Something breaks the glass in the window set in the cabin’s flimsy door, wraps long white fingers around Jessica’s neck, and drags her out into the snowy darkness.
As Mike, one of the eight members of the cast of Playstation 4 teen slasher game Until Dawn and Jessica’s boyfriend, I race out into the wilderness in pursuit, stopping only to grab the lantern and rifle in the cabin. Mike and Jessica were to have a “romantic” evening—now, Mike sprints down icy paths and jumps over fallen logs as Jess screams in the distance.
In this moment, players have to make a number of decisions and complete reflex-based challenges as they chase after Jessica. You can pick safe, slow paths or dangerous, quick ones, and you can blow a reflexive button press and send Mike tripping and falling down a hillside, costing him precious seconds. But you don’t know what the “right” or “wrong” choices are as you make your way through the woods—like in reality, you just have to make what you think are the right calls, and go as quickly as you can.
Eventually, Mike chases Jessica and her attacker into an abandoned mine. I’d chosen slower paths to make sure Mike got there in one piece, but as he entered the mine and headed toward a defunct elevator, there was a crash, and Jessica’s body slammed onto the floor of the open-air elevator. I was too late: someone, or something, had ripped half her face off, killing her. A second later, the elevator plummeted away into darkness, taking Jessica along with it.
Until Dawn is a horror movie in video game form in which your choices all factor into who lives and who dies. You might save every character, or none of them, or any combination in between. In my first time through the game, only two lucky teens managed to make it. I screwed up, made bad calls, and got characters killed—but that story, from start to finish, was mine.
Playing Until Dawn through a second time to see how things could have gone differently, frankly, ruined it.
TWO ROADS, ONE DESTINATION
Until Dawn constantly telegraphs exactly when you’re making an important choice. The game makes a big deal about the “Butterfly Effect,” the idea that small choices can have big impacts as they compound over time. Every time you make such a choice, a butterfly icon pings in the corner of the screen, making a big, loud note of the point of divergence.
Most of those decisions are little things that build up to something more. Small deviations factor into larger branches, until the story shifts significantly. Or at least it appears to.
Small changes generally stay just that: small. Dialogue might shift, or the overall feeling of one character toward another, but they’re all focused on building up to the big story moments where a character might live or die, and how those deaths (or escapes) might come about.
Until Dawn is built to be highly replayable. It catalogues all your choices so you can quickly see what you picked and what you didn’t, and how earlier choices influenced later ones—for example, if you found a baseball bat in an early scene and moved it, a character in a later scene might be able to use it to fend off an attacker. Once you’ve completed the game, Until Dawn lets you hop around to different chapters, where you can make new choices to see what might happen.
Skipping around in Until Dawn is often disappointing. That’s not because the writing or delivery of any particular branch is bad—it isn’t—but because alternative paths rarely make sweeping changes to the story, beyond removing a character from future events.
You can save Jessica’s life. Get to her fast enough and you’ll find her groggy but mostly unharmed, before the elevator collapses and she falls away into the mine. But just as if she died, Jessica remains out of the story for almost its entire duration. Later, Jessica awakens in the darkness, and players work through a short level in which she can be killed by evil forces, or escape the mine to survive.
Jessica’s survival story is a minor add-on, and she plays no part in Until Dawn’s conclusion. She was written out, whether she lives through her ordeal or is killed. The same is true for certain other characters. As it turns out, not knowing whether Jessica could have been saved is better than replaying her story again with a different alternative. Seeing that the alternative was a short, almost shoehorned-in aside only weakened the impact of her death in the original story.
THE SMOKE AND MIRRORS OF CHOICES
This isn’t only Until Dawn’s problem. It’s a widespread issue among games that feature branching stories and the idea of making meaningful choices. Telltale Games series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are built on choosing how characters react to situations and what they say to one another. BioWare’s galaxy spanning-space trilogy Mass Effect was predicated on big, meaningful choices that wouldn’t just influence one game, but carry forward through all three. And high school time-travel drama Life is Strange pings players with periodic messages informing them that “This decision will have consequences” just to make sure your choices are always at the front of your mind.
All of those games encourage, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, replaying to try different paths. Telltale’s games note all the choices you’ve made and shows how many other players went the same way. Until Dawn was built with heavy replayability in mind, as is made clear by the tracking list of your decisions. Life is Strange takes it even further, with a time-rewinding mechanic that lets you change your choices moments after you make them.
But while “multiple paths” and “meaningful choices” can build interesting stories often unique to video games, the constant encouragement to try to get things to shake out differently ultimately undercuts everything they achieve. The major problem is that the paths created by new choices are rarely all that different from one another.
In Until Dawn, when you replay a moment where a character might die or live depending on your choice, you immediately see all of the game’s moving parts. There are specific points where characters are in real jeopardy (and not, as it turns out, at other points when you might think they are), and the game is designed to function without those characters if they die. If they survive, they’re usually still sidelined to some off-screen location, because their major participation in the story is basically over.
Other games suffer from this same problem. Most of the complaints about Telltale titles focus on how the choices don’t change that much. For example, when a certain character is bitten by a zombie, and thus doomed, in The Walking Dead Season 2, you make the split-second decision to either cut off the character’s affected limb or leave it be. In the moment, the call is panicked and incredibly powerful. Play it through a second time and you realize the outcome is ultimately the same, regardless of your actions.
The problem here is that making games is expensive, and making branching stories even more so—suddenly, developers are producing twice as much game, and it’ll ultimately be seen by half as many people. Making vastly different story branches becomes a situation of diminishing returns. But that doesn’t mean choices don’t feel meaningful in the moment. That’s the true strength of this brand of game storytelling.
Games that hinge on choices, the people who create them, and the players who enjoy them, instead need to shift their attitudes. It’s not about whether Choice A and Choice B create totally different universes within the game. It’s not about whether you should replay the game to save Jessica’s life.
Choice games are at their best when you don’t know what might have been, how it could have gone differently, or whether no matter what you chose, events were always set up to conclude in the same way. Without that knowledge, choices stay powerful for you because you get the sense of having had an effect on the story.
In Until Dawn, the choices that saved lives and the screw-ups that ended them were mine. The story those choices created was mine. And because of that, Until Dawn was my unique experience, which I could share with other people, but which couldn’t be mimicked.
Once you pull back the curtain on games like Until Dawn, the magic is lost. It’s better to let these games make you feel essential to their stories than to force them to show you just how small a part you actually play.
Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. He was hoping the latter would help him get Han Solo hair, but so far he’s been unsuccessful. He lives with his wife and annoying cats in Los Angeles.
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