Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4
ESRB: M for Mature
Sometimes a new game is announced and later cancelled after years of radio silence. This is a tragedy to not just the excited fans, but also to the team who put tons of heart and soul into a project. However, some refuse to die and are reborn as something new. Until Dawn is one of those games. Initially announced as a first-person PS Move title on the PlayStation 3 in 2012, Sony and Supermassive made the decision to move it to the more powerful console. This led to the title we have today.
Violence: There is tons of gore when a character or animal is killed. Depending on your choices, nobody or everybody can be killed. Regardless of your choices, you will see some amount of gore and blood in your run.
Language/Crude Humor: Almost every curse word you would hear in an R-rated horror movie is used in this game on multiple locations. There is rarely a moment passes where one is not used flippantly.
Drug/Alcohol Use: In the prologue, two characters are shown passed out from drinking with multiple bottles of alcohol strewn about on the counter.
Sexual Content: The term “porn stars” is directed at a couple by a friend. When questioned on it, he flippantly responds “I’d watch it.” Depending on your choices, a female character can be shown in her skivvies. Multiple innuendos are used in reference to characters committing some sort of sexual act. While not graphic in description, you are left to your own imagination’s devices to determine what they mean. It is possible to see a Kama Sutra book and the various sexual positions within it.
Spiritual Content: There is a short scene where three characters use a Ouija board in a flippant manner. One character believes she is seeing a ghost in one sequence. The main antagonist is a supernatural force that possess those who partake in cannibalism. Totem collectibles give the player mini visions of future events and are tied to the themes of death, guidance, loss, danger, and misfortune.
I want to say this right away; horror is does not easily impress me. In fact, I rarely seek out horror movies and games. Nearly every horror movie to release at the box office makes lots of money despite having bad reviews from critics. Every time this happens, I think about the rare exceptions where quality is equally teamed with scares and originality. A Quiet Place, Get Out, and It Follows are all examples of horror movies that take what you know, turn it inside out and give you what horror should be. Before I had seen those movies, though, what really attracted me to this genre in the first place was Until Dawn.
At first I had no idea why it caught my eye like it did, but I just could not help but desire to know what this game was all about. Whether it was the cliché choose-your-own-adventure story or the gorgeously rendered graphics on the new hardware, I immediately wanted to check it out and discovered this was exactly why I wanted to play it. When the time came, I did exactly that and I was in love. What drew me in was exactly what I wanted, and the story totally surprised me when it took everything to the next level about halfway into the story. The moment you complete the prologue, the opening credits start with a cover of “O Death” by Amy Van Roekel, setting the tone perfectly for what is to come.
In between chapters, you visit Dr. Alan Hill where you discuss your fears and your affinity towards the characters. These sessions build your game to be as terrifying as possible. If you tell him you dislike clowns, there will be many clown masks seen in the game, as opposed to the other option of scarecrows. While necessary at the beginning, they do not bear much narrative weight after you hit the midpoint. Nonetheless, they prove important after you reach the final two chapters. I will not spoil it for you here, as it would cheapen the impact the twist bears in the game.
The game’s most important and prominent aspects are also its greatest strengths: character and choice. As you control the cast, you are given options that can lean into or against their personalities. If you make the class president character suave, his girlfriend will swoon to his charms and be easily seduced. Conversely, if you play against his type, she will act coldly toward your advances but will remove her metaphorical mask and show her vulnerabilities. What can easily be a scene of two teens hooking up for the sake of being horny can turn into an intimate—albeit still sinful—moment of vulnerability and meaningful connection. (It still sin doe.) As you deconstruct the characters, you also learn about how you would react in these situations. How much depth do you want to see out of these people and how much do you wish to get out of this experience?
As a wise man in a theater once said, “Turn around boy! He’s gonna get you!” You have the option to turn them around or make them get out of dodge to avoid injury or death. All of this is shown with binary choices in action and dialogue. When you are asked to choose which character you dislike, you are asked by the game if you truly believe the one person you dislike the most actually deserves what is about to befall them. You are asked to check your heart on whether anybody deserves this horrible fate. Are you so adamant about being spiteful that you would not lift a finger to save them when you have the power to do so? With great power, comes great responsibility, indeed!
As the story progresses, you can find collectibles as in other games. However, these ones are special. As you collect them, the characters gain more knowledge of their circumstances and try to piece together the bigger story surrounding them. If you pick up a totem that foreshadows later choices, you will see them have a flashback to what the totem showed them. You find clues about a mysterious stranger, Josh’s missing twin sisters, and the mines of the mountain. All of these tie together, and when you collect all of them, a video is accessible that fills you in on how everything is tangled into one big web. A drawback is that some areas are only visited once, so you have to be certain that you have found everything before proceeding. Thankfully, there is a chapter select option so you can find what you missed or see what it would look like if “X” character lived instead of died.
Everything about Until Dawn centers around choice. You can even see the most popular choices among players by turning it on in the menu. Do you want to deconstruct everything about the stereotypes you see in a casual horror flick, or do you wish to make these caricatures more than a pretty face or goofy personality? The weight is on your shoulders here. All you have to ask is: are you ready and able to survive Until Dawn?
The Bottom Line
Until Dawn is a narrative game for the ages. Rarely is horror done so effectively that you feel you can not pull your eyes from the screen. You know that something is coming and there is nothing you can do but be shocked at you have just done.