“Until Dawn” Takes You Inside Every Trashy Horror Movie Trope

I don’t like fall. I really really do not like it. I’m not trying to be contrarian. I don’t have an opinion about where, when, or in what quantities people enjoy their pumpkins and their spices. Flannel and hoodies are great, but I wear those in my freezing cold office seasons-be-damned, and plus I spent too much money on Lexa t-shirts this year to feel great about having to cover them up because of something dumb like the axial tilt of the planet I live on. The lower humidity is indeed pretty easy on the hairdo, but those cool breezes everybody is blessing all over Twitter just feel like doom on the wind to me. Fall leads to winter. Like foreplay to a damn dentist appointment. And everybody is HAPPY about it. It’s a nightmare.

The only things that get me through the month of October are mayhem, madness, suspense, dismemberment, and candy. Yeah, I like Halloween. I’m not a monster, okay?

So, in that spirit, let’s talk about my favorite spooky scary game: Until Dawn. I have brought it to the houses of multiple friends and watched to watch them play the entire game while I eat their snack foods. I love this game so much I carry it around in my backpack just in case I run into some poor soul who owns a Ps4 but for some tragic reason has not yet had the pleasure of playing it. (It is a Ps4 exclusive, but lucky for you it’s been out for a year so even if you can’t track me down to borrow mine it’ll only cost you $20 at this point.)

It opens with a prologue befitting a slasher flick, which I’m going to spoil because it’s only the first 15 minutes of the game and it sets up the whole thing.

A bunch of drunk kids in a ski lodge have pranking on their hive-mind. It’s very teenage in that TV way where everybody has a little Alison Dilaurentis in them except that one sweet friend who is basically Emily Fields pre killing-a-guy. Except, rudely, her name is Hannah. And there’s also an actual Emily, who is the worst and thus the absolute best. What happens is, Hannah’s “friends” trick her into thinking Grant Ward from Agents of Shield wants to hook up so they can videotape it and be horrible I guess. Hannah is kind of wonderful; when Grant Ward is like “Ehhhhhhh wanna make out a little first?” she’s just “NOPE. It is time for my boobs.” But anyway, everybody she has ever known or loved is hiding under the furniture and behind curtains and in lasagna boxes and they laugh and laugh and she gets so embarrassed that she runs off an actual cliff, and so does her twin sister. Solidarity. Plus there’s some sinister somebody prowling around, but he makes no attempt to show us his boobs so I don’t consider him a priority.

Take a few seconds to mourn, and then we are One Year Later. After an aggressively long intro set to “O Death” (teens love Appalachian folk ballads, bro) we are in the main game. Hannah’s brother, Mr. Robot, has gathered all of these jerks together to have another ski lodge party to celebrate the anniversary of his sisters falling off a mountain. It’s an inappropriate celebration if you ask me. I would never go to this party.

But I digress. We start to meet the characters here, and get used to the gameplay. Every time a new character shows up, the game goes extreme close-up and gives you a card with their defining characteristics, which in my opinion are 99 percent wrong and irrelevant, so I have fixed them.

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You’ll wind up playing as everybody at some point in the game, so you get to mold them a bit with your choices, but the writing is consistent enough that each character maintains their own distinct personality. You can’t make Emily nice no matter how hard you try, bless her heart. Everybody gets their own adventure, sending you on tours of such scenic horror movie tropes as Collapsed Mine, Abandoned Mental Institution, and Bathtub. Things go very poorly in every possible way, except that you can throw a snowball at Grant Ward’s face. For real though there are things worse than pranks up here on this mountain. There’s a lot of plot. They’re doing every tropey thing all at once, but by the end it all ties together in a satisfying way.

Gameplay is a ton of exploration, some dialogue choices, and then frantic bouts of action that come in the form of quick time events. Quick time events are basically interactive cut scenes. So instead of controlling your character running off a mountain, for instance, you watch her run, and then as she approaches a cliff you’ll get a time-sensitive prompt like “PRESS ‘A’ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO FALL OFF A MOUNTAIN”, and if you don’t press it in time she will, uh, fall off a mountain.

Personally I find this to be both more and less stressful than regular manual controls? You don’t have to worry about doing anything well; you either do a thing or you do something else. But you have no time to think about it, which is kind of perfect for a game based on horror movies, because when you only have one second to decide “this way” or “that way” it’s often easiest to just choose the first one you see, and damned if you don’t start to understand how so many characters in movies find themselves running upstairs instead of out the front door. Sometimes, the best choice is to do nothing at all, but when you are running out of time and the game is all “A or B?”, that invisible “C” is real easy to forget.

