I avoided Until Dawn for quite a while, at first because I thought it was about zombies (I’m tired of zombies,) and afterward because I thought it was a David Cage game.
That said, spoiler warning for the rest of this article.
The early portion of the game is a homage to horror films of the ’80s/’90s. In the middle, it makes a drastic switch and becomes something more akin to a current creepypasta read.
The setting is a snowy mountain vacation home in Canada, where a bunch of upper-class Californian teens have somehow convinced their folks into letting them stay unsupervised. Three of them, Beth, Hannah, and Josh Washington, are siblings – it’s their parents’ vacation home (their father is involved in horror film-making.)
Some of the group decide to play a cruel prank on Hannah. Beth is out of the room and Josh and his best friend Chris are passed out, ostensibly from partying too hard. Humiliated, Hannah goes running out alone into the freezing cold night, but is immediately followed by her twin sister Beth. They get chased by someone (or something,) and end up falling off a cliff after attempting to cling on to one another.
Add-in the player’s first difficult choice (let Hannah fall and save Beth or let them both fall,) as well as the fact it doesn’t really matter what you do, and you’ve got a pretty good summary of the game already.
Cut to the title scene, a cool song, and one year later.
Sam, one of the teens (somewhat) involved in the prank last year, is watching a video made by Josh inviting them back to the mountain.
Did you catch that? The guy who’s inviting them all back is Josh, the brother of the two (missing, presumed dead) twins whom his friends pranked last year.
Josh is going on and on about how he knows everyone’s worried about him, but he really thinks going back to the mountain will be a good experience for them all and a fun time. And personally, as I’m watching this kid saying this stuff in his stoner-ish, California accent ‘brahhh’, but my alarm bells are going off because I’m somewhat of an
armchair detective expert on body language, and he’s shaking his head ‘no’ the entire time he’s talking about how ‘happy’ and ‘excited’ he is.
I mean, the dude’s sisters went missing last year due to a prank by the very people he’s inviting back to the mountain.
But no, everybody’s totally into it and wants to join him on the mountain so they can ‘party like f***ing porn stars, maaaaan!’ …Which they all agree to do, and somehow, their Beverly Hills’ wine-sipping parents are too loaded to care or something.
I mean, if my kids wanted to go on the same vacation that their two friends had mysteriously disappeared during only a year prior, I’d probably have something to say about that.
Like, you know.
The kids get there, realize the mansion’s dark and spooky, and predictably, don’t do anything about it and don’t stick together.
They’re attacked by a (to them) unseen force throughout the night, supposedly a ‘psycho’ and presumably the same individual who chased Hannah and Beth a year prior.
There’s even some backstory to confirm this – an old mountain hermit had threatened the Washingtons before due to their presence on ‘his mountain,’ and there are multiple Wanted posters and newspaper articles from decades before describing a deranged prison escapee with a grudge against the Washingtons.
We also get glimpses of the ‘psycho’ creeping around throughout the first third of the game that the kids do not, owing to the game’s fixed camera (more on that later.)
Now, I know that so far, this sounds more like a movie than a game, and there’s a reason for this. Until Dawn is pretty much just a really long, interactive movie. ‘Gameplay’ is down to making snap decisions with your PS4 controller and hoping you’ve picked up the right items along the way to help you.
Like I’ve said before, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and can be quite awesome if done properly. As in, has great storyline, which Until Dawn has, and L.A. Noire doesn’t.
(Believe it or not, I actually like L.A. Noire despite all the crap I give it, albeit in a really stupid way.)
Now let’s talk about the therapy portions of the game.
Yes, therapy portions.
There are some tense moments when the camera suddenly shifts to first person view, and you are talking to a therapist who looks a lot like that one guy who’s in everything.
There’s a good reason for that; the artists facial-mapped the actors for the game.
See ‘uncanny valley.’ I’ll talk more about that later, too.
Anyway, ‘you’, presumably the player, are talking to a therapist who’s asking you a bunch of questions about fear and who you love/hate within Until Dawn‘s friend group.
What these pauses in the storyline do is alter your game experience, tailoring it to be more unsettling for ‘you’, the player. Dr. Hill, ‘your’ therapist, also constantly alludes to this game ‘you’re’ playing and passive aggressively tries to dissuade ‘you’ from it.
I had hoped that the order in which I ranked my least-favorite characters to my favorite would have some impact on the plot, but it really doesn’t. The only observable differences are how ‘Dr. Hill’ reacts to you based on the character you pick as your ‘least favorite,’ making assumptions about ‘your’ personality.
