Until Dawn Review – Video Games and Horror
So, I’m playing Until Dawn for the PS4 since its release and I think it’s the perfect game for horror movie fans, more than any other scary game out there (Five Nights at Freddy’s or even Amnesia or Outlast). It also got me thinking about how the Horror genre fits so well with interactive storytelling games (the shiny new version of adventure and exploring games of old).
The first major game that got media attention of this weird genre was Heavy Rain (that I remember… Although I think the Silent Hill series paved the way for games with focus on physiological horror and less combat). Heavy Rain was a downer mystery, very moody, where the player would make dialog choices, and all action were QTEs (Quick-Timed Events). It had multiple POV characters (unsurprisingly something I loved!), and most of them could die for good, which affected the ending.
While the mechanics of the game and the story itself worked for me (it had its detractors back then and I agree the move controls sucked), what really made the game standout, in my opinion, was the feeling of changing the outcome and facing tough decisions without an easy way out. It made the game much more engaging and the story compelling (right until the somewhat lackluster conclusion, depending if you managed to solve the mystery or not).
Back then, Heavy Rain was an odd game that left its mark, but didn’t inspire an explosion of copycats. Maybe it was technically too expensive and difficult to make for others to copy or maybe it didn’t enjoy a huge commercial success. LA Noire and Beyond: Two Souls came after, but LA Noire tried too hard to be an open world game (or appear to be) and Beyond, made by the same people as Heavy Rain, failed to deliver a riveting story or characters. Both these games tried to add conventional mechanics (shooting, stealth, side missions and driving) perhaps to lure gamers who didn’t consider Heavy Rain a “game”. Either way, response to these games were mixed because they went too far into the gaming spectrum of the genre, instead of focusing on story and what mechanics would improve and deepen player interaction with it.
The lesson here is that the gaming aspects should serve the needs of the story and its themes, not the other way around. A perfect example would be Life is Strange. This quirky game about a time-controlling college girl is similar to classic adventures games and older Telltale games (like the Back to the Future series) with dialogue trees and actual puzzles (that use time as a mechanic). There’s no tension, no nerve wrecking QTEs, just exploration, and replay. It fits its characters, its art style, its soundtrack. It fits the story it wants to tell. Thanks to all of this, it has been a success in the media.
Life is Strange is a charming game, but nothing like Heavy Rain. And it shouldn’t be. One is a tale of growing up, stumbling around trying to fix your mistakes, the importance of friendship and realizing how dark the adult world can be, the other is a mystery starring people knee-deep into depression, loneliness, and addiction with little hope of the future.
Which brings me back to Until Dawn and why it’s a real spiritual sequel to Heavy Rain, more than Beyond: Two Souls. It not only proves this weird, still-struggling-to-define-itself genre is here to stay, it also shows why Horror works so well with this style of game.
Until Dawn, in essence, is an interactive horror story that sometimes is a movie, other times is a game, and only because of that mix that the game becomes great.
As a game, it would be frustrating and lackluster. Too much time spent on cut-scenes. Linear paths, very little exploration. Endless, unfair QTEs and weird controls are a big no-no for regular games. But since it’s a movie too, the cutscenes are expected and rewarding. Exploration is limited but serves the story needs. And QTEs make sense: people are terrified, weak, tired, confused. These characters are not Drake’s or Lara Croft’s. Not the indestructible hero, supplied with an endless supply of health and ammo. Of course QTEs are quick and decisions aren’t well-planned. The mechanics fit the limitations expected from horror movies.
As a movie, it would be extremely predictable: a group of teens go on a trip in an isolated mountain, pull a prank that ends in two of their friends disappearing into the woods. One year later, they all go back to the same place. All characters fit a certain horror trope (the nerd, the sexy girl, the bitch, the innocent, etc.) and predictably, bad things start to happen. And then? It’s a game again. You know that jerk jock? Hey, he can be cool/romantic if you want him to. Don’t like a character? Well, maybe just let him/her die then! That moment when someone strays from the group? You get to stop the dummy from going alone into the dark!
You grow attached to certain characters because YOU are the one responsible for their survival, not the director of the movie or the scriptwriter. Nope. If someone does something stupid, it’s because YOU made them do it. If they fall while running, that’s your fault. We’re so used to scream at the screen for a character look behind them, groan when they don’t, and then hope the dumb idiot dies, it’s great to have those mistakes be on our shoulders. It’s actually the perfect level of interaction for a horror fan. It’s everything we wanted (go inside the movie and shake that person), but the cost is that we realize we aren’t that smart/ready/prepared. Are the QTEs and choices unfair? Too fast? Unpredictable? Yep. And that’s the point. A split of a second decision can lead to a character’s death. A choice made back at the start of the game can ruin a character’s chance of survival. That’s awesome and completely fitting: it provides tension, rewards replays and gives weight and consequences to our choices.
Another cool thing is that the character’s knowledge of the plot is directly connected to the player’s exploration. We need to collect enough clues to make sense of things, and if we do that, THEY do it too. Sure, you can guess most of the plot points pretty quickly (again, it’s a predictable plot for a horror movie), but so can the characters. A little later, yes, but I think someone less into horror might find things at the same pace as the characters. This means characters are not left in the dark just to create fake tension or force them into danger.
Oh, and yeah, your fears are reflected in the scares! How cool is that?
Also totems! Another great mechanic that fits the themes explored and… Damn. Okay. I really, really like this game.
The art, soundtrack, the direction of the scenes, it’s just the perfect mix between game and movie. The framing is very movie-like and very purposefully not only for ambiance and tension but also for gaming purposes. Places you should go are saturated, everything else dark. Light is used in a cinematic way that makes everything scary and provides enough contrast so you can see collectibles.
You can see how much horror movie tropes and style influenced this game and it just works. I definitely recommend this game for horror fans. Yes, it relies on typical horror tropes, but the interactive aspects make them feel fresh. Just a warning: a lot of jump scares! But they’re a fun.