INSOMNIA

Until Dawn (2015, PS4)

By Christian Selbrede / January 20, 2016

People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark.

Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

Luke 17:27


Just as in the Biblical horror story, Until Dawn begins with merrymaking and a reckless existentialism that suddenly comes face to face with terrible catastrophe. When it comes for us too, will we be able to rely on ourselves? That seems to be the question at the heart of the game, and the answer, only arrived at by actually playing, is a humbling one.
   You might think you’re bright enough to survive such a disaster were it to happen to you. You might even think you can help your friends out of it alive too. To anyone delusional enough to actually believe this, I recommend playing this game. As Jesper Juul says in The Art of Failure, "Through fiction, we can feel that we are smart and successful, and stories politely refrain from challenging that belief. Games call our bluff". It’s this troublesome quality that, perhaps, constitutes the greatest strength of the medium, cutting straight to the heart of virtuous art.
   Virtue consists of action. And just as James described the word of God as a mirror, so does Juul describe games as "a mirror in which I can see my everyday behavior reflected" that "tells us that we are flawed and deficient". Quite peculiar, wouldn’t you say? Who’d have thought that videogames could assume such a Biblical form? And yet, here it is, plainly stated. It’s really not so strange though if you stop to consider the progression of the artform and where it’s heading, nevermind those fighting to suppress it. It was always ever going to be a religious art, and since it deals directly in the art of creation, modeled after the work of the Supreme Creator, it was impossible for it to be otherwise. For "this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith". And so playing a videogame has very obvious parallels to hearing the word of God (now the religious zeal of certain gaming subcultures starts to make a whole lot more sense). But once we’ve heard the word, now what? We do not remain hearers only, but doers also. Therein lies true maturity and liberty.
   But liberty presupposes the possibility for failure, and there is no shortage of possible failure in Until Dawn. And not the kind that can we laugh at as the game says "just kidding" and reloads a checkpoint from 30 seconds prior. No. There are grave consequences to failure here, the likes of which we rarely see enough of. In fact, I’d say that Until Dawn might well have the best implementation I’ve ever seen of genuine failure mechanics in a videogame. It makes wiping a save file look like child’s play in comparison.

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   Now that all sounds good, but I know what you’re thinking. It also sounds pretty serious. What if the game starts making unreasonable demands? It’s not going to be “unfair” is it? First of all, it’s a horror game. Where is it written that a horror game needs to play fair? But rest assured, rarely are the failures in Until Dawn reducible to a single misstep or failed button press like in Dragon’s Lair or a Telltale QTE. The game is far too harsh to allow its players to fall back on such a tired excuse, despite the admitted prevalence of QTEs. But of all the failures I experienced in the game, the responsibility always fell strictly on me and were easily preventable had I paid just a little more attention, or thought more clearly about a decision. Until Dawn doesn’t primarily test your finger dexterity, but rather how well you can think on your feet. This is how you redeem a QTE, by adding a mental component, as opposed to the strictly physical button bashing, which we’ve long since stopped failing at.
   But replaying Until Dawn is an impossibility. As the credits roll, the survivors (if any) are being interviewed by the police to find out what happened that night. In a rarity for videogames, as one of the characters confesses to the terrible trauma, it actually reflects our own experience of the night’s events. We feel something comparable to what the character is feeling at that moment, distressed, knowing that we’ll have to live with the results of our actions. It would be an impossible betrayal to try and change the game’s final outcome for my own comfort, for that seems to me the only reason to replay it. Even if I did, I can’t imagine it would bring much comfort. My first time through will always be the one I remember. The others are just playing pretend.
   Surprisingly enough, what makes the whole, ingenious game work so well is its multiple protagonists. This means that if you’re playing as someone and get killed, the game doesn’t stop. It keeps going, branches the narrative, places you in someone else’s shoes, and dares you not to make the same mistake twice. As if it would be that easy. There’s such a rich variety to the game’s encounters, environments, and decisions, you’re not likely to be any more prepared for the next potential fatality after having already lost one of your friends. It prevents mastery in a way that brilliantly heightens the tension and the terror. Your only hope is to pay close attention and immerse yourself completely in the world, searching it and pouring over every detail in hopes of uncovering something that might save you. And the great thing about it is that if you look hard enough, you’ll find it.
   You’ll also find mystical totems that offer brief glimpses into a possible future of many. Some of them show something good happening. Others show awful things happening. I was divided on this when I first saw it. On the one hand, it felt out of place. On the other, it gives the player a precognizance comparable to what can be gained via quicksave abuse, but only gives it to the player on the developers’ terms, i.e. through a glass darkly. That seemed to me an acceptable compromise, especially since these totems are optional and not at all harmless. Some of them can drive you mad trying to figure out what they’re trying to say. So quicksaves are out, and the dreaded autosave will seal your fate forever. If that makes you nervous, the totems are all the help you’re going to get.
   And you will be nervous while playing this game. Every action feels dangerous. Even the unusually frequent climbing QTEs seem to suggest a horrific fate for failure. Trust me, you do not want to call this game’s bluff. Its masterfully crafted atmosphere will help see to that. As you progress further and further, conquering one extreme after another, it can feel almost miraculous that you’ve managed to survive for as long as you have, with the ever lurking fear that death is around every corner.
   It isn’t frustrating. It’s terrifying. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played before. Supermassive Games have done nothing less here than create the first great modern adventure game.

