“Until Dawn” appears to be the horror genre at its most recognizable. There’s a cabin in the woods, of course, and a cast of good-looking actors playing a type rather than a character — the jock, the blond, the class goof. The bulk of them are really quite horrible people, in fact.
There are scary movie tropes aplenty. Yes, there’s a clown mask, and there’s even a scene involving a Ouija board. One extended sequence has actress Hayden Panettiere in a towel. Open a cabinet, and out will come a rat, launching directly at you as if a spring board was built under the bathroom sink.
Yet amid all these cliched ideas are rather ambitious ones. This silly B-movie of a video game may hint at the future interactive entertainment.
Sitting at the halfway point between cinema and a game, “Until Dawn” is a story that bends to your whims. While plenty of games offer multiple-choice endings, few do so with a narrative that’s continually pushing the player forward.
Accidentally get someone killed? There is no save and restart. Your choices are fixed. The story is permanently altered. It’s possible but unlikely that all eight characters will reach the game’s conclusion.
Action is also limited. Sometimes a character will have to slide down a mountain, or navigate rusty barrels on an icy river, but rather than performing an elaborate sequence on the video game controller it’s just a single button that needs to be pressed, albeit incredibly quickly. It’s a move that’s freeing, opening up the title to even the most novice players. Stall, however, and a friend is probably dead.
Though it’s available only for Sony’s PlayStation 4, the experience of playing “Until Dawn” is more akin to that of binge-watching a television series.
“It’s more like a season of TV rather than a movie,” creative director Will Byles says. “It’s like nine hours long, and nine hours is a big chunk of time to tell one story. There’s an over-arching arc, and sub-arcs that go through it.”
For the first half of the game, “Until Dawn” sits pretty comfortably in the teen-slasher genre. The story and script, crafted in collaboration with genre veterans Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick, come equipped with characters who make one bad decision after another and speak one groan-inducing pickup line too many.
In a moment of cheesy foreshadowing that underscores the game’s smart self-awareness, one character even wishes for “some sort of traumatic event to send them into each other’s arms.”
As the story unfolds, there’s a drastic twist, and more supernatural elements creep in. Ancient totems allow a three- or four-second glimpse of one’s possible future. Study it, and it may be a key to survival. As a rule, though, it’s good to avoid cliffs and fire.
Characters too can gradually become more likable, at least those other than Panettiere’s genuinely engaging Sam, the one with clearly more brains than this group is worthy and who — if your steady hands can keep her alive — becomes the de facto leader.
“Until Dawn” makes deft use of the PlayStation 4’s motion controls, requiring players to be absolutely still at numerous critical moments. It’s not very forgiving, because a slight twitch can be fatal, but it’s successful in marrying the action of a character with that of the player.
Throughout “Until Dawn,” players will control and shape each of the eight characters. Do you let someone make crass comments about a woman? Hopefully not. Do you intervene when two exes get snippy at each other? Maybe they seem to deserve it. Are you the kind of jerk who’s going to throw a snowball at a bird? Again, hopefully not.
Generally, the game is asking players to pick between two bad decisions. Run from a psychopath or hide from a psychopath? Want to see a different path? Start the whole thing over. It’s a design choice that alternately heightens and lessens the “gamey” aspects of “Until Dawn.” Most choose-your-own-adventure narratives allow players to save the game and briefly try out other courses of action, glimpsing the one they think may be the best. Not here.
While “Until Dawn” owes a heavy debt to the work of developers Quantic Dream and Telltale Games (perhaps most notably the latter’s take on “The Walking Dead”), in other titles I often sample every course of action, trying to guess which path the writers seem most invested in. “Until Dawn” adds elements that make that sort of guesswork superfluous. At any point one can pause “Until Dawn” and see how a single character is faring. Is Sam getting along with Josh? Is Emily cooling on her beau?
All these shifts make “Until Dawn” less about big, game-altering moments and encourage the player to try to mix-and-match personalities. In a game of life and death, you never know when you’ll need an ally. It both minimizes the use of the controller while requiring constant interaction.
“It’s kind of like a game of chess,” Byles says of his goal for “Until Dawn.” “It’s a much more cerebral style of gaming. It’s about getting information, finding information and thinking quite carefully when you get to these points of decision.”
Chess? A lofty comparison for a game in which the bulk of its characters probably couldn’t understand the movement patterns of a rook. Hey, look, a tattered mausoleum filled with wolves! Let’s have a look. Oh, an abandoned mine that once trapped dozens of workers! Time for a stroll. Even Sam makes the mistake of taking off her clothes when it’s clear her male friends are perverts.
If there’s a cliche, “Until Dawn” will allude to it, even the horror genre’s uncomfortable sexism. But Byles says the game doesn’t play into it.
“That old-fashioned misogynistic attitude feels very dated now. This is a balance between four guys and four girls. It’s not like the girls all die and they all die horribly. We’ve avoided the traditional phallic stabbing. It just doesn’t feel contemporary,” he says.
Yes, despite the B-movie triviality, “Until Dawn” has its eye on greater heights. You’ll just have to overlook people being chained to a wall with circular metal blades aimed at their stomachs to find it.