You can imagine, then, that I was really fucking excited for Until Dawn, a survival/adventure horror game that emphasizes story, character interaction, exploration, and decision making.
The plot features a setup that's straight from the early '80s heyday of the slasher flick: Ten friends spend the weekend at a remote mountain lodge, but after a prank goes awry, two of the party members end missing and presumed dead. A year later, the remaining eight friends return to the lodge for another weekend, but guess what? They're not alone. Yep, it seems there's a masked killer on the loose. Go figure!
When dawn finally comes, the number of survivors remaining is up to the player. You're frequently faced with choices, from seemingly insignificant ones (do you give a sincere or a snarky response to an innocuous question?) to ones that can immediately result in life or death for a character (the killer is chasing you, do you run or hide?). Anyone who's ever yelled at the screen during a horror movie will delight in taking control of characters normally deemed moronic...and they'll find out how damn difficult it is to make a split-second decisions when you're in a panic.
Once the game gets rolling, it doesn't stop. The train is inexorable, and it chugs along...until dawn. There is no going back if you make a wrong choice or if you miss a clue whilst exploring, and you can only live (or not live, as the case may be) with your decisions. While some mistakes are obvious, the game will tell you what "butterfly effect" an earlier action has had. You know, like maybe that snarky response of yours hours earlier means that someone isn't exactly rushing to come to your aid now.
The characters, as you might expect, are also straight out of early '80s horror: there's the jock, the jokester, the mean girl, the probably final girl, the horny couple, etc. Before the action begins, you've got to wade through some dopey dialogue, and I admit I found myself saying "I don't care if any of these assholes makes it through the night." After all, most of the victims in a generic slasher flick are just there to be killed. If you can tolerate them before that, great...but chances are there are some you can't wait to see die just so they'll shut up.
But I'll be damned if everyone didn't grow on me during Until Dawn. I'm not saying the characters end up more than the archetypes they start out as, or that they ever have, you know, depth. But listen: when you are tasked with seeing a character through a particularly grueling sequence of events, you become very invested in their survival. I was shocked when I realized that the character I liked the least ended up being the one I was rooting for the most. Seriously, early on I was thinking that I'd try to get her killed intentionally I hated her so much. Her personality never really underwent a change, but damn, she endured so much that I wanted her to live. Ultimately, she didn't make it and it was sort of devastating, for the interactive nature of the game had us buddied up. I fucked up, and she died. As active participants, players bear a responsibility in Until Dawn that they don't in passive entertainment such as Friday the 13th. For a lifelong horror fan, it's a unique, terrific experience.
Gameplay is accessible even to those new to video games. Yeah sure, you need to have fast reactions much of the time, but it's generally little more than matching onscreen button prompts, moving a stick in one direction or another, or–in the most nerve-wracking sequences–not moving the controller at all because doing so will give away your location.
Until Dawn is frequently beautiful to look at, and also frequently very strange to look at. The odd mix of motion capture and animation often dips low into uncanny valley, leaving characters looking more like creepy robots than actual people. (It doesn't help when characters are made to resemble their familiar real-life counterparts, such as actors Peter Stormare and Hayden Panettiere.) More often than not, however, your mouth will be agape at the visuals in, like, a good way. And also because of the gore. Oh yes, there's enough blood and gore here to do Tom Savini proud.
The story twists and turns, hitting plenty of beloved genre tropes and touchstones, and the horror pedigree of co-writer Larry Fessenden readily apparent. (Do you love Larry Fessenden? I do. I don't love everything he does, but he's a cool cat and it seems like he loves horror as much as you or I.) If you like horror movies and video games, Until Dawn is absolutely a no-brainer.
My first playthrough saw only two of the eight characters survive. Can you believe that? I thought for sure I'd make only the right decisions and everyone would waltz out of that lodge alive and happy in the light of a new day. I mean, I have a horror blog. You don't get more expert than that!
Until Dawn is a PlayStation 4 exclusive.