In Until Dawn, British indie outfit Supermassive Games look set to deliver an interactive – and authentic – teen slasher flick. That’s certainly the impression the upcoming survival horror title left me with when I finally got my hands on a playable version at Gamescom 2015. During the demo, I played a brand new scene involving a whiny adolescent girl, a toppling tower of death and a flock of strange reindeer. While the episode characterised its central protagonist, Emily, as an annoying hindrance, it still managed to remain gripping throughout, with tension, ridiculous folly and stressful decision-making.
At its core, Until Dawn takes the form of an interactive movie, in which difficult choices must be made in order to help a group of teenagers survive the night at a frozen cabin amongst the wilderness. The demo began with a quick flashback to get players up to speed on what has been happening in-game up until the playable portion. This is where we got a feel for the two main characters: Matt and Emily, who were decidedly immature from the outset.
Matt became insanely jealous after he viewed the latter giving another guy a hug in the snow, while Emily complained in an melodramatic fashion about almost everything within the demo, from the cold, to a light being switched on. These negative characterisations therefore presented me with an odd sensation: maybe their deaths would be a welcome relief? It would certainly put an end to Emily’s constant fretting, but perhaps their bothersome portrayal is fitting for a game inspired by ’80s horror films. Thinking back, are there really any Friday the 13th movies with likeable characters? Not really; they are all essentially benign, fleshy fodder for their murdering monster. Thus, it is fair to assume that each character’s flawed design is the first of Until Dawn’s many authentic horror movie tropes.
Other such genuine instances occurred through a number of jump scares and ridiculous ideas that were obviously going to end miserably. For example, both Matt and Emily make their way towards a rickety tower, where they proceed to lock themselves on top of it with no means of escape. They then begin firing flares into the night sky in order to alert someone to their position for help; Emily even hopes that someone friendly is going to come to their rescue. Oh Emily… what a sweet, misguided girl. These moments created suspense, and almost broke the fourth wall, as I was left knowing the characters’ fate before they did, and began internally pleading them to stop ticking horror movie checkboxes; I was left willing them to survive despite their ineptitude. They failed to listen to my desires, and soon were plummeting through the air as the tower crumbled and burst into flame at the hands of a screeching creature. This beast, along with a number of glowing-eyed reindeer, proved that supernatural elements play a key part in Until Dawn’s villainous presence. So far, we had only seen a humanoid clown-like killer chasing down the teens, but now, he is more than likely going to possess unexplainable abilities of terror, such as the teleportation and unwavering stamina of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. This is another key facet that presents Until Dawn’s fantastic homage to horror.
The tension created while escaping from such supernatural forces comes from the split-second choices that have to be made. During the opening sections, the aforementioned reindeer corner the heroes upon a thin cliff line in a moment of unsettling intent. Matt is then forced over the edge after the deer begin their charge, and must manoeuvre his way across the rock face in order to regain his footing. Button prompts must be hit as they appear on screen, but the timeframe for them is slight. When the stakes are so high for each character, these small instances can be strained, to say the least. I wouldn’t want to miss out on compelling story content through a simple mistimed bash of the square button.
Everything about Until Dawn’s choice system made me care about the characters the more I played. I know that in the beginning, the deaths of Emily and Matt were appealing, but by the end, their last-minute and frantic decisions moved me. At one point, I had to choose an element of Emily’s personality to manifest itself while talking on the radio to a possible saviour; I couldn’t help but proudly smile as she confidently spoke of their need of aid, instead of panicking wildly. The depth of choice, from simplicities to personality changing moments, enables Until Dawn to progress its narrative and characterisations organically through playable action throughout the game.
While the teens in this demo began as annoying and frankly immature, their scared demeanour caused my callous heart to melt. I started to care about their lives in a way that I hadn’t felt before. As Emily tragically plunged to her death below the crushing wreck of a tower, I couldn’t help but shed an imaginary tear for her lost soul. If Until Dawn contains more moments like these, I will be extremely happy.