‘Until Dawn’ surprises players with absolute terror

Jack Stornello, Staff Reporter

It’s not very often that the gaming community is pleasantly surprised by a new release. Usually, when not much is expected of an upcoming release, the game turns out to be exactly that: not much. “Until Dawn,” from developer Supermassive Games, was one of those games. It looked like and was expected to be an average campy horror game, filled with all the usual horror tropes. As it turns out, however, “Until Dawn” has a lot more to offer than that.

“Until Dawn” plays less like a video game and more like a horror movie where the player controls the outcome. The “official” genre declares it an “interactive drama survival horror video game”. To put that plainly, it’s essentially a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book on crack. Each decision made can mean the death of a character, either immediately or later in the game. Types of choices range from simple dialogue options to smacking a deer in the face with an axe. “Until Dawn” has an unprecedented 256 different endings. Depending on the player’s choices, all of the characters can either live or die, with any combination of characters surviving to the end.

The developers implement an ingenious idea at the start of the game. The player is introduced to a rather unsettling psychiatrist who gives him/her a book. On each page is an image of a thing one might be afraid of. Players are shown two at a time and are tasked with selecting which they are more afraid of. For example, one might have to choose between snakes or spiders, zombies or clowns, or even dark, murky water versus great heights. In this way, the game learns the player’s greatest fears, and uses them against the player. If one picks the fear of heights, the game will eventually force the player to confront that fear head-on. Players make multiple visits to this psychiatrist, who gives many similar books with more choices, sometimes even asking players to choose which characters they like best.

Players are introduced to the setting and the characters during a brief prologue, where the ten of them are spending time at a mountain getaway. Two of the characters, sisters Hannah and Beth, are chased down by a menacing-looking fellow with a flamethrower. The sisters inevitably run themselves to the edge of a cliff, and (no matter what choice one makes) end up dead at the bottom of it.

The main story commences with the remaining eight characters returning to the same mountain getaway one year later. One can only guess at why any of them consider this a good idea. From here, “Until Dawn’s” story progresses like the majority of bad horror films, from fake-out jump scares at the start, to real danger (seemingly) rather quickly. The game’s even complete with all the usual cheesy, cringe-worthy dialogue one would expect from a campy horror flick.

However, there is a turning point in “Until Dawn”, when things switch from predictable and familiar to wild and truly terrifying. About three-quarters of the way through the game, the developers see fit to drop two major plot twists on players that turn the story on its head. Before said turning point, events are relatively predictable and many players can very well see jump scares coming. Following the twist, everything previously would appear to have been a genius plot to lull players into a false sense of security and comfort. The final quarter of the game becomes a never-ending, heart-pounding race to the conclusion.

On the production side of things, the game certainly receives a great lift in the form of four Hollywood actors not only voicing characters in the game, but actually having their characters modeled after themselves (essentially, these actors appear in the game as themselves, looking like themselves.) “Until Dawn” has Hayden Panettiere (“Heroes”, “Nashville”) as Sam, Rami Malek (“Mr. Robot”) as Josh, Brett Dalton (“Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) as Mike and Peter Stormare (“22 Jump Street”, “Armageddon”, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”) as Dr. Hill.

All in all, “Until Dawn” far exceeds initial expectations by a long shot. The game aims to be an homage and a tribute to classic, campy horror movies and thoroughly achieves that goal. Most reviewers seem to agree with this statement, with the game garnering widely positive scores. The game received a 7.5/10 from IGN, declaring it a “gleefully cheesy homage to horror movies”, as well as an 8/10 from GameSpot, proclaiming it a “great achievement in player-driven narrative”. In the face of considerable odds, “Until Dawn”, as an overall experience, rises from a “not much” to a “not to be missed” (under any circumstances).