**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD**
I have very little experience with playing video games. Every single one of my (many) brothers is a gamer in some form or another, but outside of point-and-click Nancy Drew games (which are awesome, by the way) and Guitar Hero, video games have mostly existed in my universe as background noise.
Part of the reason I’ve never been terribly interested in playing is that when I think about how many hours video games suck into the void, I feel like I could be doing anything else and it would be a more productive use of time. It has always kind of boggled my mind how people who play them don’t seem to mind losing entire days in this fashion.
I used to roll my eyes and think “yeah, okay” when anyone would tell me about games having great stories. “How about reading a book? The normal way to hear a good story?” my internal (and occasionally external) dialogue would continue.
I can now admit that I may have been wrong on some levels.
A few of my friends and family members played Until Dawn recently and talked about how creepy it was, which intrigued me on a base level because I enjoy creepy things; books, movies, creepypastas… if it’s haunted I’ll most likely want to see/read/know about it. I have a lot of extra time on my hands these days, so I have been more willing to waste it on things I wouldn’t ordinarily; and thus, I decided to give the creepy game a whirl.
In the span of a mere 30 hours, Until Dawn became the first real video game I played through and finished. I thought that made it worthwhile enough to warrant a review of my experience. Now a final warning: I’ll be going into some of the details in the game, so if you are interested in playing it and you haven’t yet, STOP HERE BECAUSE SPOILERS. The rest of you—onward!
The first thing I want to get out of the way is what I found to be the negative aspects of the game. Primarily, the mechanics were very clunky (ha, look at me using Official Video Game Terms). It’s played in 3rd person, which I found annoying on its own, but the camera angles made it worse in a way I can’t fully describe—they seemed to just be pointing in the most irritating direction whenever possible. My brother compared moving the characters around to driving a truck, and that struck me as so accurate that I was actually making *vroom vroom* noises while I concentrated all of my willpower on trying to force them down a path. Turned out every path was the path of most resistance.
They also ambled around SO. SLOWLY. There was an option to “walk faster” but it was by about 1/100th mph so I’m not even sure why they wasted gigabytes including it. Sloth walking added tedium to playing the levels, so I started getting annoyed and bored with searching out totems and clues, and I missed more than I probably should have.
Speaking of totems and clues (which we were calling “shinies,” is this an Official Video Game Term?), they were only accessible if you got close enough and achieved the right angle at them—an impressive feat when operating a large piece of machinery—and they sparkled white which was a color that showed up on many other surfaces throughout the game. This caused “let me take 45 minutes to maneuver into this corner just to find out that sparkle was a moonlight reflection I can’t touch.”
Some of my lesser complaints are that much of the dialog at the beginning was satirical high-schooler level cringey; there were some inconsistencies/unexplained story parts (like why they were all wandering around in the dark at the beginning when at the end it turns out the power was on the whole time??); sometimes doing what logically seemed to be the “right thing” was NOT the right thing leading me to question my entire existence; and there wasn’t a single second in the entire game that I felt anything but pure unadulterated hate for Emily.
Lastly, and I cannot stress this enough, I ABHOR QUICK TIME EVENTS. They were a shining feature in the game and boy howdy did they stress me out. Obviously, I’m not all that familiar with a PS4 controller so the first time a square popped up on the screen, I panicked and hit X and everyone died. Throw controller. Rinse. Repeat. I did my best to memorize the proper locations of the shapes, but half forgetting where the buttons were and half panic button-mashing led to more mistakes than I’m proud of. Quick time events flustered me in a way that took me out of the experience and I would have been much happier if they weren’t there at all. I realize this isn’t a fault of the game itself because, considering there is a name for this phenomenon, it is apparently a standard video game challenge.
Despite my gripes, I had a great time playing Until Dawn. One of my favorite aspects was the butterfly effect. It was explained going into the game that every choice I made would cause a ripple effect and there are tons of different possible outcomes. A fascinating concept, and the god-like power of determining the futures of all these people was truly intoxicating. I appreciated that there was a menu full of all of my butterfly effects that was updated in real time, so I could always go look at how the decisions I had made so far were impacting the characters. I played with other people watching me, and every time I made a decision I asked them what they chose when they played and compared the different outcomes. I very much enjoyed the instant curiosity gratification.
The world-building and atmosphere in the game were impressive. It started out uneasy, and got progressively, almost unbearably creepier as it went on. The open jump scares and the illusive hints at danger were interwoven nicely—there were moments where I would move a character and there was a masked figure standing directly behind me causing a straight up heart attack, and there were moments where a shadow would slink by or water would ripple that were so subtle I might have missed it. It put me on edge (in a good way) for the whole game because I never knew what to expect.
There were also a few times where I stopped just to take in the view. I’ve always loved beautiful landscapes and the details that go into various works of art, and creating a visually appealing world you can virtually walk around and explore is an art form I have a new appreciation for. While I thoroughly enjoyed the entire map, I did have a few favorite atmospheres that continue to stick out in my mind.
The first was Dr. Hill’s room between chapters. He came across as such a weirdo with all of his questions about what scares me the most and his long judgmental pauses, then every time I saw his room it had changed to add a new layer of horror based on how I answered his questions (I know this thanks to my brother, who is afraid of zombies more than my choice of clowns). This was cool because I was expecting the time in-between chapters to be chill, a slight reprieve from how eerie the rest of the game was, and then surprise! It’s the same amount of unsettling just in a smaller environment!
The mines were atmospherically frightening with limited visibility, horrifying sounds, and grimy pieces of Beth and Hannah’s personal effects scattered throughout, ensuring that at no turn did I think I was anywhere near Kansas anymore. The vibe was only enhanced as I found out more about what went on down there.
