For many years the video game industry has been chasing the film industry in almost every aspect from its particular style of storytelling to lighting cues, to even using Hollywood actors and actresses to try and “uplift” the status of their game in the public eye. In fact, certain games and studios have gone so incredibly far as to basically make entire games filled to the brim with cutscenes, quick-time events and a distinct lack of interactivity. There’s no inherent evil is such acts, as long as they are realized and accomplished well. Which unfortunately, for a great many games which have pursued such cinematic excellence, often fail. Indeed, video games have better replicated television series thanks to the likes of Telltale and their now industry-setting standard of constructing episodic content. And with a growing trend of games seeking just to become really good interactive experiences, it has felt like the video game industry doesn’t really care that much about honoring Hollywood anymore.
But still there are some developers that still chase the dream of creating a cinematic experience in a game to rival the best in film. Developers like Quantic Dream, Hideo Kojima and Naughty Dog feel like the primary movers in this category of cinematic game development, with Quantic Dream being the most zealous of these creators by making mostly quick-time event experiences with a minimal focus on interactivity and maximum focus on cutscenes. Every game Quantic Dream produces feels like it realizes their dream a little better every time. Funnily enough, this very specific dream gets surprisingly well-realized by fledgling developer Supermassive Games with their recently released PlayStation 4 exclusive title, Until Dawn.
Until Dawn is a horror cinematic adventure game that takes very explicit inspiration from the greatest horror films and genres in Hollywood. The game has you switching control between 8 different teenage friends who find themselves caught in a hellish nightmare on the Blackwood Pines lodge on Mount Washington in the harsh, snowy Canadian wilderness. You will be fighting for their survival through quick-time actions and making split-second choices in long, impressively produced cinematics. All the while collecting clues and collectibles which help piece together just what exactly is happening on Mount Washington this dark and stormy night.
You switch between these 8 different characters during predetermined moments, and what is perhaps the most surprisingly and satisfying element of Until Dawn is how each of these characters have a distinct perspective which is communicated in a very fascinating fashion. While developers like Telltale and Bioware usually are opaque in how they track your decisions and any other relevant stats Until Dawn lets you pause any time to check the ever-changing personality stats, relationship meters and decisions trackers. Such honest, forthcoming information about the status of your character and your movements through the story is perhaps the most video game-like aspect of Until Dawn that feels strangely very RPG-like, which is a pretty exciting development in this style of cinematic adventure games. Though it is important to note that these stats and number don't seem to have a profound impact on the game, but more on these decisions later.
What Until Dawn also achieves is in being not exactly what you expect of it upon first glance. It begins as a pretty straight-forward teen slasher horror movie, tropes and all. But quickly, as you switch between different characters and things start heating-up, Until Dawn starts switching and covering almost every single horror genre and trope under the sun from ghost story, monster mystery, Saw-esque thriller, and much more. So loving and complete are these renditions of different genres and stereotypes that it all comes across as kind of beautiful and extremely charming. This is even realized with some strong scene set-up and cinematography in its fixed-camera scenes which feel like Supermassive Games took direct inspiration from John Carpenter horror films, which I greatly appreciate. Until Dawn's constantly entertaining genre switching and strong sense of flow between scenes helps keep the game on a fast, steady pace so that its 6+ hour adventure breezes past satisfyingly fast.
Apart from walking around the environment collecting worthwhile collectibles that hint at future events in the game and clues which help develop and flesh out the mystery at the heart of Until Dawn, most of the actual interaction with the game comes through atypical quick-time events that appear during Until Dawn’s length cutscenes. There’s not much here that you haven’t seen too much before, and any past experience with quick-time events will have you prepared for Until Dawn’s execution of this piece of interaction, but they are all very exciting and well-done. Until Dawn does add one new quick-time event which takes advantage of the accelerometer in the PlayStation 4 controller. During certain scenes your character must stay perfectly still, hiding from enemies during a particular scene and the game has you execute this action by holding the controller and keeping a controller icon on the screen in a particular zone. It’s clever mechanic that helps connect you with the actions of your character on the screen, and feels specifically created for the type of horror game that Until Dawn is. People with shaky hands or move around a lot while playing may find this mechanic frustrating, but I generally found it fun to engage with and very unique, despite some weird glitchy moments of non-responsiveness.
Despite its intense focus on decision making and choices, Until Dawn is actually fairly linear and straight-forward. No matter what choices you make, everybody who plays Until Dawn will make it to a very specific end-game event with a very specific set of characters to engage in it with. In the moment of play, Until Dawn successfully instilled the illusion of choice within me, but more so than another choice-based games like Telltale or Bioware games, Until Dawn feels far more linear with your choices making less impact than usually is the standard from these types of games. This makes replay value inherently weak, and hard to recommend to people who love these types of story-focused games with a lot of choices and decisions to make. The only meaningful choices you seem to make is who lives and who dies, and even then this barely feels like it has any true consequence in the grand scheme of things.
Production-wise the game is fairly solid. Until Dawn goes for a very specific photorealistic look for its visual style, including some eerie-looking faces that border on the uncanny valley at moments. Usually realistic looking faces either look really good or really bad, and Until Dawn is a strange example of a game that, for the most part, their characters look really good, but sometimes appear really strange and alien during other moments. This is usually during certain sections where the game uses really intense close-ups during emotional moments, which makes the character models look plastic and doll-like and unable to convey complex emotional very well. But apart from these few moments, Until Dawn is a very strong looking game, especially with its fairly varied environment designs that are all immensely creepy and unsettling.
The traditional classical horror soundtrack is handled by Jason Graves, who had amazing scores with the Dead Space horror game franchise, but has had difficulty establishing himself since, and such is still true with Until Dawn. It’s all fairly standard horror themes, and never really evolves past such. Until Dawn fares much better with its vocal performances, and every single actor and actress does an incredible job in realizing and giving life to their respective characters, supported by a great script penned by horror alumni Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden that moves between different horror genres and some truly funny moments expertly. Specifically, Hollywood character actor Peter Stormare has a magical and intensely gripping portrayal of the terrifying psychiatrist Dr. Alan J. Hill that is one of the best performance that I’ve seen in this entire generation of consoles.
Until Dawn is the biggest surprise of this year thus far, a title that games journalists and even Sony themselves seemed to have had completely neglected and forgotten. Supermassive Games’ debut project is one of the most earnest and charming love letters to cinematic horror and has some great interactive quick-time moments to immerse you in it, including some innovative use of the motion controls of the PlayStation 4 controller. Until Dawn successful bewitches you with the illusion of choice in the moment, even if it feels less developed and far more linear than the standard set by other similar games. But the strong script, excellent character performances and some inspired cinematography makes Until Dawn one of the best examples of cinematic interactive storytelling out there.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)