Thursday, October 1, 2015

Video Game Assessment: Until Dawn (2015)


It's been a long time, hasn't it?

Whoops. I seem to have forgotten all about this blog for a great deal longer than I wanted to.

Anyway, getting back into the swing of things can be trying at the best of times, and these are certainly not the best of times. It's been nearly a year since I mysteriously disappeared, reemerging only now for October 1st- and (perhaps) more of October than that even? Who's to say?

I can't promise anything right now. My schedule and my life are way up in the air right now, but I'm going to endeavor to get at least some reviews up this October. Because October Nights is an important series for me. And I care about giving opinions about horror. I think this will be the second year in a row where I don't review something every single day in October, but again, I have no idea what's going to happen. I'm simply going to write opinions and see what happens. No promises though!

So, getting off of all of that trite conversation, let's talk about Until Dawn, the game where you try to get eight playable characters to- you guessed it- survive, UNTIL DAWN.

It is a horror video game of several different genres of horror. It involves eight "teenagers" (and since most of the actors are not even remotely teens, my head-canon is that they're all like mid-twenties) that have seen a fairly awful tragedy strike their group of friends about a year previously. Namely the two sisters of one of the eight characters disappear under mysterious circumstances after a nasty and very mean prank gone wrong.

The whole premise sounds like a crazy and very bad teenage slasher film rip-off. And it kind of is for part of the game. We have a "mystery man," a bunch of clues to find and extrapolate from, and a seemingly deranged killer on the loose. It plays more like a mystery game from the start, following more of an adventure game premise at first, rather than the full survival horror game it kind of becomes in the latter half of the game.

I really don't want to spoil the game, so I'm going to have fairly tight fingers in this review. Don't expect a ten-page diatribe about why _____'s character is extremely tragic or that the _____ design is really creepy and well put together. I'm certainly not going to talk about ______ __________ and his absolute obsession with ______ so much so that he made the movies ________ (2001) and ___ ____ _______ (2006) about the _______ that are so prominent in this particular narrative. Also, Saw (2003) and similar types of movies have has a fairly decent influence on what Until Dawn is.

And it's actually quite good for what it is. While I figured out the entirety of the plot within my first ten minutes of playing, I also found the characters interesting, the plot well put together, and horror very well played in the latter parts of the game. It can be easily compared to other games of similar play-types and genre, like Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls, and even Telltale's The Walking Dead (with Clementine and Lee), but it really does stand apart from them on a fundamental level, up to and including that, I believe, this particular game is much better for this type of gameplay and style than any of the other previous games like it. There's a great deal of narrative choice and input from the player to get the kind of story desired. The more you put into exploration the higher the chances are that your characters will survive and have knowledge of what's actually going on. Limited exploration puts the entire cast at risk and leads to a narrative that might make much less sense as well. I like gameplay rewarding narrative though.

The game puts this idea out there that choice is ultimately up to the player. This means that what happens in the plot, how characters react to one another, and the information found out and talked about are all up to the player, who can decide some aspects of the direction the game will take. While it is a fairly simplistic system here, it is much better implemented than a great deal of games of a similar type. I really like choice systems in games especially when the outcome can be extremely varied. RPGs tend to do it best, but even RPGs tend to not go very deep into the system. It's overly complicated to program, I get that, but the payoff is so good when it works right.

Until Dawn takes some time for the plot to get moving, but when it does finally get there, it also never stops. As a horror game, it has everything you might expect, from abandoned mental institutions to abandoned hotels. It has everything from a nearly abandoned ski lodge to a completely abandoned creepy mine. There's also an abandoned fire tower, abandoned ski lift depots, and a nearly entirely abandoned mountain.

So- uh- I think "abandoned" might be the word of the day today.

Just like a slasher movie, certain characters are more likely to die than others. The flirtatious and playful blonde girl who talks about sex more than the other characters, and then screams she is going to have a very good time sexing her boyfriend, is more likely to die than the girl who never talks about sex at all in any context. The (sorry to even bring this up) black guy character is more likely to die and be forgotten than any other character period, especially when a player decides to screw with ______ like the game explicitly tells you not to. The guy and gal that are more central to the plot though, the heroic antihero of questionable values and the brave but detached heroine, tend to both have the most screentime and the highest chance of surviving the night.

