Until Dawn isn’t a horror game. Well, not really. Sure, the trappings are there: a group of attractive, careless teenagers, a creepy log cabin, a serial killer in a twisted clown mask. The lighting’s dark and moody, and the camera angles are weirdly askew. The brief section of the game shown at Sony’s PlayStation Experience (PSX) even produced a few genuine jump-out-of-your-seat shocks, particularly for viewers playing in the dark with noise-cancelling headphones on.
But scares aren’t Until Dawn’s main draw; rather, it’s the sense of choice. Look at what happened when Pete Samuels, managing director of Supermassive Games, showed off a portion of the game during the PSX keynote. As Samuels guided Sam (played by Hayden Panettiere) away from her bloodthirsty foe, he was presented with a decision: throw a vase at the lumbering attacker, or keep running. Unexpectedly, the audience started screaming, “Vase!” Samuels laughed, and then followed the crowd’s lead. Later, he had to decide between climbing through a window or hiding under a bed. The audience chose the window. Finally, Samuels defied the crowd, making Sam duck behind bookshelves instead of running away. She died immediately, and the auditorium groaned with disapproval.
The freedom to shape the narrative, not the slasher-flick aesthetic, is what makes Until Dawn an interesting project. While Samuels estimates that a single iteration of the game will take around nine hours to finish, players have been promised over a thousand different endings. As Samuels says, “Wherever you go, [the narrative is]always going to branch off down a different route. The story’s going to change and it’s going to become a different story. Your story.”
To be fair, not every decision feels important. After running through the demo on the show floor a few times, it was clear that the scenario could only end a couple of different ways, with most routes ultimately leading to the same outcome. However, the demo was only a few minutes long. According to Samuels, Until Dawn is ultimately about long-term consequences. He says that “a single decision or a mistimed action may not be fatal, but your actions could add up to deadly consequences for your character.” And once a character dies, that’s it. Samuels promises that “there’s no restart. That character is lost to your story, and your story adapts and continues.”
Managing a sprawling, branching narrative like that of Until Dawn isn’t easy, and Samuels explains that the process was particularly difficult for the cast. “The script we have to go through is fairly huge,” he said, “so they have to know it, and they have to know where their emotion was left off before they get to the next part of the conversation.” The script was written in Excel, not Final Draft, which the actors didn’t like. Because of the dynamic nature of the narrative, scenes had to be filmed numerous times to capture all of the potential emotional situations. Actors weren’t just responsible for scripted lines: Using motion capture technology, Supermassive also filmed hours of footage of the cast simply emoting – acting scared, nervous, or happy.
That attention to detail comes through in the final demo, although the character models (particularly their teeth) don’t quite live up to the quality of the animation. In terms of gameplay, Until Dawn seems split between two modes. The first is free-form exploration, with fixed camera angles and clunky controls that recall the original Resident Evil games. The second – and more exciting – format is an interactive cutscene. During these “movies” (all rendered in real-time using the custom Umbra 3 engine), the game will pause so the player can make decisions or perform context-specific actions. Supermassive even brought indie horror film director Larry Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick on board to enhance the game’s cinematic atmosphere.
Of course, there’s a limit to Until Dawn’s freedom, and a lot of the “gameplay” boils down to simply pressing “X” to select one of two choices. Supermassive is trying to make things a little more dynamic by playing with the controls. For example, if a character breaks down a door, the player must thrust the DualShock 4 controller forward. If a character needs to stay still while hiding, wobbling the controller will break his or her cover. It’s effective to a degree, but the dynamic nature of the system makes it hard to forget that you’re playing a game. You’re always paying attention to the controller, since you’re never sure which button you’ll be pressing next.
If this type of gameplay sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. David Cage’s Heavy Rain, which came out in 2010, also used context-sensitive, quick-time events to support a branching, cinematic narrative. Until Dawn might be a bigger story, but it isn’t the first. That’s why its horror veneer is so important: Heavy Rain had a lot of good ideas, but was ultimately bogged down by a slow, contemplative pace and an unsatisfying murder mystery. By adding a constant sense of dread and immediate life-or-death stakes, Until Dawn invests itself with an urgency that its predecessor lacked. It works, too. Even if the gameplay system doesn’t feel entirely fresh, it’ll be hard waiting until summer 2015 to see what happens to Sam and her friends next.
PSX Demo Footage