The Interesting Case of (Surviving) Until Dawn

We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we? Horror isn’t really my thing. In fact, it is so not my thing that I think I’ve told you guys how not into horror I am at least a few times. So what on earth tempted me to play Until Dawn?

The story, of course. I went in looking for pure psychological horror, and got so much less, and then so much more, than I expected.

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Unmarked spoilers below. Skip ahead to “Surviving Until Dawn” for a spoiler-free conclusion.

spoilers

The Premise

Until Dawn begins like a stereotypical slasher featuring teenagers: a prank goes awry, someone dies, and all the folks involved are brought back together exactly one year later. Horror ensues.

So far, so predictable. To be honest, at first I thought that I had stepped into the game version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, right down to the pretty blonde being the Final Girl if everything else goes poorly. But as the story progressed, I found myself drawn further into the story, and while I was still too scared to completely go looking for all the clues to every mystery the game presented, I was intrigued and found myself puzzling over the information long after the game had concluded.

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Because Until Dawn is not the game version of a movie, book, or anything else. Until Dawn is a horror game that explores betrayal, mental health, and relationships in its own unique fashion.

The Story

The the story is revealed slowly as you find clues throughout the game, but the gist is that one teenage girl is lured into a practical joke by the group of friends and, after she flees the scene, she and her twin sister wind up dying. Her brother brings the group back together at the same spot exactly one year later, but it seems like the friends are being haunted and hunted by a crazed Psycho and a creature that has what I lovingly refer to as “murder vision.”

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But things aren’t what they seem. The first half of the game is filled with familiar horror tropes, but when it turns out that the Psycho is merely the brother of the twins playing an elaborate, revenge-filled joke on the friends, the tropes become understandable.

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Right down to “taking off your clothes when there is a murderer around”

This is when the true horror starts, and a creature called a wendigo begins to, somewhat systematically, hunt the friends. At this point, it is up to you to help the friends all survive, well, until dawn when help can arrive.

The Characters

While each of the characters comes with a set of defining features, and the characters relate to each other differently depending on how you play the game, at first glance they do seem a bit like the horror-movie stereotypes. There is the jock, his annoying girlfriend, his nerdy ex-girlfriend with her new boyfriend, the intellectuals, and the one who actually knows what is going on. I fangirl about the characters and some theories I have over on Patreon, but suffice it to say I think how the characters relate to each other, specifically the main and secondary antagonists, is incredibly interesting.

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Of particular interest is how the characters relate to each other, as each character has a description that include descriptive words like “intelligent,” but also a brief definition of themselves in relation to another person, usually a love interest. The only exception is Sam, who is defined by her relationship to one of the deceased young women, and Josh, the brother of the sisters who died.

I won’t give away the biggest reveal, but I will point out that the wendigo appears to kill each character in ways that appear to be specific to each of them, which adds a nice layer of detail for the gamer who is paying attention…

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So, it is no surprise I found myself so enamored: a deep story, interesting characters, and a finely-tuned branching narrative? What about that wouldn’t I like? But how is the actual gameplay?

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The Gameplay

In some ways, I am reminded of Detroit: Become Human insofar as the game consists of some walking, a little bit of picking things up and looking at them, followed by a bunch of quick-time events, and then a series of “forced choice” scenarios that determine a path the narrative is going to take.

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But don’t be fooled. These controls are married beautifully and executed in a way that definitely makes for some interesting gameplay. For instance, taking a more dangerous, but ultimately faster, path results in more numerous (and faster times) quick-time events, whereas the safer path is slower and is more forgiving in what it asks you to do.

Decisions occasionally must be made in the heat of the moment, and one wrong, panicked choice can result in the death of a character.

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RIP Chris… A sad victim of video game logic…

What really keeps it interesting, though, is that the combination of these timed decisions, quick-time events, occasional aiming, and the all-around pressure the game puts on your to be accurate and fast creates real tension as you, the player, feel just as frantic as the character, trying to keep up with button presses, switching your attention in order to make a decision, then thinking you are safe in a cutscene only for another prompt to appear.

A particularly fascinating part of the game were sessions with Dr. Hill, a (pretty creepy) “analyst,” or psychologist. He appears to be speaking to the player, although this perspective changes as the game progresses. He serves to comment on the progress of the game and ask for the player’s input regarding things that are scary to them (like clowns versus scarecrows). He has varying dialogue depending on the player’s choices, and the slow reveal of his character adds another layer to the fascinating downward spiral the game takes into some pretty dark places.

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I was as shocked as anyone to hear a psychologist call someone a “psychopath,” but it all makes sense later…

One minor annoyance was the camera angle, which was a similar gripe I had with Detroit: Become Human. To be fair, I can hardly complain because it wasn’t long ago that camera angles were fairly fixed, but it took me a while to orient (which is my own problem), and I sometimes wishes I could move the camera just to look around the room to double check for landmarks that I had picked up on during a different camera angle, just to make sure I was in the place I thought I was.

