Until Dawn: If you go down to the woods today…

Before we begin our Until Dawn demo we're asked to take a quick survey. Are we more afraid of the dark or of crowds? Of suffocation or needles? Of gore or insects? The idea presumably being that the game will tailor itself to take best advantage of that which gives you nightmares. Given that different things scare different people, the attempt to reach into your soul to better send  shivers down your spine represents a commendable dedication to Until Dawn’s cause as a horror game.


From here we’re set loose part way through the plot in control of Sam, one of eight characters that you will ultimately have control over. Immediately, the slasher-movie tropes that Until Dawn is built upon crystallise before our eyes. She's relaxing in the kind of bath tub usually reserved for Hollywood playboys on a weekend binge in Las Vegas, headphones on and classical music belting her eardrums into early retirement. Her eyes are closed. She has absolutely zero awareness of her surroundings. She is vulnerable and doesn't realise it.
 Eight teenagers decide to spend the night in a log cabin, unaware that a serial killer is hunting them down. You must make the decisions that will either save or kill them
The camera pans to reveal a grotesque, masked man standing over her shoulder holding what looks like an oxygen tank of the sort that caused so much damage in No Country For Old Men. He leaves, clicking the door behind him. Samhears the click and comes to the conclusion that her friends are playing a trick on her by stealing her clothes while  she bathes in middle-class luxury. Teens will be teens, she thinks.

And thus, the tension of the scene is set. Sam wanders out of the bath and around the cabin looking for which of her seven friends might have been playing voyeur, only we know that danger lurks. Like Hitchcock said, tension is always greatest when the audience knows more than the characters.

What follows is a stressful plod through the cabin, followed by the inevitable chase scene in which our masked friend chases Sam into the darker and dustier corners of the basement. During these action scenes the pace regularly slows down to force you to make key decisions. Should you hide in the  shadows or bolt for the exit? Get under the bed, or jump over it and risk falling? Topple shelves to slowyour pursuer down, or shoulder-barge the locked door at the end of the corridor? These decisions become more pertinent and vicious thanks to the strict countdown associated with them. If you don’t make a decision quickly enough, then Sam will make it for you of her own accord for better or worse.
“What you do as a player impacts the outcome of every scene as it plays out in real-time”
Interestingly, although not surprising given Supermassive’s motion control history, decisions are made by moving the PS4 pad to the left or right and pressing ‘X’ when your preferred option is selected on-screen. Further, some moments require you to ‘keep still’ the game tracking your controller as Sam hides silently around a corner, any movement from you resulting in her capture.

And she can die. All eight of the characters can die. If any one of them topples over, then the story continues without them, the promise one of seamless and intelligent transition into new plot threads that take every potential lost life into account. Some players will finish the game with all eight alive, others will see a narrative that ends early due to eight deaths.

No matter what happens in your game, Supermassive is promising a story that makes sense and has a start, middle and end. It’s an incredibly lofty ambition, one whose script is supposedly many orders of magnitude more complicated than those seen in the vast majority of films, TV shows or games.

There are technical issues to iron out on screen icons look sloppy and lip-syncing is awful but the signs are generally positive. Of all the PS4-exclusive titles due in 2015 it’s Until Dawn that’s most eye-catching in terms of originality; the act of playing feeling somewhat similar to Beyond and Heavy Rain, only with a story that promises to be far more open-ended and multifaceted.

Isolated log cabins have done wonders for cinematic horror romps featuring skimpily dressed teenagers, so here’s hoping Until Dawn can do similar things for the interactive realm.

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