Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 5
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Overall Plot: 5
Audience Assumptions: No assumptions
Part One: Have You Ever Wanted to Yell at Inept Horror Protagonists? Now You Can Do That in a Video Game!
Video games are almost the perfect medium for horror. Immersed in gameplay, the threats feel real and chill you in a way that is difficult to achieve in film or other fixed media. Even when the protagonist is bland or silent, putting yourself in their skin so to speak makes the horror real. In a film, monsters pop out at characters regardless of whether the audience is paying attention. In games, however, you have to step through that threshold yourself.
However, one of the constant issues with horror of any sort is its inherent camp. No matter how hard you try, there are going to be times when a horror story just won’t scare its audience. Many audience members don’t even go to horror stories for that sensation. While there are those who get a rush from jump scares and disturbing imagery, others like horror for its aesthetic, for its innovative special effects, for the way something so peculiar can sometimes touch upon powerful themes. The best that horror can offer is spectacular; it’s beyond, I would argue, the strength of almost any sci-fi or fantasy series. While those genres are grounded in a hypothetical reality, horror can transcend the boundary of fiction and leech into reality. Sometimes there’s little difference between an impactful horror fiction and horrific real events..
Depth is the exception to most horror stories, though. The cheapness of the aesthetic makes it easy for any film student with a half-decent camera to contribute to the repertoire of bad horror films. Sometimes, all you get is a bunch of kids, a cabin in the woods, and a serial killer –the sort of film The Cabin in the Woods so beautifully parodied. Until Dawn is the high-fidelity video game version of those films.
The game falls into the genre of quicktime event-heavy, narrative-driven games, like Life is Strange and the now-defunct Telltale Games lineup. Until Dawn is gorgeous, originally released as one of the earlier PlayStation 4 games adapted for the console’s new features, like its increased graphical processing and motion control sensor. This is abundantly obvious in the gameplay, as there are moments that clearly wouldn’t work well on other consoles, like when players are asked to use the PS4 touchpad or motion sensor.
The plot of the game follows eight teenagers — Josh, Mike, Chris, Matt, Sam, Emily, Ashley, and Jessica — as they run into a horrific mystery at Josh’s family’s cabin. A serial killer is on the loose, and the woods appear to be haunted by some inhuman creature. The game progresses in story-driven chapters that all follow fairly predictable beats, but key to the engagement of the title are various “choice” moments. Occasionally, icons will pop up, each with a timer, and players much choose between what’s available or miss the event entirely. These events can be mundane, like choosing whether the controlled character jokes or acts sincere in dialogue, or they can be lethal. One of the large appeals of the game is that all of the main playable characters can either die or live depending on a player’s choices.
This means, of course, that you can actively try to kill off all of them as you please. The characters all have simple personality traits (though curiously, most of them have dialogue options that reveal surprising character development) and fit into archetypes common for the genre. You have the weirdo, the jock, the nice guy, the nerd, the new kid, the bully, the shy kid, and the sex addict, and their dialogue is appropriately cringe-inducing. Some of them are more difficult to kill or rescue, with a few only given one nexus that determines their fate. Others die at the drop of a hat, and while I wouldn’t say it’s especially difficult to finish the game with all of the characters alive, many of them can die in surprising and difficult-to-predict ways.
In most games, having a character die from being crushed by a rock grinder or grabbed from above by an unseen assailant can be frustrating. Few things are worse than unpredictable deaths, and you aren’t given a second chance after you fail in this game. However, Until Dawn walks a delicate tightrope where the deaths, while difficult to anticipate because of unrelated events leading up to them, still follow a cohesive narrative.
At one point, you play as a Chris and are given the option to shoot another character, Ashley, as per instructions from a Jigsaw-like torturer. If you choose to shoot Ashley, you find that the gun has blanks; the torturer gives up the game and reveals himself to be a red herring, one of the teenagers who appeared to die earlier in the story. After the second part of the story reveals the actual monster, the stakes rise and Chris has to go out with a team to look for it. The monster attacks, the other person in the party dies, and Chris runs back to the lodge, where Ashley is there to open the door. If she hesitates, Chris dies. By this point in the narrative, they’ve been set as love interests for one another, so it makes sense for Ashley to open the door as quickly as possible… unless he tried to shoot her in the earlier chapter and she resents him for it.
Moments like these don’t affect the plot much, and in fact the plot itself is fairly rigid. You will never be able to skip certain chapters, and many events have no consequences. However, the game is more than just a cheap horror thriller, as the gameplay is carefully crafted to create an experience that is unusually engaging, especially the first time around.
