Make good choices. It’s the sort of platitude you see on signs outside the local high school, the sort of thing parents shout to their kids as they’re heading out the door on a Friday night.
But it’s clearly not something on the minds of the eight teen protagonists in Until Dawn, Supermassive Games’ slick and creepy interactive horror game. How else to explain them making one of the most forehead-slappingly ridiculous choices of all — returning to party down at a remote and snowbound cabin on the anniversary of the mysterious disappearance of two of their friends? Did we mention that there’s also a sanitarium, an abandoned mine shaft and a murderous stalker in the area?
Then again, that’s kinda the point — after all, rumors and a crushing sense of foreboding never scared the kids away from Camp Crystal Lake, either. Clearly, the developers are here to have a blast mashing up the often dopey conventions of teen slasher flicks, and for the most part, they succeed in doing just that. You’re in charge of trying to keep as many of these characters alive — or killing them all off, if you’re so inclined — by the various choices you have them make over the course of a terrifying and very gory evening.
Until Dawn is obsessed with the Butterfly Effect, the chaos theory axiom that holds that small actions eventually result in much larger ones. When one of your characters makes a momentous decision that affects the storyline, it’s marked by a swarm of butterflies fluttering away in the upper left corner of the screen. It’s ominous as hell, because it doesn’t always necessarily seem like a momentous decision (hint: cruelty to animals has its own special karmic reward), but the game’s just told you you’ve given fate an unceremonious shove toward something. But what? Did you just sign one character’s death warrant by having another one casually insult him?
Could be — seriously. The game’s conversation-branching narrative arrays are one of its greatest and most interesting strengths, and it really is possible to completely alter the characters’ relationships and group dynamics based on who you choose to support and/or diss. It is fascinating to replay the game just to see how things play out if you choose differently, but it’s also frustrating: In the interest of immersion, there are no in-game saves or checkpoints. You make your choices, and you live or die with them.
The use of foreshadowing is often fantastic. Camera angles almost constantly remind you that you’re being watched from the shadows by somebody. Objects called totems are scattered around the expansive grounds, just waiting for you to pick them up and investigate. Every time you do, you get a brief glimpse of a possible fate you might be able to avoid if you make the right choice.
Not everyone in this largely doomed posse of teen stereotypes is likable (we see you, Emily), but they’re all well-rendered and surprisingly well-acted. Hayden Panettiere (Heroes, Nashville) leads the pack as Sam, the game’s spunky de facto Final Girl, and Brett Dalton, the murderous Agent Ward on Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, is on hand as party boy Mike. The acting’s worlds better than the game’s writing, which wallows a little too gleefully in horror clichés that have already been meta’d to, um, death by everyone from the late Wes Craven to Ryan fricking Murphy.
You could also wish the developer’s stand-in for “action” gameplay weren’t a lazy and often cheap overreliance on quick-time actions (seriously, you’ve never climbed this much in your whole life). Missing a visual cue and screwing up a single button push can have devastating consequences — and again, there’s no option for a do-over. That’s consistent with the game’s fate-oriented vibe, but it feels awfully cheap. Then again, who ever said fate was fair?
Until Dawn is rated M and is available for $59.99 on the PlayStation 4.