It’s an average weekend evening, and I’m camped out in my friends’ living room, watching two teens edged ever closer to a steep drop by a pack of unruly elk. Everyone in the room is wound up: though we’ve all seen teen slashers of this ilk, we feel a tad more attached to this unlucky couple on-screen. They inch toward the elk, who slowly abandon their advance, but just when the coast seems clear, I make a crucial mistake: a crosshair icon appears with a timer and I mash the right trigger as fast as I can.
As the “jock” of the pair buries an axe into the side of a poor virtual creature, the horde screams, closing in and bumping him off the side of the cliff. He hangs for dear life until I once again goof up and fail to hit a lightning-fast button prompt, leaving him sprawled under the cliff, head cracked open like a carelessly dropped egg. Though my friends shrug it off, a voice in my head chastises me for swinging the axe in the first place: I fire back by insisting that a lifetime of video games have taught me to react first and ask questions later. It took a few seconds to realize Until Dawn had done this on purpose.
By all accounts, Until Dawn should have been a failure. What started out as a motion-controlled romp through a horror movie where “YOU are the star” went through several delays, significant restructuring and a bump to the next generation of hardware. Instead of a first-person haunted house that makes liberal use of firearms, you temporarily control each of the eight cast members in a style that best represents one of David Cage’s many “cinematic” disasterpieces. It became the sort of project that stacks its roster with accomplished actors, boasts millions of choices and the ever-enticing promise that no two playthroughs will be the same. As someone who bought into games like this many times before only to be left with a bitter sense of emptiness, I went in expecting everything to go wrong.
It’s tempting to champion Until Dawn’s rousing success as miraculous, but that would be discrediting the sheer thought and effort that went into making it work. Unlike Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, it isn’t mimicking the cornerstones of the genre and calling it a day: it plays with your expectations, knowing exactly when to give into tradition (yes, he will walk into that basement without bringing a partner) and when to cut loose and pull one over you. When it gives you the reins, it’ll even show self-awareness, cutting to a psychologist (played by the ever-enjoyable Peter Stormare) who seemingly addresses both you and an obscured third party, clearly disgusted by “this little game you’re playing.”
Even with Dr. Stormare’s unhinged guilt trips, the true reward comes from picking an action (any action) and see where it takes you. Each of the eight playable characters are vulnerable, and despite the game’s unfortunate inclination to shout from the rooftops whenever you make an impactful decision, you rarely know what you have wrought until it’s far too late. There are no Game Overs, restart screens or save states: every move gets locked into one autosave, and there are no take-backs. Thankfully, its steadfast commitment to living with your choices only highlights the plot’s impressive malleability. While a game like The Walking Dead will play the same scenes regardless of whether you made Character A lose her arm, Until Dawn recognizes that Character A’s now-missing limb might cause big problems in the long run, especially when you’re on the run from a murderer.
And unlike most narrative games, Until Dawn gets even better when you play it with a group of friends. My first playthrough happened amongst two of my best pals, and I couldn’t have asked for a better environment: we would shout suggestions, vote on the next branching path when it seemed like we could take our time, and loudly proclaim our indecisiveness when time mattered the most. We’ve all worriedly projected ourselves into the on-screen victims in horror, sure that we could be smarter, but when push comes to shove, people do dumb things in tense situations. It’s hard to keep a cool head when you have something to lose.
Above all else, I love that a story-heavy game is so willing to let you do yourself in. Even if you’re the type of player who scours digital landscapes with a fine-toothed comb, you’ll inevitably miss clues that would help explain what’s happening, and every once in a while, you’ll respond to a lightning-fast prompt that would have been better left untouched. The game puts its faith in your own level-headedness, expecting you to inspect a situation before running headfirst into a sea of knives. And even if you DO swing an axe at that elk, you’ll get to see something cool and inevitably different than what you might have seen the first time around.
In a world full of Batmen and Assassin’s Creeds, Until Dawn is the odd one out: it’s an AAA title that dares to spend bundles of money on one hell of a risk. Thankfully for everyone involved, that risk became one hell of an invigorating adventure that raises the bar for every cinematic thriller that follows in its footsteps. We can only wait and hope that genre veterans like Telltale are willing to catch up.