This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Until Dawn.
I have a soft spot for the slasher movie. Not that they're ever anything above god-awful. I mean, calling Friday the 13th "art" is like calling a face full of crusted shit "cosmetic surgery". But I like them because there's something very essentially cathartic about watching a bunch of complete twats get completely twatted. When the parade of out-of-work actors in their mid-to-late twenties pretending to be care-free teenagers with unfeasibly easy access to expensive holiday real estate seem to find no end of amusement in jumping out at each other ten million times across the first hour as the soundtrack shrieks like Sharon Stone just recrossed her legs in front of the violinists, Jason Voorhees is acting out the growing desires of the audience as he starts slitting them up like Christmas presents with good dentistry.
Until Dawn is an interactive story of the David Cage school pushed through the filter of slasher movie with the promise being that if we make all the right decisions, perhaps we could keep all the out-of-work twenty-something actors alive. I don't think you were paying attention, Until Dawn. I will have made the right decisions if every single one of these gurgleberks ends up upholstering the soft furnishings in Leatherface's man cave.
It's funny how developers of this sort of thing always act like no-one's ever thought of it before. You start Until Dawn and it's so fucking excited with itself you have to watch a little video going, "Decisions have consequences! Is your mind blown? Let's hope so, 'cause then you won't notice our complete lack of creativity!" Because the main cast are straight from the teen slasher default creation wizard. Every single one of them could have their personalities fully summarized with one five-letter word: brave, hunky, bitch, funny, timid, weird, whore, and let's not forget, black. While partying in Weird's holiday home, these care-free out-of-work actors accidentally act two of their friends to death, but all of them get back together the following year in the same house and don't feel in the least bit weird about it. I guess the party must have been fucking legendary before the buzz got killed by the whole manslaughter thing.
So from that point, the game does the David Cage thing, that is, you steer a character who controls like they're standing on a Roomba with low batteries around some rooms looking for things to pick up and stare at like a monkey finding a purple banana, and then switch to scripted quick-time event chase sequences like you're playing Gone Home on one monitor and Guitar Hero on the other. It also owes something to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories in that it tries to psychologically evaluate you to an extent, albeit with considerably less subtlety. At one point a character brazenly asks, "Say, which three of these things do you find scariest?" And lo and behold, the three you pick will show up later. That seems like an easy system to game. "No really, I'm terrified of Magners cider, Jaffa Cakes and handjobs."
Now obviously every single one of David Cage's games have been one long exercise in sitting on a toilet looking sad, and quick-time events are to gameplay what a creepy mustache is to a primary school teacher. So I was expecting to be dawn on Until Down, I mean down on Until Dawn, 'til I noticed I'd been playing for six hours straight and the edge of my seat had carved a furrow across my buttocks. Yes, Until Dawn is doing something right. I think the teen slasher may well be the genre that can make the branching story thing actually work. They're usually isolated with a lot of location revisiting, so the massive axe we saw in Act One can be splitting some nadgers in twain in Act Three. What's more: it's the genre in which the cast list effectively doubles as a score board, and you can let any of them get arbitrarily murdered without sacrificing their role in the story, because getting arbitrarily murdered largely is their role in the story. Even the quick-time event sequences didn't irk as much as usual, just because characters will be really, no crossed-finger-backsies dead for the whole rest of the plot if you miss certain ones, which, aside from being the definition of win-win, actually adds some real weight to proceedings.
Mind you, it means later scenes have to proceed on the basis that certain characters could be alive or dead and because of that, surviving characters seem to get over deaths really weirdly fast. "Sorry about your boyfriend, lady." "No worries, I'll just bring myself off on his neck stump."
There's a focus on characters and their interactions; the game keeps track of their personalities in the form of individual stats. Why, I don't know, because their actions are always decided by you. "Oh look, this character's got maximum bravery. Well, I've decided he's going to do something cowardly now and you can just eat shit from the jar with a great, big desert spoon, stats."
Overall though, I had a good feeling. I mean, the plot's all over the place. First there's supernatural elements, then there isn't, then there is again. It's like you brought together The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Saw, The Descent and I Know What You Did Last Summer and rather ill-advisedly tried to get a DVDA going.
And I hate how these sort of games always make you jump through hoops for the most basic interactions out of some cock-eyed idea that it enhances immersion. It's not enough to press X to pick something up, we've also got to stand there with one hand groping an invisible titty until we also hold down the reach-out button and steer it about with the analogue stick like our father was a skill-tester machine.
So there's that, but the game still exceeded expectations, until I started the second playthrough and my goodwill started drying up faster than the tears at Rupert Murdoch's funeral. Narrative-driven games seem to have really fallen out with run buttons lately, maybe run button said something bitchy about narrative's new girlfriend. But it would've been nice to have something faster than a brisk walk, especially when someone is screaming horribly in the next room and all we can do is amble over like they're merely asking for help programming the VCR. The "skip cutscene" button must also have been spreading those girlfriend rumours, 'cause one of those would also have been nice, especially after I discovered just how much the game was bullshitting about the branching path thing for most of the story. Look, I'm fine with not every choice splitting the universe; I don't expect picking the fun-sized Twix over the Snickers having a devastating snowball effect. But there's a bit where two characters are in a trap and you have to pick which one dies. Fairly pivotal choice, you'd think, but after restarting the chapter like four times, I learned to my annoyance that the game always kills the same one, regardless of your pick. Probably because a later mandatory plot twist hinges on it, but it's not what I'd call branching story, it's more like a...log.
- Early riser: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I'd say my favourite Jason film is still number 2 just for the classic urination scene alone.
- Still it really is a lovely holiday destination