Hi, I’m Nick and I’m a horroholic. I can’t stop drinking horrorhol (or stealing jokes from The Simpsons, apparently). And no I’m not one of those guys that thinks he’s a real horror fan because he watched all of the Saw movies and thinks The Blair Witch project was boring because it didn’t even show anything, bro. I’ve been eating drinking, and breathing this stuff for years, from your typical Nightmare on Elm Street shlock right down to black-and-white Iranian vampire art flicks. I love this genre.
I’m the guy who grew up watching Universal monsters, Hammer, and Hitchcock on weekend afternoons, scoured the world for obscure cult horror as an adult, and still appreciates that rarest of films that can actually frighten or shock me and leave me thinking about how and why days after I watch it. What I’m saying is I know more about horror than any healthy person should and I heartily endorse Until Dawn.
A lot of reviewers and commenters are parroting that the interactive horror game is just a cheesy homage made out of slasher movie tropes. These folks are what we gamers might would call “filthy casuals” when it comes to horror. While Until Dawn does utilize a variety of familiar tropes in its journey into the heart of darkness, it often uses them as a set-up to flip your expectations and then blow them to hell in ways that are almost unheard of in the horror genre and definitely new to video games.
So what I’ve got here is a list of instances where the story completely flipped the script on me in new and interesting ways and set itself apart from any other horror film or game out there by surprising and shocking me in ways I haven’t been surprised or shocked often if ever. This is all spoilers from here on out so I recommend having played the game before venturing forth because the tension where this game thrives is best experienced by not knowing what can or will happen next. If you’re here and you chose Xbone over PS4, haven’t upgraded yet, or are a PC gamer too good for consoles, my sympathies. Please enjoy this offering of vicarious awesomeness.
I went into Until Dawn expecting the cheesy playable slasher movie that previews had promised. The trip to the secluded cabin in the woods where two teen girls were killed a year prior, the Diablo Cody-esque witty dialogue, the fourth wall-breaking psychiatrist directly addressing the gamer with scenery-devouring relish. Yeah, I was in the mood.
So naturally, you’ve got this alpha male character with the cheerleaderish girlfriend and I think “this guy will be the douche”. Mike just seemed like he’d be the guy that gets stabbed through the throat while clumsily seducing a sexy naive camp counselor or the jerk who finally gets his comeuppance and I played him that way. At first.
But as the story unfolded, the real Mike came to the fore and he was both a total badass and a bit of a softy to boot. He was fearlessly wrecking house with a shotgun alone in abandoned asylum and tender-heartedly befriending fearsome wolves and risking everything to save his girlfriend Jess and everyone else. I felt really bad that I’d flubbed his chances at lovin’ earlier by playing him as an ass. The evolution of the character has him as the real tragic hero of the story with the way my first playthrough played out.
Mike gave it all in the final sequence of the game, in which the survivors are confronted in a nerve-wracking sequence where the player has to keep the controller perfectly still, which is one of the most innovative ways that Until Dawn creates tension. They actually managed to frighten me into a mistake (although I’d argue the game also misled me somewhat) and after all of his herculean efforts, Mike ended up dying while serving as a distraction for his remaining friends’ escape. That kind of thing doesn’t really happen to a character in a cheesy slasher movie who spends the first half just trying to get laid. I’m sorry I misjudged you, Mike. I’ll catch you on the next playthrough.
While I had pegged Mike as my requisite asshole I decided that Matt was going to be the hero. He just seemed like a nice guy somehow, in spite of the Letterman jock uniform. After a while, it became apparent that Matt’s girlfriend Emily was kind of…..mmmm not to sound sexist, but “bitch” is definitely the word. I continued playing Matt as the nice guy (although jealous dick is also a possibility) thinking that Mike was going to die embarrassingly and Matt would get the happy ending for enduring his suffering.
This led to one of the definitive moments in the game for me. The way I’d built up Matt’s story based on the way I played him and the game’s deliberate manner of crushing those expectations was awesome. At one point, after many Matt/Emily adventures in henpeckery, Matt finds his unpleasant girlfriend dangling just out of reach about to fall. You can either persist in trying to rescue her like a hero would or save your damn self. Naturally, if you abandon your girlfriend in her moment of need and take the selfish choice, you will pay. Naturally.
Well, Until Dawn says “Fuck that. How pathetic are you?”. While wasting time trying to reach an unreachable damsel, the platform collapses and Matt ends up falling into an adjacent tunnel while Emily plummets. While it’s apparently possible to survive this based on choices made earlier I didn’t make those choices because I let Emily boss Matt around and the poor guy ended up being hung up on a meathook like a fish, blood filling his gurgling mouth for one of the nastiest deaths in the game. Should have let ‘er fall, hero. In this game, nice guys finish dead.
