Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
As I stood there frozen, doing my best to not move a muscle, my heart was racing. Even the slightest of movements—such as my hand twitching or shaking the controller in fear, damn its motion-sensing technology—would let the creatures that were stalking me find where I was. All I had to do was stay still a little bit longer and they’d hopefully leave us alone. Or maybe I should make a run for it and try to save myself?
Until Dawn is full of moments like this. The game takes the concepts behind story-driven games like Heavy Rain and Telltale’s The Walking Dead and mixes them with the setting and aesthetics of slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Halloween, and it does so to great effect.
Rather than being forced to passively sit by and watch a group of idiotic teenagers (played by recognizable stars like Hayden Panettiere and Brett Dalton) try to have sex with one another while being summarily exterminated by psychopaths, you get to actively control them while they continue to fulfill those same stereotypes. There are countless jokes about “warming up together” to fight the cold weather, and Until Dawn’s characters fail to adhere to basic survival practices such as, you know, sticking together, or turning on the damn lights. These clichés still make you cringe, but at least in video game form they can be altered and influenced by your input as the player.
It sounds good, but really this shouldn’t work as well as it does. Until Dawn’s writing is cheesy, the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at times, and it uses repetitive jump scares for most of its thrills, but even so I couldn’t help but fall in love. Until Dawn scratches an itch I didn’t know I had.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
If you’ve ever curled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and your favorite blanket to anxiously watch a serial killer meticulously and methodically murder teenagers cooped up in a cabin—or summer retreat, or winter lodge, or whatever—then you’ll feel right at home with Until Dawn. When I wasn’t cringing or rolling my eyes at the completely juvenile interactions, I was holding my breath in anticipation of the next gruesome moment.
The wonder of Until Dawn’s design is that not only do you get to directly control the characters and make choices, but you do so for eight of them in total. That means I already know where Sam was last seen or whether or not Matt is alive—it’s just a matter of making the right choices along the way. If you’re like me and get tired of seeing people hide under beds and behind curtains, you don’t have to do that—you can keep running or even fight back. The choice is yours and depending on what you did or found along the way, the options presented to you could be significantly altered.
And Until Dawn is not too shy to explain this to you. The game begins with the definition of “the Butterfly Effect” spread across the screen, implying none too subtly that the theory will be important. Shortly after, in one of the opening scenes, a primary character explains the Butterfly Effect explicitly to another primary character, just in case that opening actually was too subtle for some players. It’s like telling someone, “Hey, this game is about making choices and experiencing the consequences,” then immediately afterward showing a character holding up a sign that says, “You’re about to make some important decisions, so get ready!”
Whereas most choice-based choose-your-own-adventure games do their best to disguise the fact that you’re simply selecting from thinly veiled predetermined outcomes, Until Dawn seems to embrace that aspect.
The Analyst, a psychologist played by Peter Stormare who seems to exist only in the mind of one of the characters, makes an appearance at the end of each chapter to quiz you on the choices you made and congratulate you for successfully “playing the game.” In fact, the eight primary characters all have their own menus that break down their personality traits and relationships with the other characters. It’s a novel concept that visually quantifies otherwise unquantifiable metrics such as “honesty” or “courage,” even if it doesn’t actually add anything to the experience.
Each path I take, each clue I inspect, each dialogue option I choose, and each action I perform is slowly feeding into the game’s system of deciding what happens next. Did you stumble one too many times when chasing down your friend who just got captured? She could be dead as a result. Or did you expertly navigate the forest and reach her in record time? There may be hope for her yet. Did you turn left or right at that intersection in the sewer? One could be the exit, the other a death trap.
Moments like these are sprinkled throughout the game for each of the eight protagonists, meaning that it’s less about the horror setting you’re cautiously exploring and more about the heavily emphasized “Butterfly Effects” that will ultimately determine the fates of these characters.
And that’s really the coolest part: unlike in an actual slasher flick, the events that transpire in Until Dawn are not set in stone, but scratched hastily on paper—paper that reads, “there’s a murderer after you!” and that Until Dawn’s cast of dumbasses will, to players’ frustration and delight, likely ignore. And that’s exactly as it should be.
David is a freelance writer and full-time nerd. His favorite game franchise is ‘The Legend of Zelda.’ He also has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter @David_Jagneaux.
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