Life is all about choices, every moment is a crossroad begging you to decide which path you shall follow. The path you choose to take is the one that decides where about’s your story is headed, something as silly as running back to your house to grab something you forgot can have drastic outcomes which all affect what happens next in your life. So let’s say for example you are walking to the train station when suddenly you decide to look through your bag, in looking you realize you forgot to grab something important, now you can go on and live without it, or you can go home. Next let’s say your choice was to rush home, you were not far away so you figure if you are quick enough you can regain your pace, you get in the door but then realize, “oh drat I don’t remember where I put it”. So you decide to search the house, it takes you five minutes to find what you need and then you quickly get back on your original path. At this time you say to yourself “at this point I could have been at the traffic lights”, when you get there a huge accident has occurred as it turns out if you had have been there at the original time you would have been killed but your decision saved your life. This is the Butterfly effect, how one choice alters the future and can mean a completely different outcome to the one you were previously headed towards, and this is one thing Until Dawn never lets you forget, the Butterfly effect is always in play and your decisions shape the story.
Until Dawn puts us in control of the lives of ten characters these include Sam (Hayden Panettiere), Mike (Brett Dalton), Ashley (Galadriel Stineman), Chris (Noah Fleiss), Matt (Jordan Fisher), Emily (Nicole Bloom), Jessica (Meaghan Martin), Josh (Rami Malek), and his twin sisters Hannah and Beth (Ella Lentini). All these characters head up to the Blackwood Mountain Ski Lodge as part of their annual winter getaway. A group of the friends decide it is a good idea to pull a prank on Hannah using her crush on Mike to pull the joke, as she worked under the impression that Mike invited her up to his room for reasons of love the group lay in wait laughing at Hannah naivety. Upon realising what was really going on Hannah got upset and ran from the cabin into the woods, where her upset sister gave chase to find her, however when they eventually reunite they are chased off a cliff by a stranger. After weeks of searching the two girls still remained missing.
One year later Josh decides it is a good idea to return to the lodge for their annual getaway as a memorial of shorts to his sisters and as such calls everyone back. However something is amiss, things just aren’t right, as a storm closes in a series of clues found by the group point to something truly sinister, a wanted poster, weapons missing or out of place. As the night goes on things just get worse and the group faces true horror, that depending on player actions and the events that follow lead to death and disappearances. From here the player must keep watch, must keep their wits about them and try their best to make the wise decisions all to survive until dawn.
The game is played out across several chapters and between most of them a sort of break occurs. You will find yourself in a psychiatrists office where he asks you a series of tough questions all of which have lasting ripple effects, what are you afraid of, which characters do you like and hate, and these moments even go down to some serious questions of sanity. Initially these start out pretty interesting but each visit seems to become more and more unsettling, the game takes your choices and throws them back at you by altering the doctor’s office to truly mess with you. As the game continues I found these sessions still held impact but got less important as certain revelations were made.
Until Dawn plays off some of the classic horror tropes, this is a game that is never ashamed to claim its fame from the ideas of classic horror movies. In fact within the first half of Until Dawn players partake in a sort of teenage slasher movie, however once you hit the halfway point things take a complete turn and the genre and ideas explored completely change as you find yourself in a monster movie. I think it could be easy to complain about how the entire tone just changes at a moment’s notice, but with Until Dawn this works, how the game shifts from one idea to another is complete perfection and it never makes the player feel ease. But it helps that all throughout the first act small hints appear towards a greater story and these clues force you to consider other events that could be happening.
It can be said because of the shift that occurs midgame that Until Dawn suffers a sort of identity crisis, the two different genres that are present both feel very different and offer completely different approaches and ideas. But even with this identity crisis which forces the game to feel a bit confused in places it can never be denied how strong either side of the story is, once one idea closes the game fluently opens to the complete shift providing something that feels very natural. Being honest with this the first half of the game felt like a great opening introducing us to the characters which play a key part in the story, but as one side of the story closed and all was revealed the complete genre change was seamless and felt like a natural expansion as the events just got stronger and even better as it divulged into a monster movie. The second half holds a lot of strength that makes the whole experience even better especially as even more tension is added to the core experience, right to the end things are enjoyable and run at a great pace, however I won’t deny a feeling of a sort of anticlimactic ending for Until Dawn, in a small way I feel like just a little more should have been thrown into the games end that makes things feel complete, but either way the story holds a lot of strength and is highly engrossing and involving.
The first half of the game carries on at a great pace playing out many of the defining points of its particular genre, from the characters personality distinctions which were clearly all chosen purposely to the way the game plays itself out. The plot premise of a group of friends heading up to the ski lodge is an early indicator which develops even more when a storm emerges as well as some of the environments that the game takes place in, for obvious points we see two characters that head out to a more “private” guest house in the mountain just to be intimate. You don’t have to have seen many horror movies to know that this is never really a good idea and is not going to end well. All the little details of the genre are played out well here and almost perfectly, they do differ a little bit in points where we see truly well detailed environments and even some characters that receive enough polish to be considered likable.
But similarities in character design are completely present to the horror tropes which in part with a game just takes you out a little bit, in a horror movie we expect characters to be hated, these are the ones we hope will die. But Until Dawn is a game about ensuring your characters make it through their night of horror and survive, and so having characters that for the lack of a better word I hated really does detract from the experience. In one particular point I will admit some of the hate-able characters find redemption as their actions become much better, but there were times I honestly considered making a mistake just to get them killed. I honestly hated Emily, and Mike was exactly what you expect, I admit they are well developed but they are just so easy to hate.
For Until Dawn the game lives and dies in its tropes, its excessive nature of playing off the tropes of classic horror movies can at times be a setback which makes Until Dawn a slightly shut off experience. This is a game, where I am happy to hate people in movies, hating someone in a game just detracts from the experience and loses something to a small degree particularly when asked to keep the character alive. In some ways it also never helps that they just make some of these characters so hate-able and really set us up to make the choice of whether we are better, or in some cases can hold ourselves back, on many occasions in my first playthrough I failed to keep my better side in check.
It is an interesting concept to consider that every decision has some kind of re-percussive effect, this Butterfly effect is one of the game key points and really makes every seemingly insignificant choice matter in the long term. At most turns you are offered choices that can have a real impact on how your characters live or die, something as silly as choosing to point a gun on someone can have catastrophic effects for a character down the line. The rippling effects of each choice makes the decisions even more worrying as something as silly as sending a character down a bad path, choosing to shoot someone, or even telling the truth can have cataclysmic effects making your characters death possible. In reverse, some choices can also have the really good effects which could result in the life of a character being saved.
Though when not making decisions, you are usually doing one of two things, the biggest one is wandering through varying set pieces such as the Snowy Mountain, rundown hotel, insane asylum, and of course mines. All of these scream classic horror and they play out just like it, but these develop more into key points which allow you to gather information which can help your story, even sometimes helping with certain key decisions and covering major story points which your characters address in conversation.
The other, perhaps bigger side to the gameplay comes in the form of quick time events which play quite heavily into the events. In combination with the games Butterfly Effect choice system quick time events are utilized to add even more impact to the games numerous cut scenes as well as specified moments, in fact these events are some of the most utilized points within Until Dawn. There is never a moment to let down your guard and relax and cutscenes which usually allow a quick break from the controller can turn into tough life or death moments in a split second which require you to have to quickly press the correct button to avoid accidents. Failure to press a required button often lead me to end with a dead character particularly as the risks of mistakes ramped up to a much higher level, a simple missed button, or even incorrect button press can cause serious issues. Quick time events are made even tougher at times when you are forced to utilize the game controller’s functionality to avoid making any movements which is used at many high impact moments.
Usually I really hate quick time events, in the past I have actually thought them to be lazy game design which really made the game lose something, but not with Until Dawn. Each sequence holds more power because of these moments, you have a split second to press the correct button or make a decision which makes every moment of Until Dawn truly count. Every mistake made because of such quick decisions or button presses actually add impact to you as the player and mean that every time a character is killed because of what you did it is your fault and you feel guilty, I know for a fact I did.
The idea of Until Dawn and its story full of choices and consequences make it perfect for the opportunity to jump through the game a few times over. The replay options presented by the choice system means each return is worth it to see how the story changes because of your decisions and how the Butterfly Effect plays a big part in what exactly happens. In my first playthrough I lost all but one of my characters and most of these were through bad decisions or simple mistakes, upon finishing the story I immediately jumped back into the game to redeem my mistakes and see how alternate decisions would impact my overall story. By the end of my second playthrough I had lost one character in a completely new way, I found one choice I made last time didn’t work with the story changes, and I got my only surviving character from my first playthrough killed. The chance to see how different options affect the story is something I could not pass up, and this has actually made me excited to see how different options pass on when I return again at a later point.
Until Dawn is a marvel of interactive storytelling that really sets a new standard for games of the same type. Choices really matter in Until Dawn and the guilt of making a mistake really counts to how you interact with this game, I’ll honestly say Until Dawn is not for everyone, if you are not into major storytelling, or games all about choices its likely you won’t really embrace the game. Even still Until Dawn is a fantastic game that really forces you to question your decisions, and at times even asks you some serious psychological questions, this game is surprisingly deep and does well embracing the classic horror experience in an all new vain. The future of games is really looking bright and hopefully future games follow Until Dawn’s example and deliver as deep an experience.