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   We’ve had our share of great adventure games before, but it’s about time that the twenty-first century started producing some of its own. The late ‘90s gave us masterpieces that cast their line so far into the future that we still haven’t caught up with most of them yet. Thankfully, Until Dawn steers the genre back in the right direction, with all the major pieces back in place including a richly branching narrative, meaningful consequences, a real-time world, state of the art graphics and sound, and a compelling scenario. The real-time component (surviving until dawn) is weak though, hardly comparable to the likes of The Last Express. But hey, at least there’s a trace of it here. As the studio grows, and hopefully more developers begin tackling this challenge, real-time worlds are bound to assume their former glory. Hopefully by then, Supermassive will have mastered VR, which it’s diving into with the highly intriguing Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and also overcome their reliance on QTEs. Then we’ll really be firing on all cylinders!
   It’s a crying shame though, a real crying shame, that this wasn’t released for PC. The game cries out at every corner for a machine capable of running it in its fullest glory, and the PS4 often struggles under the load. Understandably so. It’s a gorgeous game, with some of the most life-like characters I’ve seen outside of an FMV. And the animations, sound and music are altogether stunning. It’s a technical marvel, and it manages to breathe life into the (now over two year old) console in much the same way that Killzone: Shadowfall, inFAMOUS Second Son, and The Order: 1886 did. You have to give it to Sony. They sure know how to make their console sing.
   But it would have all been for naught if the game had lousy characters and a terrible plot. Thankfully, Supermassive realized what their game demanded and filled it with a great cast and terrific performances. The superb animation work really brings out the best in these actors. I loved the wild, erratic motions of Dr. Hill, the doltish nodding of Mike, and all the different little, authentic movement details throughout. Everything about it feels so alive! Now some of these guys might get on your nerves at first, but not in a way that suggests a shoddy production, but rather in the sense that if you knew this person in real life, you’d probably never want to hang out together. Even still, when catastrophe strikes, such thoughts go out the window as you try as hard as you can to ensure everyone gets out alive.

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   As hostile an environment as it is, there were many powerful moments of overwhelming beauty that knocked the breath right out of me, reminding me of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter only set during a winter night. The fixed camera perspectives allow for some truly mesmerizing shots that I simply couldn’t leave without pausing and capturing. These moments also reminded me of the many awe-inspiring vantage points in MGS5, but of course, lessened here somewhat by missing the tantalizing possibility of free exploration unique to open worlds. Until Dawn is nonetheless quite a sight to behold. Even something as simple as walking through the snow at night, with the soft crunch underfoot, fills the air with an icy thrill at what’s to come, each step more uncertain than the last, in a setup reminiscent of the infamous walk through the fog from Silent Hill 2. It completely draws you in.
   If there’s one thing that I would have done away with, it’s the butterfly notifications that appear whenever the narrative branches. Telltale had the good sense to allow you to disable the “will remember that” popups in their games, so why didn’t Supermassive do it here? It can be very distracting, and it seems like it was an oversight based on the assumption that people wanted butterfly explosions flipping out in the corner to tell them the game’s doing something significant. But it’s not necessary. We already know enough about the Butterfly Effect both from the in-game conversations and from our expectations of the genre. No need to constantly hit us over the head with it.
   But now that I’ve finished Until Dawn, I want more. And not just horror either. Although everything about Until Dawn is uniquely suited for a horror game, the end result being a beautiful harmony most designers can only dream of, I’d love to see the ideas here expanded out beyond horror and possibly even merged into other genres (like we’re already beginning to see with Uncharted 4). Now wouldn’t that be interesting? Having played Until Dawn, the possibilities for the future seem more endless and exciting now than ever.

Until Dawn is Insomnia's 2015 Game of the Year.

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