Until Dawn is a game about manipulating relationships. In a story where eight hormone-fuelled young adults are trapped together for one terrifying night, the possibilities for emotional mayhem are endless. Throw in the imminent danger of death at the hands of a serial killer and tensions run high in a very dramatic, very entertaining way.
I played through the first three hours of Until Dawn, watching over and controlling the fates of the young cast who feature in the game. The way the storyline played out was influenced by the choices I made, changing characters' individual traits as well as their relationships with one another. This butterfly effect means that seemingly small choices made early on can supposedly create ripples in the story which have a larger influence on how events play out later in the game.
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Even so, it felt as though the decisions I made seldom had an impact on where the main story moved during the time I played. The changes I experienced were subtle in how they shaped the dialogue and relationships between the cast. For example, while playing as Sam, a diligent and considerate young woman, I was presented with the option of looking through a phone which belonged to her friend Matt. I chose not to look through his belongings and respect his privacy. In a separate playthrough my colleague, when presented with the same option, chose to snoop through the phone. Because of this, when Matt later snatched a friend's private letter away from her, he claimed that because Sam had snooped through his belongings he was allowed to do the same to others. Although the same event took place in my own playthrough, his dialogue about Sam snooping was absent.
Because I spent a lot of time watching these characters interact with one another and influencing their relationships, shaping the way these conversations happened felt interesting and fun. Sure their personalities veered on teen-slasher movie cliche, with the bitchy cheerleader and the obnoxious jock roles filled. But I found a morbid curiosity in watching these characters develop chemistry and at other times, clash terribly. And the drama. Oh the drama. The story draws influences from B-grade horror movies of old; the group of friends who come together to commemorate their friends' deaths. The jock dude encouraging his mate to score with his crush. The couple getting intimate, only to be interrupted by the serial killer.
Until Dawn jumped from character to character at pre-determined moments in the story, which allowed me to control one at a time. The game threw at me decision after decision to make as that character, some of which were more crucial than others. Their intensity ranged from choices like "Do I let my friend look through the telescope and see his girlfriend getting cozy with her ex?" to "Do I chase after the killer by jumping down this steep slope or climb down the safer, slower route?" Some of these were the tipping point between the life or death of a character.
The first character death I encountered came as something of a shock, because up until that point I had been convinced that my careful approach to risky situations had been the best thing to do. As I confronted the corpse of my dead friend the game was quick to allude to where I had gone wrong, showing brief flashbacks of where I had decided to take the more secure, but slower path in chasing the killer. Perhaps if I had taken the faster, riskier route, that friend would still be alive. It is supposedly possible to complete the game with everyone alive, or have all eight characters end up dead. The game's auto-save system ensures that players cannot simply go back and load a previous save to undo a crucial choice, adding to the pressure of making a decision which leads to a desirable outcome.
My decision-making was not limited solely to controlling the actions of the characters. At chosen intervals in the game I was whisked away to a therapy session with a psychiatrist which seemed to take place separately from where the game's horror story unfolded. Here, I was quizzed on what made me uneasy, or what triggered my fear. A later session asked me to choose which characters I disliked the most, and asked me to identify whether I feared men or women more. In addition to breaking the fourth wall, these quizzes supposedly serve to alter the course of the game according to what I identified as something which scared me more. While I didn't directly encounter any of my named fears (zombies and roaches), I am curious to see whether these selections materialise in some form later on in the game.
Regardless of what personalised form of disturbia is chosen, the game still employs key scenes seemingly armed with the intent of scaring the player. When hooked up to a PlayStation Eye camera, the game will take a snapshot of the player to capture their reaction as the jump scare moment happens. It's a nice touch, if you are the sort to enjoy looking back at your own horrified expression, or in my own case, laugh at the lack of one.
Although I was initially doubtful about how much I'd enjoy Until Dawn's campy dialogue and B-grade horror film idiosyncrasies, when my time was up with the game I found it difficult to leave the characters behind, and the story hanging. I wanted to see how far the ripples of the butterfly effect reached. I wanted to find out what happens when the relationship between two characters plummets to zero. I want to know if Chris ever hooks up with Ashley. I look forward to the release of Until Dawn on August 26, which will be when I finally find out.