It’s been exactly one year since twin sisters Hannah and Beth disappeared out in the mountains around their family’s lodge in Blackwood Pines. So, obviously, all their friends have come back to the same place this weekend because, you know, making poor life choices is crucial to the plot of basically every horror movie and game ever.
Everybody is going to die tonight.
That was the plan, anyway, but despite my most outrageously (and, towards the end, somewhat desperately) reckless attempts to kill off Until Dawn‘s entire cast, two of them managed to make it out alive. I’ll do better next time, I promise, but for now, at least Emily is dead. Because Emily was the worst. But somebody had to be, because that’s the rules.
Half game, half interactive movie, Until Dawn is a choose-your-own-(mis)adventure that puts you in the director’s chair of your very own The Cabin in the Woods, starring a who’s-who of camp-classic clichés – the dead twins’ creepy brother, the girl-next-door, the egotistical asshole, his even-worse new girlfriend, the two nerds who are secretly crushing on each other, the token minority guy, and the queen bitch. The queen bitch is Emily. You’ll hate her. That’s the point. Everybody has their own special part to play, and obviously, Emily has to die because she’s the queen bitch.
What’s most ingenious about Until Dawn, though, is its clever exploitation of those same predictable tropes. We’ve got eight faux teenagers on the wrong end of an unreliable cable car, melodramatic social politics, and everybody keeps splitting up. Like me, you can go ahead and give them what they’ve totally got coming, but you could also subvert what’s expected and save them instead. It’s up to you.
Fundamental to the ongoing plot is the game’s “Butterfly Effect” system. Simply, you’ll make a lot of decisions that have real consequences – choosing to do this one thing instead of that other thing means that a totally different thing happens next, and developer Supermassive Games has claimed that there are “hundreds” of possible endings. The game also uses a strict auto-save to preclude the otherwise inevitable save-scumming, so you make your choices and you roll with them. I won’t tell anything more about it, because, you know, SPOILERS, but it keeps you wondering how things might have worked out if you’d done this, that, or the other thing instead and provides some incentive to replay the game. Even if it’s just to find out if there’s some new, exciting way to murder Emily.
Visually, Until Dawn is super impressive, especially its motion-captured animation and lighting. The game’s environment and location design is also genre-appropriately realised – from the creepy woods to the creepy abandoned mine to the creepy derelict sanitarium, it’s got everything you’d expect to find on the snowy, windswept crags of a Friday night double-feature except maybe a creepy doll factory. While the game is played in the third-person, the camera angles change up from one moment to the next, investing even the most uneventful scenes with a sort of cinematic suspense. It’s let down a bit, however, by some awkward, sluggish movement – too many times, I walked into stuff I’d tried to walk around. Boo.