Until Dawn’s biggest idea is a system called the Butterfly Effect. (The developers at Supermassive Games are not afraid of cliches.) Every choice you make, down to the most minute dialogue option, is tracked and tabulated, and your moves shape the particulars of the game’s hellish night. Each of Until Dawn’s eight characters can live or die based on your actions, with the difference between a downer ending and a peaceful resolution left in your hands. You pick their dialogue, tell them to go this way or that, and see how they fare. Will you be cruel or kind? Until Dawn wants you to consider how much you value these fictional people, and the game’s best and worst decision is to wrap this storytelling structure in the trappings of a teen horror flick.
You’ve heard the setup before. Something terrible happened last year when eight young friends went to a remote cabin in the woods for a winter getaway. This year, they’re back, hoping to absolve their guilty consciences and get really drunk. There’s the brave survivor girl (played by Hayden Panettiere), the obnoxious jock and his girlfriend (Brett Dalton from Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Meaghan Martin), the brother wracked with survivor’s guilt (Mr. Robot star Rami Malek)—you know the story. All the characters fit well-worn horror archetypes, and, predictably, the situation at the cabin deteriorates quickly.
Supermassive loves the teen slasher genre, and it’s recreated here in impressive detail. The characters are rendered with incredible motion capture, managing to mostly skirt the uncanny valley and giving the impression of a star-studded cast. The stark lighting breathes mystery into every shadowed corner. Twisted camera angles skew the player’s view. All the while, the characters are mostly clueless, making jokes and stoking their overactive sex drives until terrors literally jump at them from the snow. Until Dawn distills the tone of teen horror perfectly with scenes that bounce between chilling and cheesy every few minutes. The characters are hapless and often stupid, and the dialogue is just stilted enough to feel a little campy.
Until Dawn offers the rare opportunity to experience one of these horror stories from a position of power. The characters all start out fairly prissy, petty, and unlikeable—again, standard for the genre—and it’s up to you to decide who you want to survive and who, if anyone, you want to “accidentally” meet an untimely death. Instead of shouting “Don’t go in there!” at the screen, you can often just not go in there, or you can at least try to find your character a weapon before they do. You can play the caretaker: arming your heroes, strengthening their relationships, helping them survive until dawn. Or you can play the sadistic director, making just the right mistakes to escalate the drama and watch what horrors unfold.
In other words, experience can be either an empathetic adventure game or a snotty teen torture generator, and Until Dawn does not shy away from that duality. The developers use fourth-wall-breaking tactics to challenge players in subtle and overt ways, forcing you to re-evaluate and potentially complicate your relationship with the cast as the game proceeds. For example, in a disturbing move pulled from the excellent Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, a therapist played in terrifying fashion by Peter Stormare appears between chapters and forces you to answer questions that are more than a little troubling.
Unfortunately, the homage to horror films is at times too faithful, as Until Dawn also manages to replicate a lot of the genre’s worst habits. Some of the characters border on too unlikable, especially early on, and they threaten to change the tenor of play from “What should I do with these people?” to “Why do I even care what happens to these punks?” Like so many horror films before it, Until Dawn treats some important topics insensitively. Mental illness, in particular, is associated with violence in a way that is inevitable enough to feel stigmatizing, and it adds to the long list of mental health care facilities played up for unwarranted horrific spectacle. Native Americans serve as shallow window dressing, papering over anything remotely supernatural in the plot with claptrap about “indigenous mysticism.” The script is written in a way that shows no sort of engagement with actual indigenous peoples or their beliefs, and this exploitative laziness stands out in a game that is otherwise so deliberately written.
True to Supermassive and Sony’s marketing claims, the story can progress in any number of surprising ways depending on your choices. This is a game that invites multiple playthroughs for the sake of experimentation or correction. More than once I was reminded of the scene in the first season of Heroes (and not simply because it also stars Hayden Panettiere) where Hiro hangs up a vast web of news clippings and notes to symbolize the passage of time. The web is a visualization of his struggle to figure out the correct series of events and prevent a dangerous future. Until Dawn forces the player into a similar role, navigating a dense network of possibilities to find your path forward. How bloody and cruel that path becomes is up to you.