Until Dawn is an experience unlike any other for several reasons; primarily, because it is every good—and bad—horror story, gloriously merged into a single, original and innovative narrative. It contains a little bit of everything and in my eyes, is the definitive teen horror story in video gaming. Until Dawn was originally planned to release as a PlayStation 3 exclusive with a heavy emphasis on the PlayStation Move component a few years ago, but was rebuilt from the ground up as a PlayStation 4 exclusive title; I've been following the game's development since its original rumor and it's an unfortunate understatement when I say that it was well worth the wait.
Until Dawn tells the story of eight friends who return to the Blackwood Pines lodge on Mount Washington on the one year anniversary of the disappearance of two of their friends, and quickly learn that something sinister had been waiting for their arrival. With a cast of brilliant actors—some well known, some not so much—portraying the roles of the eight playable characters, it weaves together a story of intrigue, tension, suspense and of course, the supernatural. It explores a small handful of different themes, not only within the narrative, but within the characters themselves and manages to sink its teeth into players from the moment the experience begins and well after it's over.
One unfortunate struggle that horror games always seem to face is the concept of pacing; in some experiences, everything begins to unfold terribly early and leaves the rest of the story stale and exorbitant. In other cases, it's far too long of a build up and players often lose interest before the story has reached a turning point. Until Dawn manages to secure the concept quite well, to the point where enough strange and eyebrow-raising occurrences present themselves early enough to keep players interested, but the game doesn't show its hand within the first hour, either. The plot unfolds at a steady pace, but there is a handful of information and situations that will not be witnessed on the first play through and that is because of Supermassive Games' implementation of the refreshing and innovative Butterfly Effect system.
I think it's safe to say that everyone's heard of the butterfly effect or chaos theory at some point in their lives, whether it be in passing or because one has read A Sound of Thunder or watched the unforgivably disappointing film. The butterfly effect is a phenomenon in which a small event in the initial condition of a system results in significant changes in later conditions. Most people associate it with weather; for example, a butterfly flapping its wings in say, California, may result in a tropical storm on the east coast. The butterfly effect is ever so present in Until Dawn and is the primary drive in the narrative; the game is centered on player choice, and choices made in the game have enough of an effect to determine who will live and who will die. With that being said, it is entirely possible to complete the game with all eight characters alive at the end, or with all eight of them dead, or anything in between.
True, every decision made in Until Dawn has a consequence, but like in real life, there are some situations where a choice is presented that will have the same ultimate consequence no matter what, but may vary in how people perceive, react towards or treat you. Some people may feel cheated in this regard, because the game does have a heavy emphasis on decision making and kind of takes that away from the player during key moments for the sake of the plot. It's understandable, but one has to recognize that sometimes, situations are only disguised as choices. That's why I respect the decision system in Until Dawn so much: it embodies real world elements and there is no "right" or "wrong" decision.
Initially, Until Dawn reads like your classic teen horror film; a group of young people isolated in a remote location and are sharing company with a deranged psychopath. However, later in the narrative, it takes a surprising turn towards the supernatural in a smart and interesting twist. It embodies a true-to-life mythology of the Algonquian culture and it reminds me a little of the final chapters of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, but with the overall setting and tone of Until Dawn, the situation is much darker and significantly more insidious. I personally found it a little disappointing, because I wanted the 'stalked by a psychopath' theme to be explored more than it was, but the narrative was an overall solid presentation regardless.
Until Dawn boasts some of the most impressive and stunning visuals I have ever seen in a video game. It has an almost obsessive-compulsive attention to detail, even with the most insignificant of aspects, which shows a tremendous amount of effort towards creating a truly cinematic and immersive experience. The environments truly present the same kind of vibes I would expect if I were personally in the same situation as the characters in the game; the snowy landscape of the mountain feels isolated, threatening and inspires paranoia, while the labyrinth of the lodge feels grand, intimidating and claustrophobic in some instances. With proper lighting effects and shadows, the experience depicts itself as realistic as possible, and with original and disturbing camera angles, you'll always feel as though you're being watched. With a beautifully orchestrated score by veteran composer, Jason Graves, the setting and tones of Until Dawn are solidified by the eerily fitting music that truly sets the stage for a palm-sweating, hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck situation and it is absolutely brilliant.
Like any story—no matter how good or bad—there will always be the occasional plot-hole or last-minute twist that could have been better thought out, and Until Dawn isn't innocent of that. There are a couple of instances where the game pulls a cheap retcon, but upon closer inspection of the original fact, the dramatic plot shift feels almost like an after thought and doesn't prove to be consistent. It is a little frustrating given that the rest of the narrative is on the proper track, but this little instance may be enough to derail the impact for some players, even if it is only in a minor sense.
Until Dawn is an unfortunately short game; I managed to complete it in around eight to nine hours, and the true and unfortunate downside is that the game could have easily been a little longer if the theme of being stalked by a psychopath was explored more. However, maybe that's just me trying to find a legitimate excuse for the game to further explore that theme. In spite of the fact, Until Dawn offers moderately high replay value because due to the butterfly effect system, different choices will present different consequences; the player will miss out on critical information, situations and scenes if they only play through the game once. Either way, Until Dawn is a masterpiece that should be explored, analyzed and appreciated consistently.