The other characters are the two (movie-styled) geeks who are supposedly perfect for one another, the grade-A witch of a girl who constantly browbeats her boyfriend, but has the best gameplay sequence in the game, and the troubled brother of the two sisters who died the previous year. The two geeks are pretty fun, but their whole story relies upon the other.The grade-A witch has the most conflicted nature to the narrative in terms of playable character, but also the most information revealed to her. And the brother of the two missing/dead sisters is a bit of an oddball with some of the most creative pieces of the narrative attributed to him.

A great deal of combinations of these characters can survive or die in the course of the story, including the entire cast or none of our "teens." While this latter outcome can be considered the best ending, it isn't necessarily the end of the story, for good or ill.

The changeable aspects of the genre are also probably the most interesting piece of the game to me. It switches genre constantly, and this is where I'm going to get just slightly spoiler-y, so there's your warning in advance. Jump out of this review with a hearty recommendation from your pal Saquarry if you don't want spoilers.

The game starts out with the isolationist vibe. While it never strays from that, there are certainly moments when you start seeing a larger world, most notably in trying to get some outside help and learning about what befell the inhabitants of this seemingly cursed mountain. There are also a great deal of jump scares in the beginning parts of the game, most of them, I hope, purposefully poorly handled. It seems to me that the game seems to want you off-balance constantly, and the characters are even willing to put each other off-balance for the desired results. Jump scares aside, the game delves into survival horror, supernatural horror, mystery horror, revenge narrative, slasher horror, and psychological horror at any given time. These all can pop up throughout the story, giving the whole thing a very off-kilter vibe to it. I certainly like it. It shows the metamorphosis of the narrative, starting at a place of ignorance and ending at a place that could be called "understanding."

The game itself follows that pattern, showing more fake horror in the beginning, evolving into something much more psychological and not shown, and finally ending on both understanding and a kind of body horror with supernatural elements that explains some things, but leaves enough ambiguity as to be worth exploring later (mostly after one is finished playing the game). That might be an overly complex way of saying that the game starts out with cheap scares, goes for a strong atmospheric feeling in the center part of the game, and finishes out with existential questions and outstanding visual designs.

The understanding the game gives to you in the end isn't just of the plot, but rather of the other characters, the supernatural elements, and the history behind everything around this mountain. The understanding changes the genre, and that is such a cool transition of genre, such a valid way of using genre like a tool to get a desired result.

Again, I'm not going to spoil very much else. Until Dawn is very good as a horror game. While the gameplay can be awkward, don't let that stop you from trying it out or from watching somebody else play it. It has quick-time events (QTEs) and plays very similarly to something like the David Cage games of Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls, the two closest comparison pieces. But I think it would be unfair to compare this game to those, if only because the quality and polish of this game is much stronger than those others.

I really enjoyed the game. It was thought-provoking, very creepy, and also very fun. The narrative left me wanting more. I want more games like this, more games that try to scare, but also try to do something beyond simply scaring.

I don't have much else to say other than recommending it. It is one of the best horror games of recent memory. It is also part of a string of horror games that have come out or that are coming out that have been or seem like they will be very, very solid entries into the genre.

I guess I do have a postscript to the review in the form of a little story. When I went out to buy this game the first day it had come out, I was nearly left wanting. I hadn't pre-ordered it because the previews had not impressed me even slightly. I saw a few good reviews come out, and decided that I would go pick it up because (and I even said this at the time I'm so ashamed) YOLO. The problem was I had a gift card at a particular video game store. I wanted to spend as little actual money as I could mitigate, so I found it necessary to go to this EXTREMELY POPULAR game stop if you will to find the game.

The problem arose that the first four stores I went to did not have the game at all. Somehow a video game that shouldn't have ANY scarcity somehow definitely had it. I was shocked at the first store not having it, in awe that the second didn't have it, and actively annoyed and peeved that the others didn't have it either. Okay, the game might be popular for some reason on the first day it's out, but they must have known what kind of response a fairly anticipated horror game would get, no?

I don't know. I guess I found it very sad that it took me nearly three hours to get to one of the only copies of Until Dawn in this particular store franchise in my area (my area being central New Jersey nowadays). AND I had to essentially ask a store that was nearly forty minutes away to hold it for me so that nobody else who also REALLY wanted a good horror would take it from me.

So, why the scarcity, guys? I'll never understand it.

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