[gore tw, ableist slurs tw, racism tw, sexism tw]
My PS4 is running out of space for some reason (that reason being each game I have for it is 50 GB minimum) so I’m trying to beat some of the shorter games I own to free up space.
I’ve been sitting on Until Dawn since I bought the PS4. It’s not that I didn’t want to play it, I’ve just been distracted by the deluge of amazing games for the console. Also the constant sales at Best Buy are not doing my library any favours. Hey, when I see a $90 game that I want on sale for $30, I get it.
Until Dawn is a survival horror adventure game developed by Supermassive Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Every year, a group of teenagers gather at an isolated ski lodge for a retreat. When a prank goes awry, however, two of the friends disappear into the wilderness and are never heard from again. A year later, the remaining eight friends are invited to the same lodge to commemorate their friends’ deaths, but when strange and deadly things start happening around them, including being stalked by a relentless killer, it’s anyone’s guess who will survive until dawn.
I think the simplest way to summarize Until Dawn is that it is an interactive horror movie. Have you ever watched a horror movie and yelled at the characters to not do something? Until Dawn gives you some measure of control over the characters, allowing you to subvert or play common horror movie tropes straight (to some extent).
Speaking of tropes, all the characters are predictable horror movie archetypes: Mike is the confident jock, Jessica is the sexy airhead, Sam is a girl next door type who loves animals, Chris is the nice nerd, Emily is an abrasive fashionista, Matt is friendly but a bit of a pushover, Ashley is more serious and studious, and Josh is a bit of a loner. Their personalities can change over time depending on your choices, but for the most part they stick to their archetypes, which was actually one of the issues I had with this game, but more on that below.
Gameplay consists of moving the character around and picking up objects (which may be clues that reveal background information or just things to inspect). Action sequences take the form of QTEs where missing a button press can occasionally be fatal, and sometimes you’ll need to aim at a target reticle and press R2 to fire. The most annoying aspect of action sequences is the DON’T MOVE prompt, when you need to remain perfectly still while the controller vibrates. You also use the right stick to make choices, some of which are timed, although doing nothing, the game says, is sometimes the best choice.
I feel like saying that the graphics are beautiful in a AAA PS4 title is almost redundant but the snowy environments and abandoned locations are really pretty, not to mention creepy. You can even see the dust motes in indoor scenes. The one thing I didn’t like was at times it seemed like the lip syncing was off and some of the facial animations really crossed the line into uncanny valley (particularly Dr. Hill’s teeth, which only increased the creepiness factor).
This game has been praised for it’s meaningful choices, and while I think that no game can ever completely account for every choice and that not every choice can completely change the game, I thought it was well done here. The game keeps track of your choices via the stats screen, which tracks how brave, charitable, etc. each character is, but also the relationships between characters, and the Butterfly Effect, which tracks choices and consequences and gives the player feedback when a choice they made earlier in the game has impacted current events. For instance, placing a baseball bat off to the side will allow a character to use it later. Sometimes the impact of your choices won’t be apparent until much later in the game, and can even result in characters dying. You can also collect different “totems” which might show a character’s death (or the death of their friends), guide you towards the correct path, show you something that will lead to a favourable result, or show you a possible danger. These are purely for the player’s benefit, as the characters don’t react to them at all. My only issue with the choices is that some of them are very unintuitive and will lead to characters dying because you made the wrong choice a few minutes earlier (or sometimes chapters earlier). There was also one moment where you needed a specific clue to prevent a death. Fortunately, I was able to backtrack and find said clue.
I think my biggest annoyance with the gameplay was the DON’T MOVE segments, where you need to remain absolutely still while the controller vibrates, which is especially difficult to do when they combine it with jump scares. You can easily pass the segment by resting the controller on a flat surface and picking it up as soon as the indicator goes away, which is what I did.
My major criticism from a story and character standpoint is a consequence of the game being so faithful to its genre, so of course the “sexy” character can die after having sex, Matt, who is black, can die first, and Emily, who is Asian, is practically designed in such a way that you will hate her (and, like Matt, can die most often and in really gruesome ways). I really hate that the devs decided that the character you need to hate the most is the one WOC in the cast. Meanwhile, Sam, the white vegan who isn’t into the group’s shenanigans, is clearly the Final Girl) and she spends the majority of a chapter when you control her wandering around in nothing but a towel. There’s also a heaping helping of “people with mental illnesses are scary” (and the person stalking the characters is referred to as “p*ycho” and “p*ychopath” repeatedly), not to mention appropriation of Indigenous traditions. All of these are established horror movie tropes but that doesn’t mean they aren’t racist or sexist. Apparently one of the lead designers believes Until Dawn isn’t sexist because the cast is evenly split between men and women and they’ve “avoided the traditional phallic stabbing”. I guess we can go home because sexism is over? No seriously, the cast might be equally split (although there’s no non-binary representation) but that doesn’t change the fact that Mike, the typical white, athletic, straight guy protagonist we’ve all seen before, gets the most screen time (in one case exploring the same location by himself twice). It’s a shame that Until Dawn is unfortunately constrained by the conventions of its genre in this way.
Other than the things I’ve mentioned above, this game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to blood and gore. Characters are beheaded, stabbed and shot through the eyes, and bisected by a circular saw. They can also be stabbed with needles. One scene near the end of the game has a character hallucinating and thinking they see viscera tumbling out of a dead pig. Speaking of dead pigs, there are also scenes involving animals which have been torn apart and you have the option to shoot a bird in the early game.
In terms of length, I completed the game in about ten hours but I didn’t come close to collecting all the collectables and totems. There is some replayability, especially if characters die and you want to see what changes when they live. I don’t think I’ve played another game that feels as if you’re in control of the victims in a slasher movie. I recommend it to genre fans who don’t mind a game that slavishly adheres to genre tropes.