The funny thing about all of the reviewers calling this a playable slasher film is that there is no actual slasher. The whole setup was an elaborate ruse to set the tone and a conspiracy to make the gamer feel threatened every second of the way when in reality, they were being sheltered from the real threat the entire time. The “slasher” turns out to be everyone’s friend Josh, whose sisters died partly because of a prank the other characters pulled a year prior at the same lodge. He set the whole scenario up just to scare everyone to get some non-lethal revenge. He even faked his own grisly death in a contrived Saw scenario.
And that terrifying flamethrower-wielding masked stranger who has been stalking you all this time? He’s been battling the real threat; a supernatural one, watching over and defending you this whole time. The mountain is infested with spirits of the Wendigo who have been released because of past incidents of cannibalism. These things are terrifying, but like frogs their vision is based on movement, making for some intense “don’t move” situations, one of which led to two characters dying consecutively because I twitched and then hesitated. At times, this game is really unforgiving.
That’s the best twist I’ve seen in a really long time. The slasher movie has no slasher and you’ve been scared silly over circumstantial nothings and pranks this whole time. The original House on Haunted Hill is the closest I can think of offhand and that’s been a long, long time. It makes you look back and examine everything that has happened and really laugh at how you psyched yourself out based primarily on musical cues, atmosphere, and expectations. Eat your heart out, Pavlov.
One of the cheesier -and more interesting- aspects of the game is the psychologist who shows up between chapters to discuss fear with the player. He quizzes you on what you think is scary and why and the game makes minor adjustments based on how you respond. Since the game keeps track of statistics, it’s really interesting to see how other people answered too. Who knew that people overwhelmingly think crows are scarier than fierce dogs?
Anyways, we play most of the game under the assumption that the doctor is breaking the fourth wall and lecturing us, the gamer, about the dangers of “torture porn” and various other goings on relating to the events of the game. But once Josh is revealed as having been the one menacing his friends, we are shown that he was the one on the other side of the desk the whole time and this was all part of his “game” to figure out how best to terrify the others. And on top of that, this is all in his head.
So once again Until Dawn successfully manipulates audience expectations with the explicit purpose of yanking them out from under you while showing you that things are not what they seem and that when you assume, you…well, you know.
Out of all the moments in the game that built the player’s expectations up just to knock them on their ass and laugh at them, this one is probably my favorite. Rather than relying entirely on established film tropes, it is targeted directly at gamers and our unwavering sense of curiosity to turn our own mockery of slasher movie cliches back on us. It also brings back the theme that doing the “right” thing is sometimes the stupid thing to do, which flies in the face of what we think we know about popular fiction.
Earlier in the game, Mike pursued his girlfriend Jess through the woods as she was dragged away by what we thought was a maniac at the time, but we now know was a Wendigo. She was dropped down a mine shaft before my eyes and presumed dead for hours, but at the beginning of the chapter, I was shown an image of her regaining consciousness, alone and afraid.
Back to the main group making their way through the tunnels, now aware of the real horror and just trying to survive until the rescue chopper arrives at dawn (natch) and get back to the lodge intact. You’re currently playing Ashley, the shy cutie pie whose crush, Chris, had his head bowled at her in the aforementioned twitching incident. Ash hears what sounds like Jessica’s voice coming from a cavern and you are given a choice to follow the voice or catch up to your friends.
Now, as horror movie fans we know that splitting up is for idiots. But as gamers we know Jessica is alive down there somewhere and it may be up to us to do something about it. Who wins? Of course you go to check. But here’s where it gets awesome. If you’ve found the right clues in-game, you have read the stranger’s notes on the Wendigo and are aware that they are capable of mimicking human voices. Yeah, you know where this is going. Ash comes up on a hatch that is thumping as though someone/thing is trying to open it from below.
Since nothing is chanting “dead by dawn!” your gamer curiosity is likely going to get the best of you. You can either walk past the hatch never knowing what was below or you can open it. No way does a game that has consistently rewarded exploration punish you for investigating something so obvious. So, of course Ashley pays the price for you doing exactly the kind of dumb shit you’ve been facepalming over in horror movies for years. A Wendigo pops up, snaps her neck, and then twists her pretty little head right the fuck off. Who’s facepalming now?
Moments like these are what make Until Dawn the must-play horror game of choice for this generation so far and we’ll be luck to see another horror game so expertly manipulate its players and defy what we think we know about fiction and gaming anytime soon.