The real stress, though, comes from the fact that there are no do-overs. If somebody dies, they stay dead. It’s possible to finish the game with zero survivors. (It’s also possible to miss out on some of the most revealing character moments in the game if you don’t play certain things in very specific ways.)

So, is it scary? I don’t know. I’m a person who finds horror movies funny and oddly comforting, because they are never about what I am actually afraid of, which is mostly my own narcissistic existential awfulness and also heights. This game relies a lot on jump-scares and gore early on. The late game gets intense as hell, though, and might have you grinding your teeth a bit. There is also this sort of psychological horror framing device that gets pretty unnerving. One of my playthroughs was with a friend who is arguably even tougher than I am, and while we were never particularly spooked by the game itself, at one point a chalkboard fell off the wall in real life and we both jumped half out of our socks when it hit the floor. It just feels very true to trashy horror movies. It pulls from everything, from Scream to Saw to The Descent to Halloween. It’s really only missing my first true love Heather Langenkamp.

It’s also surprisingly beautiful for a game featuring multiple beheadings. The camera works in a cinematic kind of way, so the viewing angle is locked based on where you are in the environment rather than letting you look around at will. This makes navigation kind tough at times, but it means every shot you see was meant to be seen exactly that way. The graphics really showcase the Ps4’s potential compared to last gen systems. Every time I play I find myself thinking about what a good looking game it is. The character animations were done with face-capture on the actors, which allowed them to capture micro-expressions that make the characters seem more like real people than the usual stoic videogame avatars. Sometimes face-capture can err into uncanny valley territory, but here it works beautifully. (Except for teeth. Video games apparently still can’t get the teeth right.)

There are things I’d change. I wish you could walk faster. I wish there was a map. The changing camera angles can make it hard to remember where you came from and where you’re supposed to go. I wish it wasn’t possible for the dog (wolf, really, but it follows you around like a dog) to die. Like, don’t Google how to save the humans, that would ruin the whole game, but I would not judge you at all for looking up how to save the dog. And I really wish they hadn’t included the “totem” easter eggs. The story cannibalizes indigenous folklore in predictable horror movie fashion, but the “totems” don’t even have any in-game significance (you find them, examine them, and get a “vision” of a possible future outcome. But it doesn’t even seem like the characters see it? They never react at all.) Just, stop it. There’s no reason. And, I mean, I wish there was more Emily. I wish the whole game was Emily. I wish I was Emily.

So this is how I plan to cope with fall. I will sit myself down in a dark room with a dark beer and watch my favorite characters’ survival chances deteriorate at a rate proportionally inverse to my beverage consumption. I’ll take comfort in the fact that my apartment is warmer than their ski lodge and cleaner than their sanitarium and more structurally sound than their mine. And I’ll have pizza or a burrito and marvel that these dumb kids seem to have forgotten to bring any food at all to their party.

I guess I’m maybe a little bummed to be playing the same horror game this year as I did last year, but no new releases have really jumped out at me. Am I missing out on anything great? What are your favorite scary games? And what is your favorite thing about Heather Langenkamp?

Sarah lives in the Boston area and plays a lot of video games. Her interests are cats, bragging, and foods that can be eaten lying down. She has too many sneakers and not enough pants.

sarah has written 30 articles for us.

29 Comments

  1. I have no opinions on games at all (except the Lego games, I freaking love those), but your intro about fall couldn’t be more true. I feel like I am the only person who dislikes fall/winter! I don’t like getting up in the dark and then driving home in the dark; I miss the green leaves on trees; I don’t like rain or snow or being cold in general (my office thermostat seems to always be set to Arctic, so I, too, wear hoodies full time). So, thank you for finally pointing out the flaw in fall! You’re my new hero.

      • I’m pretty sure I still have PTSD from 8 years of British weather. I shouldn’t really complain about winter where I live. It rarely snows and usually doesn’t rain much (although both of those things are bad for the drought). But it does get really cold and is usually below 0 when I drive to work in the morning. And I just don’t do cold. At all.

          • Summer is gross, but hot weather makes me want to go to a bar where there is a/c and cold beer and, incidentally, social activity. Its a net gain for me.

            The cold makes me want to hide in a blanket fort forever and as a result I get extra hermit-y and more sad like some kinda bad-feelings ourobos situation.

          • I would trade! It’s a lot harder for me to warm up than cool down. Although 45 Celsius is a little extreme, I have no problem dealing with California summer (average temp ranges from 35-40 Celsius). If the heat were constant, I would probably hate it eventually, but with winter approaching, I’d take it.

