While October 2015 has ended, that is no reason to (completely) stop talking about horror. This year the PS4 had the good fortune to host an ambitious exclusive called Until Dawn, a choose-your-own-adventure game very much in the style of the recent Telltale series. The player makes choices and the game “changes” based on those choices. In this case, Until Dawn is essentially like playing out every cheesy slasher horror film you’ve seen. A group of teenagers go to a cabin in the woods and horror ensues. As the player, you will have direct control over who lives and who dies. Sounds like fun?
Yet when my brother and I played through Until Dawn, we were left feeling ultimately disappointed, particularly at the latter portion of the game. Looking back on it, however, our feelings of frustration had less to do with the game and more with the hype that surrounded its initial release. Warning: spoilers to follow.
If you have some time to kill, here is a lengthy example of a look at Until Dawn:
Here are a couple others if you don’t have a full fifty minutes to watch a bit of the video game (namely to hear the players’ comments toward the end). The point is that most reviews were kind to Until Dawn, maybe unfairly so. As mentioned earlier, this is a game that is very similar to the recent Telltale series (Walking Dead Season One on). One of the larger criticisms with the Telltale series is that they are not as choice-dependent as they let on. Rarely does the player’s choice has any real impact on the story beyond a slight variation in presentation.
This can be seen as an unfair criticism, as there is no such thing as a video game with free choice. Even something like Minecraft, with its complete lack of story and vast open world of possibilities, has its limits as to what the player can do. What video games are about is largely the illusion of choice (with no game making this point more directly than BioShock). As long as the player feels like they are involved and in-charge, the experience works.
Yet some reviews of Until Dawn (like the quicklook above) really make it seem like the game is doing the impossible. That gamer’s choices actually really matter and there are so many really different ways it can go. To an extent this is true, but in reality Until Dawn is bound by many of the same type of restrictions as the Telltale games… and in several cases handles them worse. The are two main ways that Until Dawn drops the ball, and both have to do with the writing.
Too Many Useless Characters
When my brother and I started playing, we were psyched to see who our main character would be. Of these eight teenagers, which one would rise to be the (potentially) last standing against the killer? Right away, we’re introduced to Sam (Hayden Panettiere):
While the player may not know it: this is your hero. She is one of the few characters who cannot die until the very end of the game. Making every bad decision, screwing up every prompt will not matter. Sam isn’t going anywhere… which is a shame because she is arguably the most bland character in the game. Sam is barely in it! It seems like the longest segment the player has with the character, is this right here:
She’s just really not involved until the very end. Instead the player controls largely the other seven, getting to know those characters a whole lot more… which is a real shame because none of them (save one) do anything.
Here’s the big spoiler: the game ends with two characters either escaping or one or both dying. These two characters are always the same (Michael and Sam). The other six? Well they’re either dead or… not contributing to the plot in any way, shape, or form. They appear to adopt the “stand there and look pretty” mentality of life.
When I played, I managed to keep nearly all the characters alive. It felt really disappointing to watch them vanish as the game went on. What was my reward for making the choices that kept them alive? It didn’t seem to matter. At one point, I was convinced that Emily (the stereotypical bitch character) would step into the role of main character with the right choices. Hahaha nope!
Michael Breaks Every Horror Rule
Mike is the god damn worst. With the side character problem, I can see limitations. Sure, everyone wants to make a game with vastly branching storylines, but the developer only has so much money. Yet many, many, many, many reviews called this a perfect horror simulator, and on that I call bullsh*t. Mike breaks nearly every one of the rules for surviving a horror movie during this game.
He frequently runs off on his own (including into a blizzard – at night – without a jacket), and his decision-making (let’s go find the key from Josh) needlessly puts everyone in danger during the second half of the game – a decision that you do not have the option to call him out on. Oh, and while wandering on his own – he goes into the creepy abandoned asylum and proceeds to touch every single thing he can find.
Yet for all this, Michael is the other character who cannot die until the end of the game. What a load of crap.
Oh, and he can murder Emily for no reason (she might turn into a wendigo – ’cause why not)… something else which everyone else just seems to go along with.
For all its flaws, Until Dawn is still a lot of fun, especially if you’re a fan of horror movies. It’s not as good as some of the more impressive Telltale games, but it’s also no failure by any stretch.
What is impressive is that the biggest failings of Until Dawn can easily be fixed with DLC that expands the second half of the game and allows for more characters to make an impact.
… or just make a first-person VR shooting segment… I guess that’s cool (this is actually close to how the game originally looked for PS3).