Some bad games are really fun to play. Games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls and Gears Of War are ridiculous and over the top and sometimes just straight out bad, but something about them still makes them entertaining to play. I expected Until Dawn to be one of these — but as it turns out, Until Dawn is not a bad game.
The first time I encountered Until Dawn as a demo at Gamescom in 2014. I had gone into the Sony booth to play The Order (which ended up being a complete disappointment) and afterwards was ushered through to the Until Dawn demo without realising such a thing even existed. The demo was downright terrible — the characters were whiney and unlikeable, the scares were predictable and cheap and the story didn’t grab me. It was awful — but it stuck with me. Good or not, Until Dawn was every tropey horror movie ever, in game format, and I knew it was going to be fun to ridicule if nothing else.
A bit more than a year later, the game was released, becoming one of the few titles I actually bought on release date this year. To begin with, the game didn’t disappoint. Each character was a complete stereotype and the script was hilariously campy. Seriously, this game includes gems like “Jesus hot-sauce Christmas cake”, “fuck nuggets” and “hashtag oh my god there’s a freaking ghost after us”. The start of the game is full of cheap jump scares and classic horror tropes, and it’s enjoyable for the same reason as people still go to see the eighth sequel to Nightmare On Elm Street.
There’s a point in the game that’s impossible to define where, inexplicably, you start caring about the characters. It scares you with the possibility that the dumb jock you hated from the first five minutes is going to die and suddenly you realise — you don’t want the dumb jock to die. This realisation coincides with the point that the plot is turned completely upside down, which is only more effective due to the fact that nothing in any of the pre-release marketing material and hype even so much as hinted at the direction the game ended up going in. I do love a good surprise.
Until Dawn has stakes. Make one wrong move — whether it’s a wrong conversation option, a missed quick time event or even just exploring in the wrong area — and any of the characters you’ve suddenly become attached to are liable to die at any moment. Unlike most games, you can’t actually fail — at least not in the traditional way. Even if you mess up and people die, the game keeps on going towards the inevitable end. Even if everyone dies, you’ll still finish the game — it just might not be the ending that you expected.
The thing that Until Dawn got the most right, however, was the butterfly effect system. I’ve played a lot of games that sell heavily based on the idea that your in-game choices matter. Dragon Age, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, every Telltale Game. Most of them seem amazing and responsive — until you go through your second playthrough and realise that most of the ‘choice’ you made were just a shallow illusion, and then game actually plays out in much the same way. Until Dawn can actually be played as an entirely new experience twice, three times, even more. Many of the things that change the path of the story are the tiniest little decisions or conversation options that you wouldn’t think would matter. It really is a butterfly effect.
It’s not a long game, but I think that’s one of the things I like about it. You can sit down in a couple of sessions with friends and get through this game in less than a week. So many other games I’ve started this year have gone unfinished because of the huge investment of time needed, while I’ve played through Until Dawn at least three times. The short length also means that the developers could put a lot more breadth into the divergent pathways in the game’s story.
Going back to that awful demo I played, I’ve since realised the segment they chose to ship as a demo was probably one of the weakest in the game, at least as a stand-alone scene. Thinking about it since then, there’s really no one part of the game that, when played on its own, would accurately capture the appeal of Until Dawn. It’s a game that has to be enjoyed in its entirety — ideally more than once. This time last year, I thought Until Dawn was going to be a hilariously terrible game. I was very, very wrong.