For example, if you pick Matt or Mike as your least favorite, Dr. Hill will proclaim you’re just jealous; if you pick Emily, he’ll laugh and ask if she’s too ‘b****y’ for you but then tell you she’s just ‘insecure, like you,’ and if you pick Josh, Dr. Hill will state that he’s ‘beginning to understand you better.’
By the end of the game, which characters are alive and which are dead is entirely down to player choice (it’s also possible for all to die or all survive – and, surprisingly, while I originally thought I wanted everyone to live, the ‘all survive’ ending is not my favorite. See ‘fate worse than death.’)
Throughout the plot, you can play the characters as variously improving their personalities/relationships or even getting a negative character arc (there’s not a lot of likeability to start with.)
True to life, not all of the players’ choices are strictly moral, and some decisions you make will have unpredictable consequences.
Help is given in the form of ‘totems,’ collectible figures hidden along the path that can show whoever picks them up a possible outcome. Oddly, none of the characters ever comment on their newfound powers of precognition.
The branching storyline/programming aspect is referred to as ‘the butterfly effect,’ and indeed, the butterfly is a prominent motif throughout the game. You can even see from an old photograph that Hannah had gotten a butterfly tattoo (to impress Mike) shortly before her disappearance.
As the plot progresses, certain characters (i.e. Jessica,) are violently dragged away, (presumably by the ‘psycho,’) making other characters think they’re dead.
As the plot closes in and the night gets progressively scarier and bloodier, the ‘psycho’ is revealed to be none other than Josh (dun dun duuuun,) in the midst of an elaborate scheme to exact vengeance on those he considers responsible for his sisters’ fate. The genre-savvy will likely have figured this out by now, despite Josh’s grotesque ‘death’ by saw blade earlier in the game (really just a pig-guts filled mannequin.)
Josh used his father’s movie money and props to severely traumatize his friends, all while filming it for internet. If you’re familiar with this type of plot, however, you’ll realize as Mike lays into him for ‘killing Jessica’ that something else has been hunting the kids in the background – something much worse than an unwell teenager.
And yes, Josh is unwell, not just sadistic or psychopathic.
Little things about the state of Josh’s mind begin to reveal themselves through dialogue and text messages – not only has he stopped taking his medication, it’s unlikely his meds were helping him at all, as he’d been misdiagnosed with major depression for years when in actuality he had a disorder that causes psychosis, possibly schizophrenia.
This sheds new light on so much that has gone on in the game, from his first passed-out appearance (was it really simply from alcohol, an effect of his medication being wrong for him, or a combination of his meds mixed with alcohol?) to ‘your’ sessions with ‘Dr. Hill,’ now revealed to be Josh’s own hallucinations. ‘Dr. Hill’ is a manifestation of Josh’s conscience and his own self-loathing, which is why ‘Dr. Hill’ constantly discourages ‘you’ from ‘playing your game’ (Josh’s twisted game of ‘pranking’ his friends) and why ‘Dr. Hill’ acted so condescending and passive-aggressive toward ‘you.’
As the game progresses, before and after Josh’s reveal, the sessions with Dr. Hill become more and more disturbing, showcasing Josh’s deteriorating state of mind.
Dr. Hill first tells Josh what he’s done is unforgivable, then begs Josh to judge himself rather than others in an attempt to get him to make amends. Since Josh is psychotic but not a psychopath (despite what ‘Dr. Hill’ says), and if he (or ‘you’) answer in a dismissive way and say you don’t care that you’ve hurt people, Dr. Hill will berate Josh and accuse him of lying (the other option is for him to say he’s ‘so, so sorry.’)
Here’s the thing, though – Josh is revealed as the ‘psycho’ and the game’s only half over. Not to mention, he emphatically denies actually harming or killing anyone (whether the characters believe him or not and how they react is up to the player.)
Either way, everyone’s disgusted and he winds up chained down by the others, now having gone completely off the rails and blathering incoherently.
But, wait – if Josh is the psycho, then why’s scary crap still happening? It’s because, as stated before, the real monster is still out there.
And the best part is, it’s not zombies – it’s a wendigo.
Now, what’s awesome about this is that I really didn’t expect it.
Outside of creepypastas and the first season of Supernatural, the wendigo is a pretty rare horror beast, despite the fact that they’re probably more psychologically damaging to survivors than a zombie since they can mimic any voice. There’s also the fact that the way they’re created is by a person committing what many Algonquian-speaking peoples considered a deadly sin – consuming human flesh.
