clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Until Dawn's light gameplay and trope-filled story feel a bit too light

New, 21 comments

Strip all but the most basic of action elements from a survival horror game and what you have left may look a lot like Until Dawn.

Both times I've played through small sections of the horror game, it's felt like the powerful PlayStation 4's answer to a choose-your-own adventure.

That's less an indictment of the game than it is surprise that so powerful an engine of play might be used to thoughtfully probe the grey space between a computer generated graphics movie and, say, Call of Duty.

What concerns me is the word thoughtfully, mine, not the developers.

It remains to be seen if Until Dawn is the by-product of too many developers in the code or a deliberate attempt at introducing something unusual into the PlayStation game space.

In Until Dawn, players take on the roles of eight different characters, all people stuck on a mountain after going there to celebrate some sort of seemingly ominous anniversary.

Players will take turns controlling the characters, guiding them through a series of decisions and quick button-press actions as the pre-written story pushes forward.

The twist is that the lives of the game's characters are all in the hands of the player.

"All eight can survive or all can be dead, or any combination thereof," Victoria Miller, an associate producer with Sony Computer Entertainment explained as she walked me through the background of the Supermassive-developed title.

In this demo, I took charge of Sam.

The scene opens with Sam lying in a bathtub, listening to music, surrounded by candles. Relaxing in the tub, Sam is oblivious to the out-of-focus person wandering the bathroom behind her, until he leaves by a door, blowing out the flame on one of the candles.

After she steps out of the bath and wraps the world's most adhesive towel around her body, players are given control of Sam.

But the control is really just the chance to push Sam along the upstairs, discovering absolutely nothing of substance, and down the stairs until she finds herself in locked in a screening room. And once more the control is taking away as we're given a bit of exposition to explain that someone is after Sam and wants her dead.

Once more in control of Sam, players get a chance to make some choices, but even this enhanced control feels guided. Do you want to run from the room or do you want to throw a vase at the bad guy?

Choose the vase and you're give a second to aim and "fire" the vase at the bad guy, and then still run out the door, little changed.

Sam runs through the house, players choose which path to decide, whether to hide under a bed or jump over it. I manage to make my way to the penultimate decision without making the wrong one, before Sam is captured and the scene ends.

Had I made those last decisions correctly, Sam would have run free, changing the way the story developed forward. But the encounter would have still ended.

If the player bumbles the decision earlier in the scene, there are chances at redemption. For instance, choose to hide under the bed and you get found out. But you're also given the chance to kick the assailant's shins and run away.

The experience was very similar to the first demo I played of the game, months earlier. In that one, I took two turns guiding two characters through a house while trying to hide from the bad guy. The ending, and the decision the player is forced to make, was much more meaningful than this more recent demonstration.

This one, Miller said, was designed to show off a bit more action and be a bit more intense.

"You got a small taste of an aiming mechanic," she said. "It's used in other places in the game as well, but the game is very heavily focused on narrative and story."

Until Dawn still hasn't grabbed me, it feels too forced, and too awkwardly shoehorned between movie and game to be enjoyable, but I see some potential. Mike McWhertor's time with the game at the PlayStation Experience, left him with a much different take away: that Until Dawn could be a system sleeper hit.

The fact that the game gives players a chance to do all of the things they shout out for the victims of horror films to do, is clever. As is the deliberate, I'm told, use of so many horror tropes.

But ultimately this is a game that will live or die on the power of its story and demoing it feels increasingly like going to see a novel being released and asked to check out chapter three.

Miller acknowledged that Until Dawn isn't your typical gaming experience.

"The game is about challenging players to see if they can make the right decisions for not just one, but eight different people," she said. "The game is about challenging players to see if they can survive until dawn."