The other slight criticism I have is that the jumpscares were fairly predictable. Once finding out that the Psycho is just another teenager, this makes sense as he puts the scares in predictable places, but even during the wendigo portion of the game I found myself half-predicting when the jumpscare was going to happen and, after a while, not really flinching, either. I’m not sure if this was the intent, and I can’t say that I was particularly upset that things popping out at me didn’t scare me anymore, but I guess this speaks to the sheer amount of jumpscares in the game.

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Not pictured: A jumpscare

All things considered, I found the gameplay mechanics to be interesting and varied enough that I wasn’t ever bored with a quick-time event-filled game. There was enough happening that for most of the game I couldn’t relax, because one never knew when something with a timer was going to pop up on screen (or the player would have to not move. Pro tip: put your hands on a pillow on your lap).

Surviving Until Dawn

In my own experience, I was overall pleased with how the my story turned out. I am still determined to return to a later chapter to correct one pretty bad, video-game-logic-induced mistake I made, but overall my experience was enjoyable and I managed to QTE, decision-make, and “Don’t Move!” most of the characters through the insanity of their adventure and safely to morning, with very little, well, mourning.

I admit that I often felt a bit like Sam here…

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But as the game progressed and I peeled back more of the layers presented to me, I was left with an interesting story, fascinating inter-character relationships, and a whole lot of heartbreak.

Oh, and a blood pressure that was a few points higher than usual.

Have you played Until Dawn? What did you think? How would you rate it compared to other horror games? Did all your party members survive until dawn? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~Athena

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12 comments

  1. I really enjoyed Until Dawn, though I’ve only done one playthrough to date. I thought it was a really good refinement of what David Cage and Quantic Dream have been trying to do with their games for a while, only without getting too overambitious along the way. I really liked the fact that there was a feeling of consequence to your choices throughout, and that there was often a difference between the “best” choice and the “most interesting” choice.

    I also really dug the “psychologist talking to the player… or are they?!” thing, though I think Silent Hill: Shattered Memories did it better. (If you haven’t played that one, it’s well worth your time!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. It was a great game and I’d love to play through the whole thing again (I’ve done about 1.5 playthroughs, since I played the endgame a second time to try some new things). I really liked the butterfly effect of its nuance, not a more obvious “you were an unmistakable jerk and now bad things will happen” sort of thing. I also agree that “best” and “most interesting” were sometimes at odds, and more than once I found myself knowing which was probably the best one to pick, but…. geez what would happen if I just…? haha

      I KNOW!! Such a neat touch. I have not played any of the Silent Hill games, and judging from how I barely survived Until Dawn (pun) and the Prey Demo, I’d be nervous I’d not be able to get through Shattered Memories haha. But maybe that will be my Halloween game for next year… 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hah. I’m sure you can manage it if you made it through Until Dawn! For what it’s worth, Silent Hill in general is more about psychological horror rather than anything massively graphic or explicit, and it’s short on jump scares. Shattered Memories in particular plays this side of things up; it’s effectively a retelling of the first game with a greater focus on the psychological aspects rather than otherworldly demons, cults and whatnot.

        This isn’t to say there’s *nothing* explicit in the Silent Hill games, mind (particularly some of the later ones), but they’re mostly about a sense of lurking lurking horror and things that make you go “hmmm…” rather than AHHH I’M GOING TO DIE

        For the most part, anyway. Shattered Memories replaces combat with “chase” sequences where you have to escape from an environment while being pursued by nasty things. They’re navigation puzzles rather than action sequences in practice, but they can still get quite intense! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As it happens, this is one of the games that I bought a PS4 to play. I really enjoyed it, and your reference to David Cage’s games are quite apt being as this is essentially the best game he never made. If I get time, I could really go for another play through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really? That’s awesome. It’s definitely part of a good lineup of exclusives. And thank you; I’m inclined to agree based on what I’ve seen of David Cage’s games so far. I also would go for another playthrough… there are still so many things to explore!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll never understand characters in horror scenarios… Killer around should not equal less clothes. Killer around should exponentially increase clothes to the point of full body armor, and maybe a gunblade just to be safe 🤔

    Great game review! I’m not a fan of the slasher/horror tropes, at all, and would likely never get passed the first section of this game. I enjoyed reading about some of the good story parts in this article though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I can forgive dismissing supernatural stuff, but if you think you’re being followed or watched, maybe come up with a plan instead of going for some sexy time.

      Thank you! I am not either, but I did find the game to be worth it, especially with the branching narrative and tons of clues for the various mysteries the game balances. But yeah, it’s a horror game so if that’s not your thing… yeah.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Until Dawn is the kinda game you can play with friends that aren’t into gaming. The mechanics are so easy to understand and the story is that of a slasher teen horror movie, that anyone who likes movies, will potentially like this game.
    I don’t like to play horror games, but this one was fun and full of surprises.

    Liked by 1 person

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