There was a bit where Chris and Ashley were trying to find Sam in the house, and in the midst of their search they ended up in the bowels of the deep, dank basement. They kept seeing flashes of a ghost who eventually led them to a dollhouse. I am not a fan of dolls or dollhouses, so we were off to a great start with the creep factor. They opened the dollhouse and inside were dolls of all the friends set up in a recreation of the prank that led to Hannah and Beth’s disappearance a year ago… but all of their eyes were blacked out and looked like they were bleeding. BLEHBLEHBLEH NO THANK YOU GOODBYE. I hated it but I loved it.
Then what I consider the most terrifying part of the whole game: The Sanatorium. Specifically, the area where tons of the wendigos were locked up (or not so locked up…) and I discovered the room with the old film reel. Going through the Sanatorium, I learned that there were miners who had been rescued after being trapped in the mines, but there was something wrong with them. There were journals, patient files, notes, etc. that showed the miners in various stages of turning into wendigos, so I had a bad feeling when I played the film reel and it was an old grainy black and white shot of a nurse strapping a patient to a chair. I gaped in horror as the nurse left, and the “person” in the chair convulsed, tore out of the restraints, and crawled up the wall out of the frame. The nurse came back and looked around, confused, and was then attacked. Something about that scene made my blood run cold. The film kept repeating after that and I could not get out of that room fast enough. It will surely haunt my nightmares for the rest of time.
The story was incredible in concept, structure, and the way major plot points were revealed. When it began, I thought that there was a serial killer with some pretty high tech heat-detecting goggles hunting down the characters on the mountain. As the characters split off in various directions and were experiencing their own horrors in different places at the same time, I thought there must be a gang of killers. No way one person could be doing all of that on their own. With all of the symbols and candles, I figured it was ritualistic in nature—some sort of cult or something. When it came to the Saw moment of having to choose who died between Ashley or Josh I was shocked. I legitimately sat there for 5 some odd minutes trying to make the best decision, and when it didn’t go the way I chose (I picked Josh to live because of the bro code), I was flabbergasted. I questioned whether I had done something wrong with the controller, but I also thought maybe the opposite of what I picked would have happened regardless because psychos be psycho.
The Big Reveal that Josh was the “psycho” and wasn’t really dead completely floored me. It was a fantastic setup that, when I thought about it, made perfect sense. His friends knew Hannah had a crush on Mike, but Mike didn’t feel the same. Instead of being decent people about it, they set her up. Mike wrote her a note telling her to meet him in the bedroom while everyone hid to film her falling for it. When she found out what they were doing, she became reasonably upset and ran off. Beth followed, and the rest was history. In Josh’s mind, these people shamed, embarrassed, and ultimately sent his sisters off a cliff. He wanted to give them a taste of the pain his sisters experienced. I didn’t blame him. If I’m being honest, I was even on his side. He may have taken it a little too far, but I thought they deserved the scare. The “harmless prank” they played on Hannah wasn’t harmless or funny, it was just plain cruel.
I was glad this reveal also explained why Josh invited them back on the anniversary of the disappearance in the first place. It struck me as a weird and morbid idea on his part and I was like “…why would anyone do this?” but I figured it was one of those suspend-your-disbelief things. I don’t mind suspending disbelief to enjoy a piece of fiction, but I much prefer when there is a legitimate and logical (albeit insane) motivation for events transpiring.
Then the story dialed up to 11 and it turned out that Josh wasn’t the one who dragged Jess through a window and down into the mines, but rather it was a wendigo—a creature born out of cannibalism. After connecting some dots I realized the wendigos in the Sanatorium were the miners who had gotten stuck in the mines years ago. They had started eating each other, so the curse fell upon them.
I have my doctorate in being unable to guess endings until they are spelled out in crayon (I’m the ideal media consumer—twist endings almost always get me and my reactions are subsequently enthusiastic), so despite picking up fragments of Beth and Hannah throughout the game, including Beth’s literal head, I did not have a clue what was coming. I assumed they had both fallen off the cliff and died, and when their personal items were scattered about it was because their bodies were dragged into the mines and eaten by the wendigos or something. Not much more to it than that.
I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I found Hannah’s journal that revealed the Ultimate Twist: Hannah alone survived the fall off the cliff, buried Beth’s body in the mines, and then when she began to starve, she dug Beth back up and ate her, bringing the cannibalism curse upon herself and turning her into a wendigo!! That followed by the reveal of Josh hallucinating Dr. Hill the whole time because he had simply gone off the deep end, well… Mind. Blown.
There was a final battle (boss battle?) where I saw Hannah the Wendigo up close and personal because she was trying to kill me. She was sufficiently disturbing to look at, especially when her Gollum face took up 80% of the screen, and more creep points were awarded.
Somehow, through a bit of guessing, a couple of helpful hints, and a whole lot of luck, I managed to get ALL of the characters out alive. I didn’t even mean to. I was rooting for Emily to die the whole time but my conscience repeatedly forced me to do the right thing. It sucks to be a good person sometimes.
I would be very interested to see more of the endings, but due to how much I hated moving through the game and the inability to skip cut scenes, I don’t think I could play it through again. It wouldn’t be quite the same because having to step into something yourself is different from watching someone else do it, but it is a story I would love to see in movie format.
It was great to be able to play Until Dawn while surrounded by family and friends. If you ever have the chance to do Video Game Theater, it’s a fantastic bonding experience that I’d highly encourage. The whole affair was an occasionally frustrating but mostly thrilling adventure that I’m really glad I decided to take a chance on. I came out the other side with more experience and a fresh perspective, while only really losing out on one night of sleep thanks to a newfound fear of being torn apart by wendigos.
8/10 Would Recommend.