This past weekend, after a short detour that included the most hilarious low-fi Redbox hack of all time, I picked up a copy of the new video game Until Dawn. I don’t spend a lot of time these days on video games; as someone whose appreciation for games is rooted in his interest in film, I find most AAA titles offer an almost-overwhelming number of choices that prevent me from ever finishing them. Supposedly, though, Until Dawn was different. With an emphasis on narrative control – one that eschews the popular open world conceit of most blockbuster titles – I had every hope that Until Dawn would be a perfectly calibrated genre experience. And five hours into my first play through, I am anything but disappointed.
As the title suggests, Until Dawn is a horror survival title by Supermassive Games, a studio previously known only for smaller downloadable games for the Playstation Store. In the game, you alternate control of a handful of teenage friends, all returning to a winter cabin on the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of twin sisters Hannah and Beth. Most of the characters are still struggling to come to terms with the assumed death of their friends; Josh, the host of the party and brother to the two missing sisters, particularly hopes that this party will allow everyone a chance to move on. As the game unfolds, Until Dawn plays fast and loose with genre conventions, developing smart, likable characters and confirming or subverting their role in the standard horror story based on preexisting horror tropes. Through it all, the player makes a series of cascading decisions that will affect the ultimate survival of the group.
While the video game industry has always recognized the potential of the horror genre for new titles, many of these games are defined primarily by their inventive use of game mechanics. Even landmark franchises such as the Silent Hill series – which, at last count, includes nine unique entries and two film adaptations – put more effort into their technological achievements than their adherence to horror film conventions. In Silent Hill games, players are required to explore each building twice: once as a rundown “real world” version of the environment and once as a nightmare version, with wallpaper peeled back to reveal a living, pulsing entity. The game’s signature fog – which limits visibility and creates an atmosphere of ethereal dread – was designed to disguise the difficulty Silent Hill’s programmers had with getting the levels to load. While the result might be aesthetically pleasing, the design is, ultimately, function over form.
There certainly are aspects of Until Dawn that are meant to show off Sony’s newest technology in the Playstation 4 – most noticeably the periodic (and difficult) scenes where players have to hold the controller perfectly still – but Supermassive Games takes every opportunity to emphasize the narrative over the gameplay. At its core, Until Dawn is a series of simple and repeated tasks. Search the environment for a missing object; press the indicated button at the correct time; choose between a pair of dialogue options to further develop the story. The power in the game comes from Supermassive Games’s Butterfly Effect system, which evolves the narrative based on the choices that you make. In one sequence, I chose to leap blindly after my character’s love interest at the first sign of danger, making that person more open to my romantic advances later in the game. It seems simple – perhaps ridiculously so – but it’s easy to develop a strong attachment to your characters when you’ve spent the last several hours nurturing individual relationships.
Even the casting decisions in Until Dawn suggest an independent horror film more than a video game blockbuster. Many horror films – especially ones meant to cash in on a recent trend in the genre – feature a mixture of barely recognizable faces with one or two rising stars. Until Dawn matches this template perfectly. You have Hayden Panettiere, a recognizable face for young audiences, playing the role of the possible final girl. You also have Rami Malek, one of the breakout stars of this past summer, serving as the game’s unsteady Mr. Body. Rounding out the cast is Peter Stormare as Dr. Hill, the creepy older character who serves as both architect and tour guide of the environment. All of this is done to match the script of Larry Fessenden, himself an independent horror filmmaker and actor. Had someone pitched this as a film, not as a video game, it is still a project that might have gotten off the ground.
And this is what might make Until Dawn the most cinematic video game experience to date. Horror films bank on their audience’s inability to control the actions onscreen. When a character descends into the basement of an abandoned cabin, we take a fatalistic satisfaction in knowing that there is no possible version of this film where the supporting character isn’t impaled near the fuse box. Even when we assume control over a character in a video game – such as the various haunted protagonists of Silent Hill — we have to follow certain steps to move the narrative forward. Until Dawn offers no such resistance. The game is designed to play slightly differently each time through, allowing Supermassive Games a chance to better fine tune the control dynamic. Each decision might move the narrative along, but it also spins the narrative off into a half-dozen possible new directions. Until Dawn demonstrates the limits necessary for the illusion of control; you don’t need to micromanage each and every possible interaction your avatar has with the environment as long as you still feel like your choices are having a long-term effect. It is a much more effective system than one that gives you total autonomy in exchange for occasionally hitting your marks.
Would this format work for non-horror titles as well? For people who don’t normally spend a lot of time with a controller, the simplistic controls of a game like Until Dawn are a big point in its favor. Outside of a few scenes where characters aim guns or snowballs at an onscreen target, Until Dawn strips away anything that gets in the way of the storytelling proper. And this approach could be applied to any genre-based narrative. Fans of detective films – who found games like L.A. Noir to spend too much time on the mechanics rather than the story – might love the opportunity to play private eye in a mystery game built on the Until Dawn engine. Most of all, though, the success of Until Dawn demonstrates a precise understanding of the importance of choice restrictions. Giving someone an endless number of choices might make for a great video game, but restricting those choices – and allowing instead for an endless number of outcomes — might be the best blend of game and movie that we’ve seen yet.