You wake groggily on the floor of the now eerily quiet cabin on the remote, snowy mountainside. Calling out for your friends, you remember how you got here—you were with your crush, Ashley, when you were drugged by a masked psychopath. Armed with only a flashlight, you journey, perhaps foolishly, out into the blizzard to find your friends. The darkness is eerie, the killer possibly lurking in the shadows ahead.
“Chris!” you hear Ashley yell from the abandoned shed that you foolishly rush into. Ashley and your best friend Josh hang by chains, a buzzing saw barreling toward them. There’s a lever in front of you, and a choice, the killer’s voice tauntingly grates across the loudspeakers. Save Ashley or save Josh.
Until Dawn is a game of choice—or so it initially appears the first time through. Billed as more of an interactive movie, similar to the Telltale games, Until Dawn tasks players with trying to save or kill eight hormonal teenagers through an evolving B-horror movie. Through your choices, everyone can live to see dawn or become eight dismembered corpses. Let’s get this out of the way: Until Dawn is a fun game. Is it flawed? Certainly, but like its inspiration, there’s something so giddy and wonderful about propelling the eight friends through a night from hell.
The story starts simple before growing into something far more elaborate. Eight friends reunite at the isolated eerie cabin a year after a prank gone wrong caused Josh’s two sisters to disappear. The friends have rallied together at Josh’s request to put the darkness behind them with a night of beer, sex, and debauchary. The story is gripping, making each of the character’s relatable beyond their archetype. The first half is particularly enveloping as a sense of dread and plenty of jump scares draw the player in building to a payoff that unfortunately doesn’t come. A mid game twist fundamentally changes the premise of the game and cleaves it two. It reminded me a lot of the Mandarin twist from Iron Man 3. It’s not that the latter half of the game isn’t fun, it’s that it feels rushed. Whereas the first half of the game played with my mind and put me in difficult situations where I had to choose what character lived or died, the second half is lacking almost entirely in that department.
The story is bolstered by likable performances and lifelike motion capture from the game’s actors, including TV actors Brett Dawson, Hayden Panettiere, and Rami Malek. Dawson elevates what should have been a despicable character as a cocky bullish jokester and turns him into a hilarious hero. Malek, currently starring in Mr. Robot, continues to show he is one of the most underrated actors in a performance that captures the raw intensity and tenderness of a teen haunted by his sisters’ disappearance. With the exception of Matt’s grating girlfriend Emily, all the characters were likable and genuine enough that their deaths left me sad. I was playing through a horror game where I wanted everyone to live.
But die, they did. Three of my characters shuffled off the mortal coil before the closing credits. I felt like I failed them. A missed button press, and Chris lost his head, never having had a relationship with Ashley. A jerk of the wrist or wrong choice a few chapters ago, and say goodbye to a favorite character. Especially in the last few chapters, the slightest error or miscalculation resulted in a bloodbath. Among my survivors was regrettably Emily, but Matt (the black guy) also lived, so yay for defying stereotypes!
The game was great the first time around when all my options and choices felt limitless, where journeying into a mine shaft could lead to certain death. But like the Telltale games, choice really is an illusion. In my first play through, I fired a hunting rifle and later found it empty when I needed it, but anticipating this on my second play through, I saved the bullet only to find the gun still empty. My choice never mattered in that moment. The gun was always going to be empty. For all its branching paths, the game really boils down to slight variations on one ending. Two characters in particular are safe for the entire game up until the closing moments. It’s when these manipulations and strings are put on display that the game loses some of its appeal. It’s really more of a personalized movie than an interactive experience, but that’s okay. Those expecting a web of different scenarios and an evolving story may be disappointed. For what it is, Until Dawn is a very fun, very entertaining throwback to B-horror movies, and like those films, to expect it to be perfect is to lose sight of what makes it special.