Part Two: The Game’s “Funny” Mode
Until Dawn is not a great game — it has fixed camera angles that can be irritating, the dialogue quality varies considerably, there are jump-scares out the wazoo, the motion-capture wanders far into the uncanny valley, and certain plot points are silly no matter what your choices are. I haven’t even mentioned the strange doctor who appears between chapter breaks, talking to the serial killer (jk, it’s you, the viewer!) and spewing nonsensical philosophy that really says nothing of consequence.
And yet, it’s also kind of brilliant.
The game gets you invested in the plot by throwing a lot of content at you and telling a surprisingly compelling story. It makes use of the key feature of horror — the stakes of characters dying — as a key mechanic and makes the audience care about who dies by making the events isolated, permanent, and the player’s responsibility. There are a few characters who die regardless of what you do for the sake of the narrative, but these deaths are still treated as a consequence of player choice. Even if you don’t like the characters, you’re still heavily invested in whether they die or not.
That said, most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional at the start of the game, engaged in sappy teen drama and ruled by basic personality traits that separate them into Likable or Unlikable categories. Ashley, Chris, and Sam are nice, Mike, Emily, and Jessica are mean, Josh is immediately suspicious, and Mike is pretty neutral. Of course, how the characters come across is partly a reflection of options the player chooses; you can make Chris and Sam kill small animals early in the game, you can make Ashley devious and manipulative, and you can get all of the characters into constant fights over nothing. The dialogue options aren’t diverse or frequent enough to give the player total control over the situation, but you can steer them loosely down highly divergent character paths at times. This makes Until Dawn one of the few games where character development can arguably be a game mechanic (more on that later).
And if you were wondering, while you can make characters more awful and stereotypical, you can also choose paths to make their characters more complex as well. For instance, one of the characters, Jessica, is the traditional sexy cheerleader who’s the first to become imperiled (as is the standard for these sorts of horror stories. Imagine my surprise when, largely by accident, I stumbled upon the dialogue options that get her to reject her boyfriend and walk around the room, ranting about how everyone objectifies her and how she doesn’t like being treated like a piece of meat. This is the same scene that can end up with Jessica in her underpants making thrusting motions at Mike, by the way. I’m not entirely sure whether this is a good or a bad thing, but given that the half-naked Jessica scene seems to rely on some of the more probable player choices, it’s nice to see that the game designers found a way to show her character depth. It’s not something most of the players will see, of course, which limits its thematic impact for a single playthrough, but taken with the entirety of the game, it’s an interesting choice.
The narrative is designed to make the characters more complex over time, provided they survive. The characters start out naive as you might expect, ignoring ominous signs like dangerous animals and the fact that their friends have been murdered, but they still remain grounded in some sort of reality. They’re just some gormless teenagers whose concerns are mainly relationship-based, but once the plot really gets rolling and monsters appear, that naivete diminishes somewhat. The player is given more control over what the characters do. Not full control, of course — the characters still split up and investigate spooky basements, but the player has to actively choose to make the characters do the nonsensical things that ordinary horror protagonists might. And you’re not given many limitations on that, either; you can investigate a suspicious box by reaching your hand into it, you can split from the group and investigate some strange sounds, you can try to decapitate some elk with an ax, and so on.
However, the story plods along regardless. While it is certainly possible to reconcile your more unusual choices with the characters acting rationally in the cutscenes, the dialogue is generally broad enough that the characters never seem to starkly diverge from their established characters. Emily always has a bit of a privileged tone of voice, Matt is always soft-spoken and rational, Mike is always a nervous action-man.
The general arc for each of the characters is that by being exposed to the horrors of the game harden them and make them more proactive, strengthening and straining their relationships with their friends. Mike becomes braver and also more paranoid. Chris finally speaks up about his feelings for Ashley, and Ashley does likewise. Emily remains a snob but gets a few action moments of her own and steps up when needed. Jessica spends most of the story incapacitated, but as I said, she has a few moments that can give her substantial character depth. Matt becomes more proactive and also potentially more violent; Josh reveals his instability, falling prey to grief over his missing sisters and poorly-balanced medications.
And then we have Sam. Sam is easily the most boring character, structured as the protagonist and the least well-defined as far as personality traits are concerned, but even she gets to be heroic once or twice. She’s framed as one of the sharper members of the group, and is given some opportunities beyond the other characters to figure out what is going on here. She’s also notably the character the game usually ends on, only able to die one of two ways in the final minutes of the game. You can also play her as a lovable arsonist who blows her friends up.
So, you know, you have options.
