while there are suggestions of torture porn titillation slinking into the plot around the preview's end, with Saw-like "games" on the horizon, I don't get the impression that it's about to descend into meaningless volume and viscera for the sake of cheap thrills.
I hope it doesn't, anyway. Until Dawn feels smarter than that, with a definite The Cabin in the Woods–like undercurrent to its surface-level presentation of pretty young things threatened with a lethal skewering. And just like director Drew Goddard's darkly humorous but cerebrally satisfying horror debut, this game isn't afraid to poke fun at itself and its genre. "Ooof, fuck nuggets!" exclaims Mike at one point, when shit's going rapidly south for him and his girlfriend, Jessica, played by Kingdom Hearts regular Meaghan Martin. Well, I laughed. If you've a PlayStation Camera, the game can also record your reactions to its most effective jumps. It calls these socials-sharable clips "Cheap Shots," another sign that the makers know well enough what genre tropes to exploit, and how to best send them up with a nudge, a wink, and a rusty saw blade to the guts.
It might not be one of the most talked-up PS4 exclusives of 2015, but Until Dawn could prove to be amongst the most welcomed. It will appeal to a casual audience as well as regular gamers, something to be shared between friends and loved ones reclining on the same sofa, the pad swapped between sweaty palms. It's easy to pick up and, wholly unexpectedly, hard to put down, as the player edges onward, eager to either keep their favorite characters in the game or try to have their least-liked ones killed off. It's comfortable in its skin, even when half of it's hanging up on the other side of the room. And it might just be a bit special, a summertime snowstorm of didn't-see-it-coming addictiveness.
Until Dawn is released for PlayStation 4 on August 25 in the US.
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