How Until Dawn Keeps Players Invested In Its Characters

 The following post contains spoilers for Until Dawn

Developer: Supermassive Games

Genre: Horror, Adventure

Release Date: August 25, 2015

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Writer: Larry Fessenden, Graham Reznick

Biography: Until Dawn follows eight teenagers who are spending the night at Washington Lodge on Blackwood Mountain. Inspired by classic horror films like Halloween and The Exorcist, the game puts player choice at the heart of the story as you directly affect the survival of the group.

 

Until Dawn is a horror adventure game where player choice directly affect the outcome of the game’s 9 hour plot. Influenced by films such as Halloween, The Exorcist and The Haunting the game leans into the well-versed tropes and stereotypes of the genre. For instance the characters you control in the game are all teenagers with the usual hang ups about their relationships and archetypes like the Jock. While some of the characters in the game are downright unlikable, the game presents such an engaging format that you can’t help but become invested in the survival of certain characters. Your choices in the game have a direct impact on who lives and who dies and the game carefully guides you using the butterfly effect, a game mechanic where each choice you make is tracked and then shown to you via a menu with the consequence not revealed until later. Because of this, Until Dawn is a great game to play with friends or as a group since it plays like an interactive movie.

The story begins with ten teenagers staying at their friends’ building on the wintry Blackwood Mountain. Washington Lodge is connected to Josh and his two sisters, Hannah and Beth who after a prank played by most of the group go missing in the woods. In fact the player directly controls Beth as she chases after her sister introducing you to some of the mechanics of the game and the sinister tone of the story as the girls are chased by some sort of creature off a cliff to their gruesome deaths. One year later, Josh invites his friends up to the lodge once more which is when the main game takes place.

Until Dawn
Until Dawn isn’t afraid to use horror tropes to build tension and set expectations

Until Dawn has a creepy, supernatural tone just like many horror movies as the teenagers are hunted by a murderous figure in a mask and later Wendigos who are humans possessed by evil spirits. It’s all very familiar for horror fans but unlike films the player is interfacing with the game constantly and so tension is built much more effectively. Instead of questioning why a film’s character did something stupid, Until Dawn asks which of these two semi-ambiguous options is going to end up with this character alive. Sometimes the options are clear, having a weapon to hand might be useful later for example but sometimes you are forced into making a snap decision which can have disastrous consequences. Picking up totems offer glimpses of danger ahead and so you find yourself looking for certain locations or camera shots that indicate what’s about to  happen. Some of these dangers might feel a little unfair even if you do find all the totems but then in hindsight you realise that a choice you made in the build-up to a scene had unintended consequences.

Until Dawn definitely stacks the deck against you and there’s a possibility that none of the eight characters survive the night or in the case of my playthrough only a few. Your investment in the often shallow characters is enhanced by some familiar faces on-screen and a cinematic presentation. Rami Malek, Hayden Panetiere and Brett Dalton all feature prominently in the game adding to the sense of playing through an interactive movie. The impressive visuals and motion capture really add to the atmosphere as does the creepy setting. Blackwood Mountain feels vast, dark and creaky as you make your way through winding paths in the forest. The mountain is home to several mysteries that you can uncover by finding different items on your journey. What happened to the group of miners who were trapped in the mine and taken to the local sanatorium, what is the masked madman’s connection to the Washington family and how do you escape the fearsome Wendigos? Until Dawn is therefore several types of horror in one but the game always feels cohesive which is a credit to the developer Supermassive Games.

Looking back there are lots of memorable moments in Until Dawn whether it’s wandering round the lodge in a bathrobe as Sam realising all is not well, discovering and climbing the radio tower with Matt and Emily or befriending a canine companion with Brett when exploring the spooky Sanatorium. As previously mentioned there’s nothing particularly fascinating about each of these characters or their initial motives – Jessica wants to hook up with Brett, Chris fancies Ashley but won’t tell her and Sam is just happy to be spending time with her friends. What makes Until Dawn compelling is the writing and that each of the characters’ reactions feels like an authentic person, trapped in a bad situation and forced to uncover what’s going on along with the player. It’s a testament to the game’s writers and the performances of the actors that they make you want some of these whiny or cheesy characters to survive through the night because of the sinister tone and seemingly formidable enemies placed before you.

Until Dawn
The Wendigos don’t appear until the third act but they are formidable foes

Supermassive Games encourages you to replay the game which is structured into chapters. This structure also makes it easy to pick up and put down the game at will as there are handy recaps at the beginning of each chapter. The jump scares might not be as effective a second time around but the gruesome, gory deaths of the teenagers truly makes you feel the weight of your actions. The Wendigos remain scary throughout as they move so fast they force you to make decisions very quickly such as shooting explosive barrels or using button prompts to quickly climb over fallen trees and other obstacles.

Until Dawn is an engrossing adventure where player choice is at the heart of the game. These choices directly affect the survival of certain characters from the mysterious and dangerous threats on Blackwood Mountain. Mixing classic horror with supernatural and psychological horror the game triumphs by making you care about characters who are essentially parodies of the genre. This is aided by strong writing, fantastic performances from a stellar cast and an oppressive atmosphere making Until Dawn not only one of the must-play horror games but also a must-play adventure game.

What did you think of Until Dawn? Did the game’s performances, setting and mysteries keep you interested?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you like choice-based games like Until Dawn why not check out the Story Mode for Life is Strange?

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