Until Dawn 6

The sun has gone down. Darkness has descended. Your coven has gathered in your home. Your seasonal Pinterest treats are perfectly arranged. The pizza is approaching. It is Halloween Eve. Your ritual has been perfectly arranged…but all of the sudden, your spine begins to tingle, fear has struck you… Oh dear god! On this, the 30th day of October, you have already watched all of your favorite horror movies! Gasp!

No need to worry my sweet, for there is a much more enticing treat and it is something your whole coven can enjoy. It’s full of jump scares, plot twists, intrigue, and most importantly, fear. It will have you clutching the arm of the ghoul next to you and screaming, “OH MY GOD! I can’t believe…you just hit the wrong button!”

Yes, it’s true, I am talking about a video game, more specifically, Until Dawn. But before the non-gamers turn away, know that this is not your typical video game. Marrying a strong story with relatively simple mechanics, Until Dawn (available exclusively on the PlayStation 4) is a communal experience that combines the fun of watching horror films with the interactive quality of a haunted house. In other words, it’s perfect Halloween viewing. Er, playing. And it’s currently $7.99 on the PlayStation Store and that’s one hell of a bargain.

The first time I played Until Dawn (back when it first hit shelves in 2015), my husband and I were about 30 minutes in, swapping the controller back and forth, before looking at each other and proclaiming, “Oh my god – call everyone.”

Once our Scooby gang of four was assembled, pizza and beer in tow, we started over from the beginning. It took some persuading to get them over, because while one of them was a gamer, the other was not. However, lured in by the prospect of a good time, and the hope that she wouldn’t have to watch us game for too long, she arrived. One hour in, she was the most enthusiastic and animated player in our group without ever even touching the controller. We quite literally played the game straight through, all night, until dawn. Hearts pumping, yelling, pacing, debating, jumping out of our seats.

It was the best “horror movie night” we ever had.

Until Dawn 5

So, What is Until Dawn?

Until Dawn is a video game riddled (in the best way possible) with the standard horror movie tropes, but it’s co-written by cult horror filmmaker Larry Fessenden. In other words, the game knows the cliches as well as you do and uses its knowledge of the genre to mislead you in all the right ways.

The story centers on a group of teenagers as they party at a cabin high atop a mountain in Canada. However, what would have been a smashing weekend of underage drinking and premarital sex takes a tragic turn when a cruel prank leaves twin sisters Hannah and Beth running into the snowy woods of the mountain never to be seen again. Once the standard introductory first kill is out of the way, the dramatic Until Dawn title card and super haunting theme song let us know that the real story is finally starting.

One year after the incident that left his sisters presumed dead, Josh rallies the gang back together to celebrate life and return to their family’s snowy secluded cabin. Once everyone settles in, it doesn’t take long for horror to come a’knockin, and it is your job to get all eight to survive…until dawn. It is a game of wits more than anything, and much like any moviegoing experience you and your friends are constantly trying to figure out how it ends. What makes this game so special is its ability to satisfy the middle ground between wanting to watch a movie together and also be able to interact and actively engage with one another. The choices you make dramatically change the story, including who survives to see the credits roll. It inspires a strange statement: “Can we watch Until Dawn again? I want to play it differently this time.”

Gameplay-wise, the most you ever really have to do is hit a single button every now and again, select player choices, and move the joystick. It is the simplicity of the controls that makes for such a great communal experience. Until Dawn is a “choose your own adventure” book on steroids, and the more people you have yelling about what you should do, the better.

All of the characters start out fitting a certain stereotype, but through the choices you make in their interactions with one another, you get to decide just how deeply they fall into their respective trope (jock, bad boy, harlot, nerd, etc). While there is only be one person holding the controller at a time, these kinds of decisions definitely fall into “the more the merrier” category. I have played through Until Dawn about five times, and never once was I alone. My husband and I make a great team, but the back and forth banter of two people going, “I dunno, what do you think I should pick?” doesn’t compare to having your group of friends yelling over each other, debating on how much of a bitch you want the snotty girl to be, and how much of a tool you want the bad boy to be. Because Until Dawn is structured like a movie, you are practically writing your own film together. Do you want to see two bros throw down? Or do you want them to settle the situation with as few hurt feelings as possible because you are already feeling the sense of dread that will soon consume our happy-go-lucky campers?

Every choice in this game has a butterfly effect and watching someone’s poor decision ripple throughout the night is a joy.

Until Dawn

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Let’s face it, we all know the rules of horror movies and we are all guilty at yelling at the screen, decade after decade, every time they are broken. “Don’t run upstairs!” “Why the hell are you splitting up?” “Yeah, sure, follow the noise in the dark basement.”

Yes, it is very easy to think you know better from the comfort of your couch. But Until Dawn hands you the controls (literally) as you alternate playing as each one of the eight characters. Every decision in the game is up to you. Basic controls are one thing, but making the right choice is another thing entirely.

While molding your characters is sometimes hilarious and always entertaining, even your most know-it-all friend is put to the test when the action begins. Decisions have to be made quickly, in the moment, as they would in any real life scenario. You have only a few short moments to decide if you want to take the more dangerous short cut through the woods or follow the path. Do you want to follow the footprints in the old sanitarium or do you want stick to the outskirts? Most importantly, do you want to run or hide? And if you think it is easy to not trip while running in fear, you are sadly mistaken. Besides making critical story choices, you also have to help your characters through fast-paced climatic moments. When your character is running away from certain death by psycho or trying to be a hero and save a friend, you are faced with quick button pushes. Whether it is hitting X quickly to avoid tripping over a branch, or holding the controller perfectly still to avoid being heard, your character’s life depends on your hand eye coordination in stressful situations.

Beware: this is where it can get real with you and your friends. I still remember the first time we played Until Dawn. One of our favorite characters met their brutal and untimely end because our friend missed one of these crucial actions, and we still haven’t let him live it down. Instead of just being sad that our boy was dead, the tension in the room exploded: “WTF?! How could you?” “What the hell is wrong with you?!” “He is dead because of you!” It was fantastic.

As the action builds in the game, the choices in the beginning come back to haunt you. You start to regret making those characters argue for your amusement, you start to regret those short cuts you took or didn’t take, you start rethinking all of your decisions that could have ended up helping you now. Did you hit the big scary dog to avoid getting bitten? Or did you risk the bite in order to feed him? Either way, one side of the room is going to be saying, “I told you so!”

Until Dawn 2

The Never-ending Movie

In every play-through since then, every time with different people, I have seen a different ending, with different survivors. Only once have I seen all the characters make it to see the safety of the morning light. The last time I played it was in May of this year. Two years after its initial release, it is still our favorite party game. Not only does it help break the tie between those who want to watch a movie and those that want to do something more interactive, but its seemingly unending array of choices and endings make it a different experience every time. It never gets old, because it always changes depending on the people you are playing with. I don’t ever feel like I have watched the same movie or played the same game twice. Sure the plot twists (and believe me, there are plot twists) aren’t shocking to me anymore, but when you have one group that purposely sets out to make only terrible decisions and one group that wants everyone to work together, you will never lack for entertainment. It is the game that keeps on giving, the “horror movie” that endlessly re-edits itself to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: