There’s a fundamental misunderstanding about the horror genre, mostly by those who don’t enjoy it, that scoffs at its tropes, formulae and cliches. There’s a misunderstanding that its hallmarks and staples are lazily, safely and predictably administered and that, to be a successful horror product in these contemporary times, it’s necessary to wholly subvert these expectations and ashamedly, embarrassedly justify the genre choice.
In actuality, horror’s common stamps are necessary tracks that have been built on years of storytelling and film-making that, yes, often crumble under the weight of their own predictability, but nevertheless take you to its inevitable core. Horror is a package of expectations that simply have to be delivered, just not necessarily in expected ways. The cliches we’ve all come to roll our eyes at are there because they were, and are, successful vehicles for delivering what horror demands; horror isn’t lazy, it’s deliberate. It’s a genre with its audience at heart.
Sure, it’s had its highs and very low lows, with its most memorable recent boom perhaps in the late 90s courtesy of the inception of the found-footage sub-genre (the themes and hallmarks established there have now themselves become so overused and expected beyond parody that they’ve solidified themselves into horror heritage) and the renaissance of teen slasher horror, thanks to the knowing winks of Wes Craven’s Scream and its immediate successors.
It’s the latter from which Until Dawn takes its biggest cues. It’s more of an interactive horror film than a straight-up video game. If that turns you off, just don’t bother. There’s no puzzling here, there’s no finger acrobatics or upgradeable weaponry. This is a choice-driven, and horror-staple-heavy, playable movie that unashamedly pilfers from the last 30 years of teen slashers (with an unnecessary, but expected, dose of relatively recent torture porn), subverting its tropes by giving you the ability to take the reins of its predictably stereotypical characters rather than trying to rewrite 100 years of horror delivery.
‘Christ, don’t go in there!’ you yell at the half-naked co-ed as she wanders around the dark with a knife, knowing there’s a masked assailant in the house who can seemingly both walk incredibly slowly yet still catch up with you and teleport at will. But there she goes! Basically, Until Dawn gives you the ability to stop her doing that. You can turn the inappropriately heroic choices of your protagonists into more realistic chicken-shit dashes out of the door, you can change that bonehead jock into a sensitive, thoughtful adult human, you can ensure the previously timid cheerleader is the first to take control when everyone else’s bodily functions fail.
At least, that’s the idea. It never truly stretches to the far reaches of those possibilities, ensnared by the confines of the story it wants to tell. And that’s the tale of eight teenagers (of course) who return to an isolated (of course) mountain holiday home in the snow to mark the one year anniversary of an ill-fated prank (of course). It delivers everything you’d want from teen horror – a disparate and belligerent bunch of high school cliches who realise something isn’t quite right in the perfectly reasonable secluded setting that clearly has a terrible history, who must stay alive throughout the night until dawn when rescue arrives.
It’s a horror choose-your-own-adventure that stresses the importance of the butterfly effect in which all actions, even the minor ones, have unchangeable and unforeseeable consequences on the story. And, for the majority of its 10-hour playtime, you’ll goddamn believe it.
Presented as an episodic television series, Until Dawn’s semi-static camera harks back to horror gaming’s past glories like Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, as well as stealing from choice-driven and QTE-heavy interactive tales like Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit. Aside from wandering around dim hallways and tunnels with a flashlight, most of the action relies on quick time events as you smash buttons within time limits, or make fairly heavy decisions before your inevitable death.
There are also moments that require you stay completely still for fear of attracting attention, meaning you physically have to hold the PlayStation controller steady. These immersive tactics work a real treat, and the ability to take on the role of each of the unique teenagers are reminiscent of the joy of early Lucasarts graphic adventures like Maniac Mansion and Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Unfortunately, sans puzzling.
You see, Until Dawn’s main (and only major) mechanic is its choice-system. Decisions feel heavy, laboured and that whole butterfly effect shtick means that it’s often a long time before you feel the true repercussions of a seemingly innocuous choice. However, the decisions themselves lack nuance and come solely in pairs. It’s often a case of ‘left or right’, and neither seem like the preferred option. Its branching narrative seems impressive until a second playthrough when you realise most choices, big or small, won’t really alter the course of the overarching story.
Your choices are in place to seal the fate or change the paths of the story’s characters. The ability to shape and alter these character tropes from their initial introductions (basically, they’re all dicks), again, lacks distinction. There’s a chance missed to really start writing your own personality traits into characters that completely subvert their shells.
Sabotaging your own characters is a peculiar and cruel new theatre, but the schizophrenic quick flitting of roles means it’s hard to really feel completely attached to anybody you’re toying with. The feeling of unfulfilled potential is highlighted by a personal attributes screen for each of the hairy-arsed kids which alters depending on your actions, but never really has any significance on the story. While it’s a fascinating and exciting step towards being able to manipulate and alter the characters you play to create new, branching storylines, it never really works out that way, and you won’t feel attached to any of them other than in an effort to keep them all alive until the morning, leaving you feeling like a numb sociopath.
Underlining the cruel theatre aspect of it all are the intermittent visits to the increasingly odd Dr. Hill between episodes, during which the grim psychologist will prod you for information about your own fears and then alter the course of the game accordingly. Questions about which characters you like or dislike, and whether you find spiders scarier than snakes allow Until Dawn to pack its story with things and events you’ve admitted make you feel uneasy, and there’s a feeling that it’s playing with you as much as you’re playing with it.
In terms of video gameyness, there are, of course, collectible items scattered around the key environments, including totems which predict possible futures and strewn clues that unravel the mysteries surrounding the snowy hilltops. It’d be uncomely not to mention that it’s ridiculously, ridiculously good looking. The locations and movements of the characters are just gorgeous. The facial expressions on the characters are among the most fluid and realistic we’ve seen, emulating winces of fear, worry and the subtlety of embarrassed disappointment. They still haven’t nailed how to make people smile without being terrifying though.
Like any good horror homage should, Until Dawn comes utterly infused with the genre’s characteristics – Lewton Bus jump scares, kids that are far too old to be worrying about their parents when they really should be worrying about mortgages, secluded cabins in the woods, convenient phone failures, sex, revenge, crying wolf, ancient Native American legends, all the hallmarks of that US Reagan-era conservative slasher horror. But its interactive movie style is to the detriment of one of horror’s most defining formulae – pacing. Horror is about counting beats, and, as hard as Until Dawn tries to keep it under control, you’re ultimately in charge of the pacing. Affixed cameras help for trigger points and ensuring you see what the game wants you to see, but on some playthroughs, they lack the impact they should have, simply because you’re not passively engineered in the same way you are by cinema.
Ultimately, Until Dawn isn’t quite what you hope it is, but a stunning indicator of what this type of gaming could be. Its branching storyline does exist, but lacks the nuance to make it truly world-changing. The ability to manipulate its protagonists serves only as a way to keep them alive, or kill them off, rather than alter their relationships with each other or the story as a whole. But, as an imperfect, wonky and genuinely exciting blueprint for choice-driven gaming’s future, Until Dawn is top of the pile – simply amazing. It does what a good horror film should – it takes the genre’s tropes, pays them the respect they deserve, and fires them at you in a new manner. It doesn’t pretend it isn’t horror, or that it’s not going to fall victim to the predictability of the genre. It doesn’t try to outsmart its audience, it completely delivers what it should - something big budget horror movies have failed to do over and over again for the past 15 years.
As hardened horror fans ourselves, it feels like everything here is a gift from other genuine fans of the genre, rather than a sneering or apologetic production company who feel above it. Until Dawn is, plainly, horror for those who love horror, and it gets a massive two dismembered thumbs up from us as a result.