Horror has been part of video games since at least 1981’s 3D Monster Maze, but it’s not always a seamless union of genre and media. The dopemine triggering mechanics of videogames — leveling up, acquiring better abilities and weapons, unlocking the ability to dress your character in sexy outfits — doesn’t always track with the adrenalin rush of being hunted to the last blood-red pulse of health from your last green herb. Sometimes, the horror aspect ends up feeling like Ray Milland’s head grafted onto action game Rosie Greer’s body. Of course, there are always games that nix traditional combat completely, like 2018’s Call of Cthulhu, wherein the moment things get physical, you lose. Fair enough. It is a sobering realization of the stakes that, however, may not make the player scared so much as frustrated. Then there is Supermassive Games’ influential indie horror hit Until Dawn.
Until Dawn begins with a group of friends partying at a remote winter lodge belonging to the richie rich Washington family, and three of the partygoers are Washington scions: Hannah, Beth (both voiced and motion captured by Ella Lentini), and Josh (Rami Malek). A prank on lovestruck Hannah sends her sobbing into the snowy night, and her twin sister Beth follows. A tragic fall leads to their presumed deaths on the mountain, and that’s our backstory. Also our tutorial level. The game proper picks up when the kids reunite at the cabin a year later for a somber memorial/drunken party at the urging of the sisters’ surviving brother Josh. The group is a fairly generic checklist of eight mostly white, mostly upper middle class, mostly douchey slasher fodder, and everyone except Josh is toting extra baggage in the form of background grudges, crushes, and romances, all of that, of course, on top of the looming shadow of the twins’ deaths. Or was it their disappearance? You’ll have to make it until dawn to find out.
The story unfolds across shifting POV changes, allowing you to play from a variety of perspectives over the course of the night, and preventing you from ever becoming too comfortable with what you know and who you are. The action is also broken up into chapters that shuttle you forward in time, as the game reminds you how long you have until dawn bwahahaha, each one punctuated by a visit with the Analyst (Peter Stormare). The Analyst is weirdly hostile from the jump. He engages you with the sinister double entendres and camp pronouncements of a B-movie heavy, asks you to indicate your feelings about events and characters, administers simple psychological tests, and suggests you’re not being entirely honest with him while pulling some really elastic faces of disapproval. There’s a strong implication that you, the unnamed, black-gloved character sitting in the Analyst’s office, have done something very bad, and the visits become increasingly bizarre through the course of the game, his behavior becoming more suspicious, and his office becoming more suspicious, too. It’s an interesting choice to pop you out of events entirely every now and again, as the game fast-forwards a couple hours and resets the game board, so to speak. Don’t be surprised when some of your confessions to the Analyst come back to haunt you, literally.
Along the way, you collect clues to the mystery in the heart of the mountain and find the story goes both higher and deeper than Hannah and Beth’s fate — to a mysterious program in a long-abandoned sanitarium and into the unsafe depths of disused mine shafts. My favorite part of any horror title is piecing together the horrible backstory, and this game lets me do that all night long. You can also find totem relics that unleash little glimpses of possible futures — deaths, discoveries, and turning points — although quite often I would only realize the import of these hazy, brief portents about 5 seconds after I’d done the thing that made them happen. All the more reason to play through the chapter again after I’ve finished, I guess.
It’s not a perfect game, but it is a pretty irresistible game. The visuals and acting are stunning to start with, and the actors they have on board are people you’ve seen before. Rami Malek from Mr. Robot, Hayden Panettiere from Heroes and Nashville, Brett Dalton from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The atmosphere is pure Lions Gate direct-to-video slasher flick, which I mean as a compliment. The controls are OK, even if sauntering up to trigger an object sometimes feels like parallel parking. Controls aren’t really at issue though. Despite rare prompts to shoot or stab a target, Until Dawn is a game that doesn’t require any real skill to proceed, although muscle memory for where the buttons on a Dualshock controller are and a steady hand might keep your characters alive longer. But it won’t let you back up and try again if (and absolutely when) you fail a quicktime event, which keeps you from getting fixated on results. You just gotta go with the bloodflow, baby, and the story is well-paced enough that you will. Unlike other horror games, where proceeding may be hampered by failing to find a mcguffin or fell a monster, Until Dawn hurries you onward no matter what.
