Ten teenagers are enjoying a fun getaway at the Washington’s lodge, and decide to play a particularly cruel prank on one of the girls, Hannah. When she runs out into the woods humiliated, her sister Beth goes after her and they go missing. Their distraught brother Josh decides to bring the group back to the lodge a year later in the hopes of healing and reuniting everyone in their grief, but there’s something sinister in the woods…
So begins the interactive horror game Until Dawn. The aim of the game is typical of most horror stories – to make it to the end with as many of your teenagers still alive as possible. Each chapter of the game counts down the remaining hours “until dawn”, when the game will end. You can play as all of the teenagers throughout the game, each with distinct personalities (the jock, the bitchy one, the moral one, the nerd) and differing relationships to each other.
Until Dawn works as a choice based adventure game. You can decide how your characters should treat each other and how much they should tell each other with each decision. This has a knock-on effect to the kind of relationships they have with each other and their own personalities which creates the long term and sometimes tragic consequences. During the more active game play in which your characters are exploring their surroundings you can also decide whether to run or hide when necessary or which route to take. Sometimes these decisions are timed as your character needs to make a quick decision and you might have as little as five seconds to pick an option that could mean life or death for your character.
Until Dawn works well as a horror game because it serves up equal parts intellect and quick reflexes. As well as hunting for clues to help you figure out what is going on in the woods and what really happened to Hannah and Beth, you have to think really carefully about the long term effects your choices could have on each teen and everyone’s survival. The game also encourages you to think about turning horror tropes on their head – do you want to befriend nature or destroy it? Should you risk separating from the group? Is it best to kill someone to save someone else? You have to keep your wits about you at all times, so if you enjoy the horror genre you’ll really enjoy being able to make these choices yourself. It’s a refreshing change from just killing monsters as you go along which some of the more traditional horror games offer.
The reflex quick time event moments also work well to really keep you on edge at all times – you never know when one will pop up so you always need to be completely focused. There are plenty of jump scares (and yes, I jumped at all of them) and they can often be followed by a quick time event in which you need to quickly press a button or make a choice to help ensure your character lives to the next chapter. It’s frustrating but also more realistic to the danger the game aims to portray that one wrong decision or missed button press can mean your character’s death just as easily as making poor long term decisions can. The game play also includes moments in which you have to keep the controller as still as possible to keep characters safe which is a lot harder than it sounds when you’re tense with fear, but all adds to the suspense.
Between each chapter are scenes in which a psychiatrist talks to a hidden character in his office. The psychiatrist repeatedly discusses with the hidden character the “game” she/he is playing and the effects it is having, which I thought was a fun little breaking of the fourth wall. The psychiatrist encourages “you” to pick answers for things which scare you the most, and which characters in the game you prefer, which each have small effects on future gameplay (although not on who lives or dies).
Until Dawn is a great game that builds tension well with atmospheric music, dark visuals and jump scares galore. It forces you to live with your choices through auto saves, there’s no way to “redo” a choice without restarting the game, so you have to carry on even when you’re annoyed about making a wrong choice or missing a crucial button press. This makes for a much more compelling and honest horror survival game. Although the characters weren’t always as interesting and sympathetic as they could have been and some of the movement is a little clunky, this is still a definite play for anyone who enjoys choice based games. With so many variants and endings you can easily play it again and again. Just don’t play it on your own in the dark…