Wendigos are super-strong, super-fast, hold some memory of their human past, are smarter than zombies, and resemble what I assume the offspring of Gollum from ‘LotR’ and Christian Bale from ‘The Machinist’ would look like.
In short, they’re terrifying.
Does this monster seem to come out of left-field to you, too? I thought so, until more about Hannah and Beth’s fate is revealed.
The girls fell down a mine shaft. Beth died instantly, but Hannah lived with a broken leg down in that mine shaft, freezing. Starving. With Beth’s body.
HANNAH IS THE WENDIGO.
Not only that, but Hannah’s not the only wendigo on this mountain. In fact, she leads a pack of them, the specters of former miners who were caved in and resorted to cannibalism all the way back in the 1950s.
Interestingly, the discovery of all this information (or the non-discovery,) is what ultimately seals the fate of Josh.
And his fate is not a happy one, no matter which way it goes.
After stumbling through a level from Josh’s perspective featuring his own hallucinations that are far more terrifying than anything ‘real’ experienced in the game so far (although I did laugh quite a bit when he had to punch a disembodied pig’s head,) he comes face-to-face with wendigo!Hannah.
Depending on if the player has discovered enough about Beth and Hannah’s final fate, Josh will either not recognize her and get killed by her, or recognize her, at which point something of Hannah that remains remembers Josh as well. He’s then dragged off by her rather than killed.
In the epilogue, if Josh is alive, it’s revealed he’s resorted to cannibalism and beginning to change into a wendigo so that he can be with his sister.
…What a beautiful bond between brother and sister.
Now let’s talk more about the actual gameplay.
Let me reiterate; Until Dawn is not much of a ‘game.’ But it’s also not what I’d categorize as a visual novel. It’s a really long, interactive film.
The much-touted ‘butterfly effect’ could really be much wider, especially when it comes to the various endings, but I also know that a game with extremely different endings is very difficult to successfully pull off. The butterfly effect really only decides who lives, who dies, and who has a positive or negative character arc.
The art. There was a lot of to-do about this game’s art quality; it was made *only* as a next-gen for PlayStation, and it uses some pretty high-end motion and facial capture tech.
Um… I don’t like it.
Not for any artistic integrity; it’s just that the uncanny valley makes many dramatic moments hilarious to me, as I watch 3d modeled heads attempt to make expressions they were never meant to make. To be fair, I think I might be overly sensitive to things like that – no one else I’ve seen play it complains about the faces, nor do they laugh like I do when I think a lip’s gone way too far above the teeth than it should.
Maybe it’s mostly me – my dad always comments that I always immediately notice anything wrong or out of place with his and others’ appearance (there’s food on your face; you parted your hair on the opposite side; you shaved the patches differently in your beard…) In effect, I think the faces in the games are overly emotive, but I may be overly anal about faces. Who knows (and I apologize for my over-criticalness; it really is impressive.)
No, wait, seriously though.
…Never mind; I take back my apology – people who can take the uncanny valley with any level of seriousness are the weird ones.
The fixed camera is rare when it comes to modern horror games and mostly serves to keep the game as cinematic as possible. There are more non-playable cut scenes than most.
The acting in the game is superb, if occasionally strangely directed. Mike, prone to outbursts like ‘Jesus hot sauce Christmas cake!’ when startled, will give zero reaction to picking up totems and experiencing horrific premonitions, just the same as the others. Not to mention, he literally spies a wendigo through one of those viewer things you stick a quarter in at the beginning of the game and says *nothing* about it.
Players probably have the most control over Mike’s ending and character arc; he seems to change, for better or for worse, more than others. At the beginning of the game, he’s a gross frat bro willing to play sleazy pranks on people and cheat on his various girlfriends. As the game progresses, you can choose to make him a coward and a murderer or have him become the most distinctly hero-like of the eight friends, befriending a wild wolf (to be fair, half-wild; it belonged to a random hermit,) and going back alone to rescue all of his friends, even Josh. By contrast, if he shoots Emily, it doesn’t matter what he does, brave or cowardly – he’s obviously tormented by the memory and the police are sizing him up to go down for her murder.
Emily is written as one of the most unlikable protagonists I’ve ever come across, and she’s *supposed* to be that way – the game even gives you the option to shoot her in the head after Ashley and Mike mistake her for a future wendigo (they thought it was transmitted via bite a la zombie infection.) Mike and Jessica first come across as extremely unlikeable as well, although they eventually do grow on you – the only chance for a tender Emily scene is in the epilogue, and only if you make very specific choices.