One of my favorite parts of the game is that each of the characters has personality stats that adjust according to the dialogue choices and actions you select. As far as I can tell, this has effectively no bearing on any of the characters’ displayed personalities and certainly doesn’t change the options available. It seems to be there as a pointless marker of the decisions you’ve made so far, but notably it gives you a “Funny / Serious” option. This is my favorite part of the game.
See, after you know the plot and the twists, you realize there are fairly few ways to witness a completely different story. However, the game provides a lot of minor mechanics like collectibles that keep the game engaging. The “Funny / Serious” personality scale bar provides a wonderful meta-game a friend of mine and I like to call Funny Mode.
Funny Mode in Until Dawn is quite simple: above all else, you must end the game with every character’s “Funny” stat as high as possible. Given the serious nature of the plot and that there are extremely few remotely funny options, this is highly challenging, but it leads to some truly amazing moments as you furiously debate any action that may get you Funniness points. Is it funnier to give Emily the flare gun or Matt? Is it funnier to run or hide? Is it funnier to pick up the scissors or not pick up the scissors?
I highly recommend this game’s Funny Mode, especially when you have a friend with whom you can debate the funniness of the actions.
Incidentally, the “Funny” stat seems to be based only on what the character thinks of themself, not whether they’re inherently funny, so any time a character is given the option to prank someone else, no matter how dire the situation nor how pathetic the prank, it is always the right option for Funny Mode.
Part Three: The Plot
I might as well talk about the actual plot of the game.
Based on all of the intricacies of the plot pathways and how the game weaves a narrative focus in with interesting player choices, you might expect me to say that the story is excellent. And the thing is, it really isn’t. It’s not bad, and it throws a few unique twists in that would normally up its game for me, but the plot itself is pretty straightforward and it’s really the delivery mechanism as a video game that makes me like it. As I’ve said, the characters are basic archetypes, and as you might have noticed, their arcs, while they challenge the characters individually, still tend to be fairly similar. Many of the characters only come into play for limited periods, meaning that while you can control up to eight characters, from a narrative perspective, the only ones who do much are Josh, Chris, Emily, Mike, and possibly Sam.
Here’s the plot as it pertains to the locked events:
In a prologue chapter, most of the kids are up at the mountain cabin, a year before the events in the main story. Josh’s sister, Hannah, has just gotten up the nerve to confess her attraction to Mike, who then reveals that he’s also attracted to her and that they should definitely fuck around for a bit. Hannah begins to remove her shirt, then discovers it to be a cruel prank played on her by the other kids. She runs out into the snow and her older sister, Beth, follows, understandably angry at the pranksters. She comforts her sister out in the woods, but then the two are pursued by a figure armed with a flamethrower. They run and end up falling off the edge of a cliff.
A year later, Josh invites his friends back to the cabin to honor the anniversary of his sisters’ disappearance. There are a few new faces, mainly in the form of Matt and Jessica, boyfriend and girlfriend to Emily and Mike, respectively. Josh, seeming a little odd, proclaims that everyone shall fuck, and when a fight breaks out between the new couples and their exes, he decides that Mike and Jessica should go to the guest cabin. Everyone settles down for a relaxing winter weekend in the ramshackle cabins, notably blocked off from help by a snowstorm. Some of them find odd indications of ominous threats, like flyers talking about an escaped murderer with a grudge against Josh’s family and occasional glimpses of a ghoulish figure.
After a short while, Mike and Jessica encounter what seems to be a mysterious animal in the woods and Jessica gets kidnapped. Mike pursues the unseen kidnapper to the nearby abandoned insane asylum (because of course there’s an abandoned insane asylum). Meanwhile, those at the cabin find themselves in peril as they’re each knocked out by a man in a clown mask and forced into a Saw-like trolley problem. Chris is forced to choose which of his friends a giant saw blade heads toward, Josh (his childhood friend) or Ashley (the girl he fancies). The saw heads toward Josh and cuts him in half to the horror of Chris and Ashley.
Matt and Emily meet up with the main cabin crew and then head to a fire tower nearby to call for help. They learn that the storm means that help will be delayed for several hours and they’re on their own. An unseen figure sabotages the tower and it falls into a mine shaft with the two in tow.
The clown-masked murderer captures Chris and Ashley again and puts them in another horror machine, then reveals himself to be Josh. Josh faked his death and the recent horrific events using his family’s film props, and sees this as revenge for what the other teens did to his sister. However, Josh is surprised to learn that Jessica has gone missing and there’s another strange man walking around the property. Realizing Josh’s shenanigans have nothing to do with a much bigger threat, they lock him in a shed.
