Until Dawn completely took me by surprise, and I’m not just talking about the jump scares. Here I was, having followed the game for several years, expecting a thrilling albeit throwaway homage to the teen horror genre, but what I didn’t expect was something far more complex and impacting. Although laden with just about every horror trope and cliché imaginable, Supermassive Games has deftly worked them into this unique, branching interactive experience. Having played through the story once, I’m already diving straight back in for a second helping.
It all takes places on Blackwood Mountain, a remote expanse of snowy woodland embedded within the heart of Canada’s final frontier. It is here that a group of ten rowdy teens made their winter getaway, flocking to the Washington family’s idyllic ski lodge. However, after a mean prank goes awry, the Washington twins disappear into the wilderness, never to be seen again. Now, one year after the tragic incident, their brother Josh invites the group back so that the healing process can begin. However, in typical horror movie fashion, it doesn’t all quite go to plan and soon the bodies begin to pile up. Or do they?
Whether they live or die hinges on a series of choices made by the player. From seemingly minor decisions to clear-cut forks in the road, each one can drastically alter the game’s unfolding narrative. This adaptive storytelling system is referred to as the Butterfly Effect. For those unfamiliar with the theory, it explains how the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can, through a series of interdependent events, lead to a hurricane. Although not quite as far-reaching, the choices you make in Until Dawn will always affect what happens later in the game.
Of course, we’ve seen something very similar attempted in recent years. However, unlike Mass Effect, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and other games that boast branching narratives, Until Dawn feels as though it actually delivers on that promise. There are entire portions of the game that some players will see and others won’t depending on what choices they make. Add to that the mortality of the game’s eight protagonists and you have yourself a story that can unwind in a vast number of different ways.
Two of the teen horror tropes Until Dawn flouts is the usual bad writing and poor character development. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of flat one-liners, but these feel completely intentional. It’s this degree of self-awareness that gives Until Dawn a great sense of humour, ultimately working in the games favour.
The same can be said of how Supermassive plays around with established character archetypes. Among the eight playable teens we have your typical jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, and in-betweeners, each dutifully filling their role within the game’s cast. However certain personality traits are subverted as you get deeper into the game, adding a surprising layer of emotional complexity to each character. Although one or two of them rarely catch a moment in the spotlight, they each go through their own individual turmoil, making it very hard for players not to bond with them.
Until Dawn benefits from a masterclass in on-screen presentation. This is where Supermassive Games has pulled out all the stops, obsessing over every detail using advanced techniques in body-tracking and facial capture. As a result, Until Dawn features some of the most believable, realistic characters ever seen in a video game, brought to life by an sublime cast of actors. They might have been leaping around makeshift sets in silly mo-cap suits, but they also delivered each line of dialogue to full effect. Some of the actors you probably haven’t heard of, but it’s hard to miss the likenesses and performances of Hayden Panettiere, Peter Stormare, Rami Malek, and Brett Dalton.
This same level of obsessiveness and passion for the genre is also present in the design of Blackwood Mountain itself. From the iconic ski lodge to the many outbuildings, forest tracks, and abandoned mineshafts, each area is its own pulsating hub of tension. The main culprit here is subdued lighting, injecting just the right amount of atmosphere into each of the game’s incredibly detailed vistas.
Much of your time with Until Dawn will be spent exploring these areas, either manually or through cutscenes occasionally laden with button prompts. The two are blended together seamlessly to help push the story forward, though the former walking sections do allow for some downtime. During these parts of the game, players can walk around interacting with certain objects such doors, levers, and other points of interest.
Among these are a healthy number of collectibles that help piece the narrative together and, in some cases, prophesise future events. With Cree mythology as a core influence throughout the game, small wooden totems can be found strewn around which reveal tiny snippets of footage from later within the game that players must interpret. While some totems show visions of fortune, most depict scenes of danger and even death.
Despite the potential criticism of Until Dawn being a glorified “walking simulator” I never felt bored when given license to roam some of its bigger environments. The game always hints at which direction the player should head towards, but there are plenty of side routes, hidden rooms, and alcoves providing entirely optional distractions. Even the walking itself is done well and only feels sluggish whenever doing some laborious backtracking. The controls, which have one stick moving the character and another moving their head, can be awkward at times, but never detract from the overall experience.
During most of the game’s set piece moments, your control over characters will be limited to simple button prompts and making split-second decisions. Another mechanic that occasionally crops up will see players holding their DualShock perfectly still as the game tracks its motion bar. Needless to say, these moments of gameplay were by far the most intense, as failing them would surely result in death. That said, their value is diminished somewhat in one of the later chapters of the game, but we won’t divulge any of the specifics.
Although clocking in at around seven and a half hours, my first playthrough of Until Dawn felt much, much longer. Considering the quality and replay value of what’s on offer, you’re definitely getting your forty quid’s worth, and with so many variables and outcomes, players will no doubt want to dive straight back in to steer the narrative in a new direction.
That said, the way content is accessed once the credits have rolled leaves much to be desired. You can only pick up from the start of one of the ten episodes or the very beginning of the game, and this is easily Until Dawn’s biggest oversight. It would have been easily remedied with a simple option for players to skip scenes they’d already played or even to select specific points in the game’s timeline. Instead, you’ll be forced to retrace your steps in a time-consuming process that will drive many to simply hunt for YouTube clips instead of replaying the game themselves. It’s admittedly an annoying setback, yet it fails to cast a shadow over what is otherwise the best horror game on PlayStation 4.
With its immersive world, branching narrative, and lifelike character work, Until Dawn will have players on the edge of their seats while pounding them with jump scares and a bone-chilling soundtrack. Having previously worked on ports and smaller titles for Sony, Supermassive Games have shown that they can play with the big boys and we can’t wait to see what they come up with next.