Ashley seems like a cool person but very quickly can turn panicky and make rash decisions. …There’s not a lot I care to say about her, except don’t try to sacrifice her if you’re Chris.
Sam, who was practically billed as *the* protagonist in Until Dawn promotional material, is actually one of the characters you play the least. However, when you do play her she gets the best investigative bits, and careful players will be able to have her easily figure out Josh is the ‘psycho’ even before he unmasks.
Matt dies far too easily, and even if he survives, I needed more characterization. The best anyone can describe him on the various wikis is ‘shaped like a friend.’
Jessica… Jessica is often the type of character I like, one who seems one way but deep down is completely different. Unfortunately, she’s knocked out for quite a long period of play time, and while there’s nothing she does that indicates she’s as dumb as she projects (any more than the others, anyway,) there’s nothing she does to validate what’s initially suggested to be lurking beneath her ditzy exterior, either. At the epilogue, she’s shown to be in so much shock (and with possible head trauma,) that she’s rendered emotionless, eyes looking into the police-held camera with a permanent thousand-yard-stare. I gotta commend the actress for that (and since the character artists used facial mapping – commend them as well,) although I also had a hard time making sense of her accent. Is it supposed to be Californian? Midwestern? I have no idea, and I have no idea if it’s the actresses’ real accent or an attempt at something that went awry. (I could probably look her up, but… eh.)
Chris is probably the character the player will spend the most time with other than Mike. Chris is Josh’s best friend and supposed to come across as another humorous slacker-type, but throughout the game he becomes one of the more serious characters and arguably stays the sanest throughout their ordeal, despite being one of Josh’s biggest targets in his revenge scheme. Honestly, Josh himself went easy on characters like Mike, Emily, and Jessica (doesn’t mean they got it easy later in the game,) compared to his best friend, whom he makes sit in on Rube Goldberg-like death traps that Jigsaw would be proud of and forces him to make horrifying decisions (save Josh or Ashley from a saw blade; shoot himself, or shoot Ashley,) with no way out (other than the fact that none of it’s real.) It’s odd, because Chris had the least to do with Hannah and Beth’s disappearance – he was passed out with Josh at the time of the prank. However, it’s revealed that Josh despises his own self for not being there to rescue his sisters, and he may feel the same way for his best friend – ‘I should have been awake. He should have been awake.’ …It’s also possible that Josh suspects Chris of purposefully getting him hammered so that the prank could happen to begin with, but dialogue throughout the game between Chris and Ashley makes me suspect that that’s not the case.
No, a big part of the reason Chris and Ashley get the brunt of Josh’s ‘game’ is that in a twisted way, he thinks he’s doing them a *favor.* At the beginning of the game, he even alludes to Sam that ‘Chris wouldn’t tell Ashley how he felt unless he had a gun to his head.’ A more humorous way to look at it is Josh is a ‘real life’ shipper of Chris and Ashley. …If in a really dysfunctional way.
And then there’s Josh by himself.
Hoo boy, is there Josh.
He’s by far the most interesting character in the whole game, and if they only had some equivalent of Oscars for voice acting, that dude should get it.
I didn’t care for Josh at all at first.
Before his reveal as *very* mentally disturbed, he came across as a stoned addict at best and a creep at worst. His advice for what Chris should ‘do to Ashley’ freaked me out, and I actually ended up judging Chris and Sam for being friends with someone like Josh.
But by the end of the game, I genuinely felt for the kid and wanted him to get better, which unfortunately isn’t even on the table. Best-case scenario for him is he dies, otherwise he’s trapped in an enclosed mine as an inhuman monster for the rest of his life (claustrophobia is also one of his major fears.)
I gotta commend the writers for not giving in to writing what I consider ‘Hollywood crazy’ – Josh is not a hot, long-haired female that must have his mind unlocked by the protagonists for the plot to advance.
When the others become furious with him and chain him up, Josh drools, babbles incoherently at points, and has varying degrees of lucidity throughout the game. Mental illness isn’t pretty.
I will point out there was a point where Josh is slapped out of his hallucination – unfortunately for entertainment writers, mental illness doesn’t have an on/off switch, so that irked me. But the level where you play him and he’s no longer able to tell fiction from reality… wow. Wow, wow, wow. That was the scariest, most disturbing level of the whole game. If only there could’ve been some Josh-centric DLC where you play as him ‘pranking’ his friends throughout the game while he slowly becomes more and more unhinged… I’d shell out the $$$ for that.
In short, Until Dawn is a great, if flawed, experience. Play it if you can. Watch ‘Let’s Play’ videos if you can’t. You won’t regret it.