2 January 2016

Post thoughts: Until Dawn

Or the end...

I have to admit, I'm a bit of a sucker for choose-your-own-adventure style books like Fighting Fantasy or SMBC's Nerd comedy and the few games that delve into this sort of entertainment are quite rare.  Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain and Telltale's The Walking Dead series are high on the list of "variable storytelling" experiences. However, outside of those, the space is rather barren for high quality titles. Luckily Until Dawn is here to fill the gap.

As usual: here be spoilers!!


Burning down the house...

I think one of the brilliant choices about this game is that someone decided to do a schlocky horror movie story. It's great because the tropes of the genre really allow for the characters to make stupid decisions like splitting up and going out alone, overreacting to a situation and generally acting a bit stupid. These sorts of writing instances usually jar more in a game because the player has agency but in this game and especially in this genre of gaming it is more acceptable to do these sorts of things as the player will meta-game and say, "That's a stupid thing to do I would never do that... but it's what they would do in a movie like this so I guess it's okay.".

What's a bit more interesting about this story is that there are a couple of threads woven throughout each other: the loss of Josh's mind in response to losing his sisters and the tale of human madness unleashed by idiocy and desperation (the wendigos).

I thought that the design of the mountain and its locales was also really strong, with the characterisation and artwork of each area managing to bring out the danger and suspense quite well.

The authors structured the player's experience of the game quite nicely and the jumping between characters and locations brought just the right balance of confusion and curiosity.

I've only played thorough the game once but I would love to know whether the antagonist changes or how much variation is possible in the game stemming from the choices and skill at the quick time sections. (Unfortunately, the story is more linear than I would find ideal but I can understand the limitations on this medium.)

The story wraps up very quickly at the end of the game and there is a big do-or-die moment there too which kind of undermines the whole player input up until that point. It's a great climax to the action but I think it's a bit too easy to undo all the careful choices a player has made up until this point.


So, how do you feel about all of this?

Due to the game being constructed in the way it is, the characterisation of the protagonists and antagonists is vitally important. Luckily, I think that the developers pulled it off without much of a hitch. They do rely on the tropes of the genre a bit but not too heavily - plus the voice acting of the characters is actually really good. If I had to quantify it, I'd say it was near 85-90% good. That's high for a game!

The shrink: At the time, I just couldn't get my head around this guy. When were these scenes taking place? Who was he talking to? The changes in the office decor and the questions and card games really were effective at piquing the player's interest. I also think he was brilliantly acted.

Josh: He's a tragic figure but also a hate-filled dick. Yes, I said it. I think the game does an excellent job of using him to his fullest potential. He's also the character that's both a success and a failure from a writing and performance perspective. On the one hand, I think his acting (and indeed graphical representation) is mostly the weakest but on the other hand he elicits the strongest response from the player(s) and the developers have knowingly worked this into the game through his interactions with the Shrink and the card decisions he has the player choose.

For the record, I chose to hate Josh - which actually turns out that he's hating himself and, given the fact that the Shrink as we know him is actually a part of his imagination/conscience, it's a really meta-storytelling characterisation and I think it works really well once that is all revealed.

Chris: He was an interesting character because I started to root for him and Ashley after immediately disliking him during the introduction. I also liked his story railroading into becoming the last action hero!

Matt: The weakest character of them all. Unfortunately, he died in my playthrough so I only got to see him through to mid-game. The reason I thought he was weakest is that his biography states he's a soft-hearted beefcake American Football jock. He's not. At least not a normal stereotype of that sort of person. I just couldn't imagine him being strong - either off or on the Football field - and the game never shows him being the strong one, often overshadowing him with Emily. His actor didn't sell that at all. In many ways I could imagine him as just a geeky guy.

Ashley: She's a really nice, relatable character. In many ways, I think she is one of the two lynch pins of the story. She's not a strong enough personality to really like or dislike but I felt the relationship between her and Chris made her the most human face of the group.

Fun fact: I had actually chosen Chris to kill Ashley with the saw blade trap. I apologised to her and wanted to save 'my best friend' Josh. Only, I got confused by the trap choice because the developers (I think on purpose) inverted the premise of the choice system. Normally you choose what you want to do: So I chose Josh in the 'Who to save?' question but then chose Ashley in the follow-up 'Who to kill?' question which actually saved her instead. I think that was used on purpose in order to reduce the number of people killing Ashley themselves and later on finding out that Josh is the crazy guy.

