I tried out Until Dawn with some friends over my super blowout of a birthday. It is a great game and left me some ideas to mull over.
We started kind of late. We were in the phase of ‘we want to watch a movie’ but like we don’t want to have to pay attention cause we are all a little sleepy and drunk. My friend booted up Until Dawn and passed me the controller. It was exactly right for us.
He started us off just where he was at that moment. It was some bickering couple going into the woods to sleep in a cabin. Immediately, the mood and tension of the world started creeping in on us. The little innocuous choices we made here and there made us wonder what we were changing. Then someone just gets drug into the woods. Was that our fault? Was there anything we could have changed about that? Did I do that?
The game consistently had us make choices and then tell us it had updated the story to reflect that. What? I just picked up some scissors. Was that important? Will I know when to use them? What if I have them but don’t use them? What if? What if? What if?
This game is amazing for making me constantly question my choices. Every dark corner is dread-inducing and every ray of light looks like a trap. It was reminiscing of Dark Souls in that way. I felt real fear in my choices. Like, do I try and hug that dark figure running at me in the woods. Maybe they just need someone to hold.
The most astonishing thing, however, is that the game motivated me to keep playing by making me want more story. Most games I’ve played recently (I’m looking at you Dark Souls) haven’t gripped me with their storylines. I’m playing because of the mechanics. The rush of excitement from pulling off a really good attack or narrowly dodging a fireball. Until Dawn made me replay scenes just to screw with things. Like, see that herd of elk? What if I charge at them and attack one? I mean, I really don’t like this character anyway, might as well jump off this cliff and see what the story does to make up for that.
This really hit me as interesting. Most games make your choices pretty useless. Whether I slay the terrible dragon or join him, the outcome usually means the same. Or maybe because I took this quest choice I get a slightly different flavor text the next time I talk to a villager. Until Dawn pays out real hard-hitting storyline changes depending on your actions.
This means that while the story may not be the deepest or richest narrative I’ve ever witnessed, it was engaging. It means that while the actors weren’t always 100% believable in their line delivery paired with their digital reaction (there was some disconnect here and there), I still got a jump anytime something bumped in the night. This game took a bag of slightly bland ideas but made them into a superbly crafted narrative dish.
It reminded me of old FMV games where they tried to recreate a movie for you in a game. The difference being that Until Dawn succeeds at this. Our little assembly of sleepy half-drunks got enthralled in the game. They wanted to keep pushing us to the next scene. They wanted to know the mystery. We cheered our favorite characters and booed our least favorite. We put their fates to a vote. It was an entirely different experience than watching a movie or playing a game alone. Just try that with Phantasmagoria.
Slowly, our party dwindled. Many of us had work the next day. Around six in the morning, with the sun rising, we finally ended the game. We’d made a complete run but could only save two or three of the characters. We ended up watching cartoons while I got a little sleep in before I had to leave. Even now, though, I’m thinking through what we could have done differently. What we should have tried. What if we had… or what if I tried… what if?
That to me is what good art is about. That is what good games are about. It’s not the rush we feel while playing but the questions it stirs in us for later. It’s the enduring creative spark that keeps us asking questions long after the credits have rolled. That’s gaming.
Thanks for reading. Here is some of my favorite YT’er playing the opening of Until Dawn. I highly recommend you grab a copy though and play with any, all, or most of your friends when you can.