Ever since owning a next-generation console, I’ve been waiting patiently for a game that really feels next-generation. Banner titles like Destiny, GTA V, and Bloodborne are essentially higher-poly versions of previous titles, and don’t feel different enough to merit the label. But Supermassive Games’ unique interactive slasher film Until Dawn may have broken the next-gen barrier for me - and not just because of its graphics.
Playing like a Telltale game on a hundred times the budget, Until Dawn not only renders out peerless graphical fidelity, but does so in the name of performance and drama. It’s a character-driven adventure game in the “interactive movie” mould - in this case, an interactive slasher flick. Cobbling together game mechanics from all its peers, while adding some of its own, Until Dawn at its best is nothing short of breathtaking.
The greatest strength of Until Dawn is its adherence to its genre. Right from the prequelly opening sequence, it’s clear Supermassive had experts (maverick horror director Larry Fessenden and sound designer Graham Reznick) on board. The story concerns a group of teens (check) gathering to party (check) in a house in the woods (check), one year after their friends died there in mysterious circumstances (big check). Cut up into episodes, the story offers palpable atmosphere, good scares, and a surprising amount of laughs, though it descends into truly silly, supernatural territory in its second half. Bizarrely, it’s framed by scenes featuring Peter Stormare as a psychologist speaking directly to the player - the one narrative element that routinely jars.
Through Until Dawn’s motion capture work, Supermassive have created a cast of characters that feels believable both in performance and visual quality. The motion capture is SO good, in fact, that it dips further into Uncanny Valley territory than most games (think Polar Express quality). Characters hover between the Valley and surprising believability, with moodier moments playing better than big dramatic scenes.
“Moody” describes Until Dawn’s cinematography and environmental design as well. Without an open world to worry about, Supermassive were able to pay attention to the finer points in character and environment. This is probably the most beautifully detailed game I’ve played on the PS4, full of tiny touches that delight and surprise. The cool lighting and restrained camera work evoke the classic ‘80s horror the game is so transparently in love with, with many scenes shrouded in snow, mist, or dust. It’s exceptionally well-shot.
But all those polygons would be for nought if the game didn’t function. Luckily, particularly for horror fans, it does. Telltale games are the best comparison point, but Until Dawn has some unique elements of its own. Its optional motion controls, for example, swing between irritating and ingenious. Rotating the controller to make your character look at things is awkward. But the “Don’t Move” quick-time prompt is as perfect a horror game mechanic as I’ve ever seen, requiring you to hold your controller as still as possible in times of extreme tension (though it’s introduced innocuously, through a little, pattable squirrel). The controls are secondary, though, because where Until Dawn is all about affecting story, and more importantly, affecting character.
From its opening titles to its emphasis on totems and premonitions, Until Dawn constantly reminds you that your actions shape its story. It’s less about challenge or “winning,” and more about determining how the story plays out. Some choices are minor; some less so - and you don’t always know which is which. Decisions that seem trivial in the moment may have devastating (or hilarious) repercussions later on. But though Supermassive plainly wants you to replay Until Dawn multiple times, the feeling of choice is, to an extent, an illusion. As with any game, the developers can only program so much variation, so some choices merely affect texture and colour, not storyline. What felt more important than whether characters live or die to me was how they developed along the way.
Which is why it’s a good thing Until Dawn is driven more by character than plot. Its reckless teens, indistinguishable at first, communicates their personalities based on how you play them. Depending on your choices, characters become more fully fleshed-out or remain cardboard cliches. Though each character is introduced with a set of onscreen descriptors, your choices change their traits and relationships, all tracked on the game’s gorgeous pause screens. That emphasis on relationships is important, given how frequently your control swaps between characters. Telltale’s “[Character] will remember this” system is taken to a new extreme in Until Dawn’s web of interconnected character loyalties. And of course, playable characters can die without interrupting the story. This is a slasher, after all.
Until Dawn succeeds in its face-first plunge into horror tropes, through knowing when to play it straight and when to be gigglingly self-aware. It’s also possible the video game setting makes horror’s detachment from reality more acceptable to the mind. Regardless, Until Dawn has a unique relationship to cliche, thanks to interactivity. Some play options embrace genre cliche; others subvert it. The characters can be as smart or dumb as you want, within the game's parameters. Finally, you can make the choices you wish slasher characters would make, subverting tropes while also totally indulging in them. It’s an exceptionally clever approach.
Between its graphics, its storytelling, and its character-driven gameplay, Until Dawn represents many of the things that truly excite me about this generation of gaming. It’s extremely high technology being used for drama and narrative purpose. Legitimately scary, slyly funny, and genre-smart, it overcomes its faults by refining existing mechanics and serving up one of the slickest games on the market. I look forward to the inevitable sequels, especially the 3D one, the one set in space, and the one set within Supermassive Games itself.