          • Woah, its total opposite for me, i wrap myself up till i look like a baby bear, and head out more in winters, when its that cold to begin with, otherwise i think a few layers suffice for my winters.
            I have a weird thing where i avoid air conditioning as much as i can, so obviously my friends try to avoid me during this time and there isnt much going out. I don’t know why i have this ac thing, maybe my spirit animal is a reptile??

        • Haah, 35-40 is good weather for us. I dont think I’ll trade because i dont want you to spontaneously combust, which i think you will if you try to survive in 40 above weather if you’re not used to it. This year we touched 47 ,i think. Fuck Global warming.

  2. “Chris, a boy, nice I think? Blonde?” is how I’ve been feeling about dudes for the past over-a-year-now. So thank you for expressing that for me. 😀

    Isn’t this game the freaking best? I love how you could play it through eight times and get eight separate results. The only thing about the totems that is even sort of redeeming is that *I think* if you collect all of one type, it affects the characters later? Somehow? But we found it very difficult to find all of them, despite being pretty thorough.

    Off to remenisce about playing it a thousand times lasy year! 🙂

  3. I LOVE UNTIL DAWN. It is one of my favorite horror games. I played it multiple times last year so I could get all the endings. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys horror films and horror games. It’s very much in the vein of teenage horror films. It embraces horror tropes. Seriously, go play this game!

    Emily is the best. She has the best lines in the game. I really liked the fact that she is Asian. I rarely get to see myself, an Asian woman in videogames, especially a portrayal that goes against the stereotype of the meek Asian woman. Why no personality card for her BTW?

    Chris is the literal worst because he’s one of those “nice guys” and IMO he doesn’t treat Ashley that well. Mike is an awful bro and makes really stupid decisions, but yeah okay he’s brave. Sam: I like Sam!

    While I love this game, it has problems. Trying not to spoil it much, but as mentioned, there are major issues with the usage of indigenous mythology. It’s tropey and bad in that respect. I also feel that the mental illness aspect of this game was not great in the sense that it plays on tired tropes as well.

  4. Until Dawn is a surprisingly great game. When I played it for the first time I was not expecting it to be that great but it has a solid story and the choose your own adventure elements of it are really well executed. I also really like that even on replays of the game it forces you to play all the way through even if you make a bad decision. On my first play through one of the characters nearly lost their hand because I fell victim to the classic horror trope of being overly curious when you absolutely should not be.

    If you are looking for other good horror/spooky games to play I can recommend the following, if you haven’t played them already:

    Among the Sleep
    The Cat Lady (classic point and click adventure style game)
    Soma

  5. I have yet to play this due to money and also having watched people like Rose and Rosie play through it on YouTube.

    If you’ve played it all the way through I really recommend this video called “Game Theory: Until Dawn’s TRAGIC Hero” which is an awesome delve into mental health that made me completely rethink the entire game.

    Horror games usually scare the bejesus out of me so I’m not sure if I can handle it alone!

  6. “very tough but probably still taking a bath tbh” yaassss!! ?

    I got to the end of this game having only lost 1 character! But when it came time to make the final decision (which I THOUGHT was the right one?!!?!) I botched it and ended up killing all but 2 characters. Yikes 😛

    Definitely a fun game that I’m so in the mood to replay now, thanks!

  7. I’m with you on call, both the good and bad. I don’t like the cold either! Give me heat and humidity!

    I haven’t played Until Dawn (though I have played until dawn at times). It looks fun, and with slightly more “gameplay,” so to speak than some other games of that sort.

  8. Thank you for this! I want to play and I’m usually not a video gamer girl (I think the last game I loved was Left 4 Dead). But my gf has a PS4 and I’m hoping she hasn’t played this one yet so I can either watch or play with or something. Perfect for fall and for me who likes scary things also boobs.

    I also really liked your article on this and I want to read more from you it was sooo good. K Thanks.

  9. I’m not into horror in general but I am playing something which says it’s in the horror genre right now, called Oxenfree. I am not finished but I am trying pretty hard to make the main character go on a spooky date with one of the girls. I think it’s possible. I hear it is.
    So far, not too scary but definitely weird and glitchy.

    • I loved Oxenfree. I wish it got more attention than it did. Jenna wrote about it on here a couple months ago!

      (I spent the whole game trying to make Mean Clarissa love me but she did not love me, not at all.)

  10. You’re missing out on the Playstation VR horror games actually, one of them is even related to Until Dawn, it’s by the same studio and apparantely set inside Josh’s mind (Mr. Robot). Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. Also try the Resident Evil VR demo: Kitchen and horror game here they lie.

  11. I was literally just thinking about replaying this game a couple days ago and I think I’m going to have to do it now. : ) since I was not totally pleased with last time hahaha. I succeeded in getting through the whole game pretty well and then lost like three people in like last 5 min.

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