In 2015, SONY and Supermassive Games released Until Dawn, an interactive PlayStation 4 survival horror exclusive. It was a big deal when it came out because of its immense budget and an all-star cast of actors, including Peter Stormare and Rami Malek. I was 20 years old when the game was released, so my budget was tight, but after watching a number of different people stream their playthroughs of the game on YouTube, I knew I had to give it a try. What interested me so much was the aspect of narrative design in the game. Your choices have an impact on the game’s outcome. It’s a great game to pass around the controller with your friends, each of you building on the narrative until you arrive at the finale.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
The gameplay is pretty exciting for its time. It relies heavily on quick-time events (QTEs), which involves the player making quick decisions such as hitting the right button in a timely fashion, holding as still as possible (the PS4 controller is sensitive to movement), or making a narrative choice. Otherwise, the game consists of many cutscenes and third-person exploration. For me, it feels more like a movie than a video game.
The game’s opening serves as both narrative development and tutorial. Hannah and Beth Washington are twin sisters to their brother, Josh. While on vacation at the Washington’s huge winter getaway house, the siblings’ friends decide to pull a prank on Hannah, who is utterly humiliated when caught taking her shirt off and then runs out of the house. When Beth finds out what has happened, she follows Hannah out into the wilderness. The pair eventually find themselves at the edge of a cliff while something (we’re not sure what at this point) stalks them. The girls fall off the cliff and are left hanging while Beth holds on to a branch with one hand and Hannah with the other. This is the first narrative choice in the game: you can either let go of the branch, let go of Hannah, or if your time runs out and you choose neither, the branch breaks. Whichever option you pick results in both girls falling into a ravine, seemingly dead on impact.
This opening action definitely gets to the point of the game. How will your choices be rewarded or punished? Fast forward a year and Josh wants to have another vacation at the house with the same group of friends. When they all end up splitting up into pairs, life or death situations follow them at every turn as they’re stalked by a lunatic on the mountain, as well as the same “something” that forced Beth and Hannah off the cliff.
The first third of the game successfully establishes the creepy atmosphere. Jump scares and spooky happenings are around every corner, but no one can die. The game doesn’t start to actually pick up until Jessica and Mike wander off to a separate cabin in the woods, where, of course, Jessica is taken by (presumably) a monster. This is the first event that happens post-twins where we’re not sure if a character is alive or dead. Mike follows after Jessica, and this is the first time (as far as I can tell) that your actions influence a character’s life or death outcome. If Mike is too slow to follow after Jessica, or if you miss too many QTEs, or if you take the slower path, Jessica will be dead when you find her. So then, is this really a case of driving the narrative yourself, or is it a test in being good at knowing where buttons are on the controller? I suppose, in a way, it’s both. You (playing as Mike) are making the choice to be risky for the sake of Jessica or to play it safe for Mike’s own sake. But mostly it feels like it’s out of your control as the player.
While Mike and Jessica are dealing with the monster on the mountain, Chris and Ashley are busy following spooky clues around the house with Josh trying to figure out what happened to Hannah and Beth, whose bodies were never found. After separating, Ashley hears Josh yell from another room, and she rushes through a door to save him only to be pulled into the room herself. Chris follows and is immediately punched in the face by a man in a mask. When he wakes up, he finds Ashley in a Saw-type situation. The man in the mask has Josh and Ashley tied up, and Chris must decide which one of them to save from an approaching saw. You wouldn’t know this from the first playthrough, but no matter who you choose playing as Chris, the saw cuts Josh in half. It’s violent and gruesome, and the scene was actually cut from the Japanese release due to the gore. But again, how do our choices as a player impact the game’s narrative? There is a defined choice for Chris’s character, yet no matter what you choose, the game will go the same direction. This is because at least the core of the narrative needs to remain consistent throughout the game so you can still have a story. If everyone died at the first chance they got, there would be no ending, no way to play “until dawn” when the rescue team finally arrives on the mountain to save the survivors.
I think most people set out to try to save everyone when they first play the game, but that outcome is unlikely, at least on a first playthrough. The decisions are just too random to make logical choices that result in the outcomes you want. You can watch a character go through so much physical violence you’re sure they’re dead, and they might turn out to be alive in the end. You can do everything in your power to protect the characters you want to survive, but sometimes something as simple as taking the wrong path gets them killed.
The game is full of fun twists and turns at the end. Like I said earlier, it’s a great game to pass around at a Halloween party. It’ll get you and your friends laughing at the stupid choices you make and just be a good time all around.
Joelle Jacoski is a Philadelphia-based writer who focuses on LGBTQ+ issues, film/television, and video games. They contribute to Queers for a Cause regularly, and their blog and other publications can be found at www.joellejacoski.com.