About quicktime events. In case you’re unfamiliar, that’s when the game pops up a timed prompt to press a button or move a directional stick with no advance warning and whether you do it or not determines…well, quite often who lives and who dies. Lovably cranky videogame reviewer and novelist Yahtzee Croshaw calls it “Press X to not die,” and if that doesn’t sound interesting or fun, it’s not. Usually. In Until Dawn though, it actually works. Partly it’s because it’s rare enough to keep you riveted, and partly because it’s rare enough you won’t get all controller throwy about it. There’s also the game’s almost overbearing emphasis on “the butterfly effect,” ensuring that there’s not really wrong outcomes, just…different outcomes. A butterfly flaps its wings and elsewhere in the world, a typhoon rises. Or an Ashton Kutcher movie is greenlighted. Or one of two friends is sawed in half by an unseen maniac. You go left, you find a knife. You go right, you don’t. But maybe not having a knife helps you live later. Maybe a character’s head gets wrenched off because your dog decided to muscle onto your lap just when you were supposed to hit X to not die. My dog Wolfie absolutely killed two characters in my first runthrough. But it’s OK. Just let’s see what happens next.
It probably helps to that extent that none of the characters are particularly lovable, and some are absolutely wretched. It was written by indie horror veteran Larry Fessenden and Graham Resnick, whose series Deadwax just launched on Shudder, and the party guests definitely feel authentic to the B-movie slasher universe, but I am unsure that they could be considered human anywhere else. A couple of the female characters in particular stand out as rather toxic…what is the word? I believe it is skanks. When such a lady was ripped by unknown things through a window, I did not grieve with the shocked companion I was controlling, and in fact muttered, “Good.” As each character is introduced, their characteristics are popped up alongside their name and primary relationship: “Emily, Mike’s Ex. Intelligent. Resourceful. Persuasive.” But those characteristics don’t seem to have much bearing on their role in the story, their relationships with the other characters, or ultimately their choices, as you, dear player, are the person sitting behind their eyes when it’s time to decide to go right or left, to peek at the cell phone or slip it back into the backpack, unspied. You could try to roleplay and do what the character’s handful of characteristics suggest to you, but they are coarse and generic enough that you’ll probably just go with your gut. And that’s your gut, not Emily or Mike’s. Although it may well be their guts… [Crypt Keeper laugh]
There’s a named follow-up to Until Dawn, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, but it’s a rails shooter for PlayStation VR, and while it uses models and scenes from the original game, not to mention Larry Fessenden’s face, it’s hard to see the follow-up there. The real follow-up would seem to be Supermassive’s planned Dark Pictures Anthology, an 8-part series with each game exploring a different horror trope. The first entry, Man of Medan, involves modern day pirates, a group of adventurous young adult divers who probably had classes with some of the Until Dawn characters, and a big scary WWII-era ghost ship. Roinks, Raggy. It is almost a palette swap of Until Dawn, keeping all the game’s main features, including an interstitial interrogator and hazy premonitions, but halving the cast and the length, while adding online co-op and sitting-on-the-couch-next-to-you co-op. It is an interesting trade-off meant to privilege replays, but being left wanting more is not always a good thing, and it makes Medan feel overpriced at $30. But then again, it manages to pull off everything that Until Dawn did again,* proving the previous game’s quicktime challenges and Choose Your Own Adventure format are replicable, and as valid an approach as shotgunning or point and click puzzling the dead. And I can’t wait for the next installment. A butterfly flaps its wings and a new kind of survival horror is born.
* There’s a relentless sequence with a WWII pinup girl in Man of Medan that is the scariest thing in either game, and her first appearance made me scream in spite of myself
Angela got a couple volumes of Plot Your Own Horror Stories when she was technically too young for them and still treasures the trauma.