Emily, meanwhile, wanders the mines and learns that Beth and Hannah ended up down there as well. Beth died in the fall while Hannah survived, slowly starving and eventually eating Beth’s body to survive. She then encounters the man from the asylum, referred to in the game only as the Stranger, who guides her back to the cabin and explains to everyone what’s going on. Apparently the mountain is inhabited by wendigo spirits, creatures from Algonquin-speaking peoples’ folklore that are associated with cannibalism and greed. In this game, the wendigo spirits possess people who cannibalize others and appear as skeletal monsters. Years ago, trapped miners became wendigos and now Hannah is among their number as well. The Stranger goes out with Chris to rescue Josh and find that the latter has been captured. The Stranger is then killed by a wendigo.
Realizing Josh has the only cable car key, the kids set out for the mines in search of the wendigo’s lair. They find it, briefly reunite with Josh, and then Josh is dragged off or killed by wendigo-Hannah. The surviving kids flee back to the cabin, which is now swarming with the monsters, and end up blowing the house up, killing the creatures just as rescue helicopter arrives.
So I suppose you can throw Hannah in there as an important character too.
It’s not a bad story, especially for a cabin-in-the-woods style of horror plot, but while it’s sufficient when combined with its game mechanics, on its own it runs into trouble. Namely, the characters are constantly separating for arbitrary reasons (a staple of the genre, sure, but still aggravating for the narrative). Characters like Matt and Jessica seem to be presumed to die, as they play no role in the plot other than to become imperiled and only show up again at the end if they’ve survived the early chapters.
The multiple plot twists, like the three separate antagonists, two of which turn out to be red herrings, can get a bit annoying at times. The Stranger is comically just in the story to be a potentially scary figure and then exposit at the characters, dying immediately afterward. None of these developments are helped by the jump scares, which are tired and often even nonsensical within the reality of the game. The jump scares are rarely connected to the plot, involving rats in corpse mouths, bear traps, a ghost, and even a wolverine.
I should also probably note that the wendigo is a uniquely Native American creature, which can be a dicey territory to use simply for a cool horror monster. While the thematic concept of the wendigos — monsters that embody or punish those who are gluttonous, both literally and metaphorically — seems to adhere to the common folklore associated with the creatures, the game also makes up a lot of features to suit its own needs, like them having hard flesh and being vulnerable to fire. I’m not the one to delve further into this, but because the game calls it a wendigo rather than making up its own horror creature, I think it’s worth mentioning at least.
The plot overall has a few cohesive themes and theses, like “your actions have consequences” and “don’t underestimate people,” but as with many middling horror stories, the main idea of the narrative becomes quickly muddled beyond these two points. The game hits you over the head with its butterfly symbolism more than a few times (it’s indicative of the butterfly effect, do you get it?), and the idea of actions having consequences is thoroughly embedded into the gameplay to the point where it would be shocking if any player missed it. Generally, the individual actions that aren’t basically arbitrary boil down to the moral of, “Don’t do anything stupid.”
There’s also an odd commentary on mental health that seems to be there mainly for the sake of horror. Josh is the only stated neurodivergent character in the game, prescribed medication and therapy for schizophrenia at least in the year since his sisters vanished, and also hinted to be struggling with his illness in the prologue as well. By the end of the game, Josh is hallucinating horrific images, confused and betrayed by his friends.
Posing Josh as an antagonist and ascribing his unusual behavior to his medical condition plays into the cliche of mentally ill people being dangerous to those around them, which is generally untrue and ignores the much grater danger that the illness often poses to the person who has it. The idea of mentally ill people playing antagonists in horror stories is common, with archaic sanitariums frequently taking on horrific connotations because of the people they contained more so than the often barbaric practices common in the early half of the twentieth century.
Josh is occasionally somewhat sympathetic, but even then, he still ends the game either dying or becoming a wendigo himself. Between him and the wendigo miners, there’s a somewhat unintentional theme of mental illness being untreatable or incurable, and the creepy therapist who interrupts the story occasionally really doesn’t help matters. I think this portrayal may vary from person to person, as the hallucination sequences are emotional and communicate disorientation rather intensely. I tend to be a bit of a sucker for visual representation of mental phenomena, illnesses or otherwise, so I liked the hallucinations and I empathized with Josh and his struggles. The game’s overall take on mental health does leave something to be desired, though.
Overall, I would play it for the balance of mechanics and its overall structure as an interactive horror narrative. Regardless of what you think of the story itself, the way the game works its story into its gameplay is something I could see other games, like action platformers and RPGs, play around with. It’s got a solid foundation, and I would be interested in looking into the developer’s other projects, if they weren’t all PlayStation exclusive. Regardless, I hope that other studios might use the better qualities of Until Dawn as inspiration for their own narrative-heavy titles.