If there’s one thing that can’t be said about me, is the expression early adopter. In so many cases I got into a book/movie/tv show years after it first came out, and this time is no different. But this time, at least, I managed to dodge all kind of spoilers and I played the game as if I bought it on day 0.
The piece of media I’m talking about is Until Dawn, a narrative-driven game from Supermassive Games that came out in 2015. I told you, I can be so slow at times. Or, since we’re talking about videogames, I lag behind. I’ve been willing to play it for years, because I’m a huge fan of games with a strong story component, and I thought and hoped the choice-based narrative implied a more relaxing gameplay.
I’m writing this piece right after finishing the story for the first time, and I guess I’ll replay a bit of my choices to see how the story finale changes because of this. But right now I needed to talk about it the way I need to talk about any experience that entertains me and makes me feel something.
The story is the typical one you expect from teenage horror movies. A bunch of teenagers gather at a house lost in the mountains on top of a mine, one year exact after the death of two of their friends in that same house. What could go wrong, right? Especially if you add a snowstorm and a few electrical faults to the mix. And yes, there’s no signal at the house.
If I hadn’t had a PS4 controller in my hand, it could very well have been the kind of movie I enjoyed watching back when I was younger (who am I fooling, I still like them, I’m just much harder to please). Ominous atmosphere, premonitions, teenage drama, inexplicable events…everything makes the story enjoyable as a movie.
Thing is, it isn’t a movie: the player has to face a lot of decisions during the game, and these decision will affect the following part of the story. A few of them will have little to no effect, but many other will drastically alter the story and the relationship between the characters.
The first few chapters are quite uneventful, and serve the purpose to set the tone and the dynamics between the characters. I have to admit I gave in to temptation and played to increase the friction between the eight protagonists, even though I found out later in the game it might not be the best strategy. The aim of the game, after all, is to save as many of them as possible, and the chances are higher if they remain in good terms with each other. But I just couldn’t help it, the majority of them sounded so unpleasant that I considered killing them all as an option.
But then the scary stuff happened, and they suddenly became better people, because they began doing something they hadn’t been doing up to that point: being nice to each other and working as a team, setting aside their grudges. They still had the suicidal tendency to split up in singles or in small groups when exploring the house and its surroundings, but I think that’s a cliché of the genre that will never be dropped. Especially because movies would last much less and would be much less scary if the protagonists didn’t split up.
This critique about THE horror genre trope isn’t the point of this article, though, so let’s move on. In chapter 4/5, the tension really picks up, and that’s when the player understands that their actions have a big impact on the game. I don’t know if that was the case for you as well if you played the game, but that’s the moment when I felt the tension going through the roof as I was playing. Tension, and a kind of fear.
The fear wasn’t induced by the story or by its setting (even though they both were awesome and perfectly executed), but from my being fully aware that the fate of the characters was all in my clumsy hands, and that the slightest mistake was enough to kill them and doom all the other characters. This sounds incredible since I’ve just said I couldn’t stand the majority of them, but it felt like my duty to end the game on a good note. Like all of them began to understand that they were in this together, and their only hope of making it through was to stick together, I understood that keeping them alive was my best option. The game seemed to suggest it with many of the choices it offered the player, too. If this isn’t positive immersion, then I don’t know what that is.
I finished Until Dawn in less than a week because I was curious about the mystery surrounding the house, the mines and the sanatorium, I couldn’t stop playing it. The mechanic of exploration plus choices and some quick-time events really made it easy for me to get lost in it. But I know one of the reason I went through it so quickly is that I couldn’t wait to play it again and see how choosing a different path in one of the big decisions would affect the ending (the big ones are easy to spot). While I played it, all sort of questions played in my head. What happens if I really end up killing them all? Will I be able to save them all this time around? Is there anything that can’t be prevented from happening?
I’ve been wondering about the role of interactivity in storytelling, and also did a bit of study about that, but for the most part it was in a theoretical way: either “passive” media (choose your own adventure books as a kid, Netflix’s “Bandersnatch” a few years ago), or videogames that didn’t give too much of a choice (a few of them offered rewards for not killing enemies and stuff like that). Until Dawn, on the other hand, was the first time I felt my actions having a tangible impact on the story, and that was what made it special. Needless to say I’ve already bought “Man of Medan” and plan to complete all the Dark Pictures Anthology.
I love to be proven right in general, but when it happens while I’m also having a great time, well, that’s really priceless.
Did you play the game? What feelings did it give you? Please let me know in the comment, I’m so curious about the impact that such games has on people.