A lot of people don’t really know what to expect from Sony’s horror title Until Dawn. Even after playing the game for 15 minutes alongside one of its creators, I still don’t know. Maybe some of that is due to the game’s murky past: it was announced for the PS3 in 2012 (and built for PlayStation Move), went quiet for two years, and was then shifted onto the PS4 – featuring a digital Hayden Panettiere with a gravity defying towel.
What I do know, is that it has more in common with the adventure game genre than anything else, but more like the modern offerings you’ve come to expect: think L.A. Noire, Heavy Rain, or any of Telltale’s recent titles. You control a character in third person, and solve fairly unobtrusive environmental puzzles. Times of duress are composed of quick-time events, while social interactions are a largely binary affair.
The demo dropped me right into the thick of it. After a brief “Last time on Dragon Ball Z” style intro, I took control of a spoilt, whiny teen, and her typical jock boyfriend – with the action fluidly swapping between them. Accosted by a herd of angry deer while on the edge of a cliff, I had two dialogue options: try and calm my partner’s rapidly fraying nerves, or just yell at them.
The developer said they wanted a dialogue system similar to L.A. Noire’s, but without the unpredictability that plagued it – the wildly swinging emotions that the player didn’t expect. To that end, dialogue is handled by two buttons, and you’re given a keyword for the general tone of what you’re going to say, and a short sentence breaking it down further. The system totally worked in my time with it, and I never felt I was saying anything I didn’t expect to hear.
Regardless of my attempts to calm the situation down, I was still attacked. What followed was a very typical Telltale-esque quick-time event. Hover a cursor over a threat to contextually attack it, press certain buttons to climb a cliff, mash to break out of grabs – stuff like that. While not mechanically very thrilling, the framing and pacing of the scenarios was very reminiscent of 80s era slasher films – lovingly schlocky, with narrow escapes and clichés abound. Developer Supermassive Games clearly watched a lot of Friday the 13th throughout the game’s production.
The demo then moved me to an abandoned lookout tower, where our duo had to turn on the power to get a radio signal out. The puzzle wasn’t too involved, and you can begin to see the game’s motion-controlled origins here – it’s all very tactile. You hold a button to grab onto a fuse box, and then move your stick to open it, repeating similar actions to flip the switches.
Suffice it to say, getting the signal out there doesn’t really help our teens. Instead, it gives their position away, and they have to escape the tower as it burns to the ground. The demo promptly ends with a particularly gnarly death (meathook + face), but the setup around it hints at more supernatural elements that I wasn’t really expecting.
What I came away with in my time with the demo is that I never really felt like I was taking a right or wrong path. In fact, the developer told me that’s what they were aiming for: that you’re not really supposed to see the game in terms of optimal choice, but rather like you’re writing the script for a B-horror movie. The game claims to have some sort of branching narrative system (pivotal moments, dubbed Butterfly Effects), but it was impossible for me to grasp the breadth of it in such a small demo.
Until Dawn has me intrigued – and that’s a really refreshing thing to say about a big budget game. The familiar adventure game elements may not be to everyone’s liking, but they fit appropriately: as the tools required to make you feel like the writer or director of your own slasher flick.