Friday, December 25, 2015

Until Dawn, and Then Some

Ashley (Galadriel Stineman) and Chris (Noah Fleiss) find time to fall in love between fending off monsters and murderers.

It’s winter. You and six friends are vacationing at a friend’s remote cottage when tragedy strikes: two of your friends, twin sisters, disappear in the woods under suspicious circumstances, never to be seen again. Exactly one year later, their older brother invites you all back to the cottage to carry on partying in spite of his sisters’ absence, claiming he’s “over it.” Do you go? Most would politely decline, recognizing such a bizarre request as being, at the very least, in poor taste and, at worst, a cry for help. Good horror stories are not built on common sense, however, and Until Dawn’s seven protagonists unanimously pull on their winter gear and march up the mountains of Alberta to indulge their grieving buddy, unaware of the danger waiting for them.

In addition to Josh Washington’s (Rami Malek) enormous winter cottage, the game’s setting of Blackwood Mountain also houses an abandoned sanatorium and an intricate network of crumbling mine tunnels beneath the surface. It is only accessible by a decrepit cable car. Undeterred by these facts, Sam (Hayden Panettiere), Mike (Brett Dalton), Chris (Noah Fleiss), Ashley (Galadriel Stineman), Emily (Nichole Bloom), Jessica (Meaghan Martin), and Matt (Jordan Fisher) arrive toting all kinds of baggage, both emotional and literal, in the pursuit of fun. In the year since the twins’ disappearance, power couple Emily and Mike have split up and are now each sporting new significant others, making up the lion’s share of the game’s early drama (also justifying a comedically long journey for Mike and new girlfriend, Jess, to accommodations at a guest house for the sake of keeping the peace). The benign horror of bickering exes quickly gives way to madmen creeping through the estate with knives and flamethrowers, and terrifying monsters stalking our heroes from the shadows. How do these factors interplay and who is responsible? Some final act revelations are obvious in a textbook slasher film way but some come totally out of left field and are either the story’s weakest feature or saving grace, depending on who you ask.

One of the most novel aspects of Until Dawn is its impressive motion capture and voice acting. Gone are the days of Stephen Hawking caliber voice overs à la 2001’s Fatal Frame (Sorry Stephen). British game developers Supermassive Games took painstaking efforts to make their project resemble a movie as much as possible. The twelve human characters in Until Dawn are each carbon copies of the actors who recorded all of their motion capture footage and dialogue. Likenesses are so precise that seeing Rami Malek in Mr. Robot or Nichole Bloom in Shameless after playing them in Until Dawn is now briefly jarring. As the game relies almost entirely on dialogue and cinematics, this attention to detail is crucial and elevates Until Dawn from being an entertaining “point and click” style interactive adventure to the new standard for its genre.

His hand forced by a masked madman, who will Chris choose to kill: love interest Ashley or best friend Josh (Rami Malek)? 

It seems safe to say that the effort and funding Supermassive Games poured into Until Dawn’s graphics and performances came at the expense of gameplay mechanics. Actual video game playing is minimal and comprised mainly of quick time events (timed on-screen button prompts that inform the controlled character’s actions), exploration, and collecting items. While the characters can obtain weapons, concepts like ammo, condition, and inventory management are non-existent and items can only be used when prompted. While this may be an unusual setup for typical horror survival games, it’s common to “choose-your-own-adventure” style interactive dramas and maintains the emphasis on Until Dawn’s complex and winding story. In fact, one of the main highlights of Until Dawn is its replayability. Each of the eight playable characters can live or die depending on the player’s choices. Thanks to a clever autosave function that prevents players from having multiple files that branch off into multiple exclusive plot lines (sometimes gamers are too clever for their own good), replays are not only worthwhile but also necessary to uncover the entire story and all its relevant collectibles. Whatever way your personal game file goes, regardless of who lives or dies, Until Dawn weaves a captivating and coherent story, a rarity among its peers.

Without spoiling the ending for anyone, one of the game’s biggest criticisms is the secondary plot introduced in the game’s latter half. Here, Until Dawn spirals away from being a cut-and-dry tale of human revenge into something altogether different and unexpected. The “B” story, if you will, might not be to everyone’s taste but, as a veteran of campy horror, I loved everything about it. It was unexpected, outrageous, and pure horror story cheese. Much like Joss Whedon’s cult hit, Cabin in The Woods, Until Dawn’s disparate parts are a satisfying mix of horror tropes that keep the story from becoming predictable, satisfying a medley of scary story cravings like the salty sweetness of a peanut butter cup. While this additional plot thread can only be described as “snooker loopy,” I wouldn’t change a thing.

All in all, Until Dawn’s focus on storytelling is its ultimate strength. Minimal action and combat sequences make it (relatively) laid-back fun for even the most seasoned gamers but, more importantly, it’s the perfect “gateway game” to more challenging horror-survival fare like the Resident Evil , Fatal Frame, or Silent Hill franchises. For anyone looking to indoctrinate a curious but reluctant partner, friend, or relative into the world of gaming, Until Dawn is the perfect starting point as it’s designed well enough to maintain interest without being frustrating or stressful. Furthermore, the game is as enjoyable to watch as it is to play; for gamers without a Playstation 4 (Until Dawn is exclusive to this console), I highly recommend The Scary Game Squad’s Let’s Play stream found on YouTube. Choosing the Xbox One is unfortunate but no one should be excluded from Until Dawn’s “game-changing,” totally killer experience.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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