Death in paradise...
As a long-time gaming aficionado, we probably don’t have to tell you that the joystick and the silver screen haven’t always had the best (or most profitable) relationship over the years. As ardent fans of a great number of titles, we’ve seen a lot of franchises succumb to B-Movie mediocrity in the past few decades, including Hitman, Resident Evil, Max Payne and even Tomb Raider. The list, in fact, goes on and on. And while some miraculous few manage to hold their own in the box office, it’s too often the case that the gamer inside of me leaves the cinema feeling a little colder, a little more cynical, having seen his favourite franchise butchered on screen yet again (yes, Silent Hill: Revelations, I am looking at you).
But it’s not like us gamer folk aren’t guilty of the same thing; there was a dark period a few years back, of an accompanying title for every major blockbuster release, in which us button mashers could get to grips with everything from Saw to Home Alone. Once again, however, these titles were largely united by a common theme: sucking.
So at this point, it was looking as though the relationship between Hollywood and video games was all but dead in the water – until, that was, an England-based indie developer decided things needed to be done a little differently…
Officially revealed last year, Until Dawn is the brainchild of Supermassive Games, a title that seeks to bring the ‘interactive narrative experience’ style of play to the survival horror genre. The game’s troublesome history has more plot twists than a straight-to-DVD horror flick (i.e. two); having first been announced as a PS Move project, it was later unveiled at Gamescom 2014 to be a PS4 exclusive that would incorporate six-axis features into a Heavy Rain style of gameplay. The project was widely overshadowed by Kojima’s P.T. demo (RIP), but, in my opinion, might just hold the key to changing how we perceive our dying genre.
The Cabin in the Woods
Until Dawn gives the impression that developer Supermassive looked at the Hollywood/gaming dynamic and point blank said, “No, you guys are doing this all wrong”. So what have they done differently? They’ve taken a well-established formula and turned it on its head. Without a definitive piece of source material to stay faithful to, the game instead takes well established tropes and conventions and uses them as the building blocks for an interactive horror experience. It’s shamelessly self-referential from the start, which I can’t help but hope points to a much more complex experience waiting to be uncovered.[yt_video id=”HAKBU7VXdUI”][/yt_video]
At its outset, the game begins with a group of teenagers taking a ‘vacation’ in an isolated ski lodge, only for things to be quickly unravelled by a homicidal masked killer wielding all sorts of pointy objects – sound familiar? The cast of the title tick all the boxes of an American teen slasher, complete with letterman jackets, dorky glasses and incredibly small towels. The brief shots we’ve glimpsed of the killer himself borrow directly from cinematic icons, such as Pennywise and Leatherface, who have defined Hollywood horror over the years. As we’ve been allowed to creep further into these hellish, snowy mountains, however, it looks to be that Until Dawn is much more ambitious in its narrative depth and scope; some trailers even seem to hint at a Cabin in the Woods style meta-plot.
What looks to be truly frightening about the game is its focus on choice and consequence.
The Butterfly Effect
What looks to be truly frightening about Until Dawn, however, is its focus on choice and consequence; action and reaction. Borrowing heavily from titles like Heavy Rain, the game incorporates perma-death mechanics, so when the captain of the football team is dead, he’s well and truly dead. This doesn’t only add a sense of realism to the title, but actively opposes the culture of “oh well, I’ll just restart it” that prevents gamers from truly empathising with the characters they assume the role of. If what we’ve seen so far is anything to go by, these unfortunate teenagers will go from stereotypical models to intricate personas with backstories, characters that we will actively want to survive. Of course, however, in true slasher movie style, it’s entirely possible that none of them will.
Moreover, alongside some clever narrative foreshadowing techniques, the game features a Butterfly Effect style choice system that redefines how we look at decision making. Instead of boring, cut and dry decisions which boil down to ‘give your friend first aid or run away’, the game instead places consequences on small choices, consequences that we can’t predict the outcome to. In a recently showcased demo at E3, players had to decide whether to keep a flare gun for one character, or pass it onto another. The truly frightening thing here, however, is that they’ll never know how this decision plays out until it’s too late.
High School Drama
While its gameplay looks tense and fraught with action, Until Dawn is ambitious in terms of its narrative scope and character development. How successful the title is will depend heavily on how well they can build these characters, and whether or not they can tame a storyline that can veer off in so many ways. To sum up my hopes for the game, I’ll leave you with this: we’ve all seen the classic slasher movie scene recreated countless times over the years, the one where the blonde cheerleader hears a noise in the foreboding attic of an eerie mansion and goes to investigate. We’ve all screamed at the TV for her to “not be so stupid” and turn around. Well, Until Dawn gives players that choice, and I for one know that I would always go up the stairs.