Welcome back to Chasing Ghosts, our infrequent but still present horror video game review corner. As always, we’ll review a game that has caught our attention and weigh in on both how it is as a game and how it is as a horror experience.
This time around we’re going to talk about 2015’s Until Dawn. It’s a special beast because of its gameplay and general narrative form. Think that I’m being upsettingly vague? Well, check out the trailer below to get a taste for the PS4 exclusive, and then read through our review to see what I mean.
Until Dawn is the most recent in a long line of games that might be called “Interactive Movies” as a game sub-genre. You know us on this site… we quibble over what sub-genre boundaries are all the time, so let’s explode this one a bit. The gameplay in this game is limited entirely to four things: walking around slowly, making choices when on-screen prompts pop up, quick time events, and walking around slightly less slowly by holding down L1.
If you’ve played games by Quantic Dream or the Telltale Games you know the general feel. You know what? Now that I think of it, a shocking percentage of these games wind up being horrorish, but not actually stepping over the line into full horror. Heavy Rain, Indigo Prophecy, The Wolf Among Us… The Walking Dead, Telltale’s take on the AMC TV show universe, probably could be counted as full-fledged horror, but even that one is close. Until Dawn is the first of the pack (at least that I’m aware of) to fully dip its toe into the dark waters of the genre.
Notably, many of these games focus on serial killers. Not really sure why. I guess it’s probably easier to write a narrative of appropriate length if there’s a serial killer involved. Anyway, Until Dawn follows this path as well. A group of teens hunker down for a nice winter weekend at one of their friends’ house. It’s an annual trip and the year prior there was a horrific tragedy. As the group separates in order to go off on their various teenage canoodlings, the sinister mysteries of the mountain are revealed. Not trying to go spoiler heavy here, but…. generally speaking their vacation goes poorly.
UNTIL DAWN: AS A GAME
The sub-genre of “interactive movie” is a controversial one. Not far removed from “walking simulator” the genre is usually applied derisively. People who dislike the genre aren’t wrong to criticize it to some extent. I mean, the parts of this game you don’t spend walking around aimlessly you spend in quick time events. If you don’t know what that is, it’s when a prompt shows up on screen and you have to press the correct button before time runs out. That’s all it is. Most gamers despise them as being lazy shortcuts to gameplay. They’re basically the unearned jumpscare of the video game world.
Gameplay, however, isn’t why this genre has become popular. These games are captivating because combine the spectacle of a movie with the length and immersion of a game. Now, you might be thinking that you don’t want to sit through a 10 hour movie, and boy do I hear that, but there’s something about actually getting to play the movie that makes the time go by a lot faster than you are expecting. Even the moderate level of input you have into the decisions of the characters goes miles toward connecting with the plot.
Until Dawn follows this formula exceptionally well, and adds an incredibly impressive cast for a video game. Hayden Panettiere is arguably the most recognizable actress here, but she is joined by Rami Malek, Peter Stormare, and… drum roll… Larry Fessenden of all people. The rest of the cast isn’t particularly recognizable, but they all do a more or less serviceable job. If you aren’t particularly familiar with video games, having acting talent of this caliber performing on one game is basically unheard of. There are a few awkwardly acted exchanges, but overall the general level of talent in this game is sufficient to really hammer in the immersion. It’s great to just turn the lights off, put this game on, and sink into your couch for 3 hours.
The big schtick that Until Dawn sells itself on is the “butterfly effect” system. They probably could’ve come up with a better name for it, but essentially you make choices throughout the progression of the game that drives the plot in different directions. Depending on how good or bad these decisions are the range of outcomes is pretty vast. Minor spoilers here: you can go everywhere from getting each character killed to having each character live, and everything in between. At first it’s very novel, and I’ll admit it did drive me to a second playthrough and selective replays of various chapters. Unfortunately the more you dive in, the more you realize it’s actually a pretty shallow system.
UNTIL DAWN: AS A HORROR EXPERIENCE
Perhaps it’s because of the length of the game as compared to a movie, but Until Dawn has a lot of horror tropes happening. There’s a seance, a haunted house, an abandoned sanitarium, trees, a crazy psychologist, Larry Fessenden, elk, and a psycho killer just to name a few. What’s miraculous though is that the game still keeps things surprisingly focused without wearing any one thread too thin. The kids break off into 3 or 4 separate groups relatively early in the game, and each pairing has their own interweaving adventure. It winds up allowing the game to jump between the different narratives to give each trope its due without overplaying the individual story notes.
There is something that is so much more immersive about playing games than watching movies. You’re part of the action. You’re telling the characters whether or not to jump down into the abandoned mine or not. Should you run or hide? As a result, there’s a lot of really interesting stuff that this game gets to do to build the sense of dread that is critical to good horror. Although you don’t have full control of the camera in this game, the fact that your attention could be focused basically anywhere on screen severely limits the game designers’ ability to just toss on jump scares to ratchet up the scare factor. The end effect being that they have to work for their tone throughout the game. Don’t get me wrong, there are still jumpscares, but there’s also a lot of stuff here that is just flat out not doable in a movie.
Until Dawn isn’t just a pure horror experience, it’s three or four horror experiences. You get slasher, you get haunted house, you get survival horror… and I’m not even mentioning the big spoilery one.
As a Game
Many would argue that this is barely a game, and they wouldn’t be too far off. This isn’t a game that you could get good at with a lot of practice. There’s almost no skill involved aside from just remembering which buttons are where during the quick time events. That being said, there is just enough game here to warrant a second playthrough. I guess it depends on whether or not you call “see who you can get violently murdered” a game or not. I think within this context (and no other contexts) that counts for something.
As a Horror Experience
This is 9 straight hours of horror. Without having to fit into the confines of the traditional length of a horror movie, this game really allows each part of the story to breathe. The setup allows you to get to know each character enough for you to care about them. Once they split up you get multiple different, equally brutal horror stories that stay both focused and interesting, only to ultimately collapse back down into one big finish. Although there are points where the game mechanics distract from the situation, and others where the voice acting is lackluster, ultimately this is an extremely strong horror experience.
As a Horror Game
There isn’t much more to be said on the topic of gameplay. If you don’t mind the simplicity then you won’t be bothered at all by the game, however if you have a philosophical problem with this one then this topic might be a bit divisive. I personally don’t have any issues calling this a game, but recognize that the shallowness of the gameplay and choice system do limit it to a certain extent. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that the influx of talent that this game brings into the genre is worth at least some bonus points. A rising tide lifts all boats, after all.