Sam: The other lynch pin in the story. She's the (now) stereotypical strong but human female lead and I think she interfaces well with the other characters. I don't have a lot to say about Sam because she's a bit 'vanilla' as a personality but I think the game would have been weaker without that sort of vulnerable but capable character. One of the most memorable scene set-piece for me was walking around the lodge in the bath towel and then the big reveal in the movie viewing room.

Mike: He's the real soft-hearted beefcake American Football jock personality. At first I disliked him and felt that he was just the usual teenage asshole jock but going through the story he became the hero-detective along with Sam. I also think he had the most interesting places to visit and explore, exposing all the backstory so that the player understood what was going on.

Emily: Was a really strong character and interesting as the totally self-absorbed individual of the group. I thought that would be cheerleader airhead Jessica but the writers turned that trope on its head. She was also very strong-willed and I think that helped to have a personality like that in scenes where she's trying to enforce her viewpoint and to trigger plot advances.

Jessica: Was absent for most of the game and as a result I don't have a lot to say about her other than that she is stereotypical of the genre. It says a lot that I have less to say but feel more positive about Jessica as a character than Matt. Poor Mat...


The un-stated option is to do nothing. It doesn't always work but sometimes it's the optimal choice!

The game has two types of gameplay mode which operate in two, linked phases. First there is the exploration mode where the player assumes the role of a given character - they get to move around an environment (within constraints, of course), interact with items and other characters on a minimal level and find clues such as the totems.

The second mode which typically follows on from this exploration mode has quick time event style button pressing and directional stick choice dialogues for the player to interact with in order to make decisions that affect the actions of the character(s) on screen. This second style of gameplay goes right back to Dragon's Lair, Space Ace, Fahrenheit and has been more recently revived with titles such as Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls and Mass Effect 2.

There is also a small addendum to the second mode which is a situational contrivance of keeping the controller still in order to avoid detection (via the motion sensors). It isn't over-used and I think that, when used in conjunction with the vibration motors in the controller, is really effective at building tension. (P.S. Don't turn off your controller vibration for this game!)

The decisions made in the second gameplay mode affect the future outcomes of the game, ultimately leaving people alive, dead, injured or... something else.

These gameplay styles work well for storytelling-heavy narratives and for building suspense. They also are quite inclusive for people whose game-playing skills aren't so fantastic (i.e. my partner) as they are very movie-like in tone but still involve the interactive part of a more skill-based game. In some ways (actually in many ways) these games are more interactive than games like Call of Duty where your only interaction with the world is to pull a trigger or press a button - your game will play out the same every time for every player. In that sense, these games are great because they invite discussion and also replays.

I dare ya!

The game also has a few cool features that have not been present in previous iterations of this style: the 'butterfly effect' log and the totem log.

The totems are pieces of carved wood that can be found dotted around the areas during the exploration mode. They give hints and tips regarding future events and are divided into various types of precognitive sights. Some relay potential deaths for a character, others relay important decisions. The cool thing is that they do not necessarily portend the best way to play the game - they just show the options as you're playing, allowing the player to see an event and realise that they had just escaped death or that they had chosen a completely different path.

The 'butterfly effect' is a principle of chaos theory that is overpromised-on and misunderstood in fiction but, what the hell - it works well as a gameplay principle here. This boils down to each important choice in the game and then the effects of these are tracked to their conclusion. It may make no difference other than how the other characters perceive another or it may make all the difference by having support show up at the right moment to allow your currently controlled character to survive.

What is nice is that you can freely view these choices and effects as they unfold on one of the menu screens, along with reviewing the totems and the found clues that help tell the backstory of the events on the mountain.

The important thing is that the player's choices matter in how the game plays out, the game storyline and events change somewhat and these have an impact on the player's experience to a degree that is normally absent in other games.

Technical issues/bugs:

Enjoying your bath?

I encountered no technical issues or bugs playing on PS4. Just the odd occasion when I disagreed with what my partner was telling me to do!


During the credits they have interviews with the survivors - some of them are really interesting and revealing others are a bit flat. Either way, it's a great denouement to the game.

Until Dawn is probably the best version of this style of gameplay that I've encountered. The story is well-written and there's no jarring event to take you out of the characters you think you know as seen in Heavy Rain. I think this is a great game to enjoy on your own but also with a friend or partner that might enjoy the genre of film and the interactive portion of the game but who may not be a big gamer because they feel they are not good enough to play them. Definitely worth it!

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