One element that is often missing from horror movies is the immersion of the viewer within the world of the film. If the viewer cannot align themselves with the characters or empathize with their struggle, as well as experience the fear alongside them, the scare/suspense factor of the film falls short. However, in a scenario where the viewer is physically immersed into the horror, as in a haunted house, the fear often depends mainly upon the use of jump scares. Until Dawn utilizes the best elements from each of these platforms of fear to create a fully engaging and truly terrifying journey.
In classic horror fashion, Until Dawn begins with a cold open. And I do mean cold. The game takes place at a cabin estate in the mountains of Alberta, Canada during the dead of winter. We’re introduced to a group of 10 friends who have been partying in the cabin for the weekend. The cast includes Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek, as well as many other incredible actors who all truly bring these characters to life. The game opens with a few of the characters discussing the prank they’re about to pull on another friend in the group. As expected, the prank goes terribly wrong and tragedy befalls the group, resulting in the deaths of two of their friends. One year later, the group returns to the cabin in an effort to remember the good times and accept the events of the year prior. However, once they arrive, things immediately start to get creepy, and the group begins to suspect that they’re not alone on the mountain.
Until Dawn is a single-player, Choose Your Own Adventure-style horror game wherein you play as each of the ten characters in the group. Based on your decisions, reactions, and observations (or lack thereof), you determine the outcome of the game, as well as who will live and who will die along the way. This element is referred to throughout the game as The Butterfly Effect, which reads, “A tiny butterfly flapping its wings today may lead to a devastating hurricane weeks from now.” Essentially, even the smallest decisions that you make in Until Dawn can return hours later to help or haunt you. Based on this level of variability from player to player, the game is said to have hundreds of different possible outcomes; including both saving all characters and allowing them all to perish. Additionally, throughout the first half of the game, it cuts to a therapy session in between chapters wherein you play the patient. The doctor, played by Peter Stormare, asks you questions about yourself and depending upon your answer, the game tailors itself slightly in order to more specifically fit the player. This further expands the number of possible outcomes, and makes the gameplay more terrifying as it targets your fears directly.
As you proceed, it is imperative to gather information from everything around you in order to understand exactly what is going on. Throughout the game, you collect totems that essentially act as good or bad omens, in the form of small snippets of video, and warn you of things that may or may not happen in the near future. The totems are classified into five different categories: Danger, Death, Fortune, Guidance, and Loss. Each totem represents a different type of warning or insight to help you proceed more safely. With each retrieved totem, you also fill in a blank portion of a video called Events of the Past, which is addressed to the player and upon completion explains just about every mysterious thing that’s gone on.
As a genre piece, this game incorporates every horror trope one can imagine, including the cold open, false protagonist, archetypal characters, multiple red herrings, a cabin in the woods, and a backstory mired in mysterious tragedies. As a love letter to horror, Until Dawn goes one step above simply including these tropes, and refuses to even limit itself to just one specific subgenre. The game seamlessly strings together scenarios involving everything from Saw-style body horror to monster mystery to slasher thriller. Until Dawn also incorporates multiple quick time events into high stress scenes where characters may be running or climbing and the player must react immediately to prompts on the screen in order to keep them from falling or getting hurt. This adds another level of tension to the game and makes it all the more stressful to play. It also allows for classic horror moments like a character tripping and falling as the killer chases them down.
However, none of these aspects would be nearly as compelling were the game not so visually stunning. The scenery ranges from dark forests to abandoned asylums to deserted caves and mineshafts; each spookier than the last. The intricately designed sets and camera angles coupled with the realistic motion capture graphics of the characters makes for an engaging experience as a viewer, much in the same way as a good film. Until Dawn is an absolutely thrilling adventure that unfolds in real time, and drops you head first into the world of horror. It’s a blast regardless of whether you’re holding the controller or not. It will make you jump whether you’re playing alone in the dark or with a group of friends. And it will leave you wanting to play through every possible scenario.