One of the most annoying aspects of slasher films (at least, in my opinion) is how characters consistently make really bad decisions when running from the killer. Of course, Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) satirized and made fun of the well-known / well-loved clichés of the horror genre, and specifically the formula of basically most slasher films. Yet, what if you were able to interact with a slasher narrative, to the point where you get to decide to run or hide, rather than watching a “meta” deconstruction of the genre via the Scream franchise?
This is where PS4 game Until Dawn comes in. Described as an “interactive survival horror adventure video game,” Until Dawn was developed by Supermassive Games for PS4 and released in August 2015.1 On the developer’s website, the game is described as follows:
When eight friends are trapped on a remote mountain retreat and things quickly turn sinister, they start to suspect they aren’t alone. Gripped by fear and with tensions in the group running high, you’ll be forced to make snap decisions that could mean life, or death, for everyone involved. Every choice you make in your terrifying search for answers – even the seemingly trivial ones – will carve out your own unique story.2
Most fans of horror likely recognize the familiar structure: teens + cabin in the woods = slasher killer. Overall, the group consists of Josh, Mike, Sam, Chris, Ashley, Jessica (“Jess”), Matt, and Emily as they all head up to Josh’s family cabin. The backstory, shown at the beginning of the game, relates how Josh’s twin sisters—Hannah and Beth—who are missing, and likely dead, after the previous year’s winter getaway. The twins ran away from the cabin after a prank pulled on Hannah goes wrong, and there’s a fall from a cliff (unbeknownst to the others, but to the player).
What makes this “cabin in the woods” style teen slasher flick a fascinating experience for horror fans is the interactive, branching narrative of Until Dawn. Similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, the game is highly cinematic, causing debates as to if this type of media could even be considered to be a video game in the first place. The gameplay consists more of cut scenes, which typically only serve a small fraction of a game and provide some sort of background or narrative progression. Yet, this game is largely based entirely on narrative progression.
Making this game even more “cinematic” is how two well-known actors provided their likeness and voice for two of the characters: Hayden Panettiere “plays” Sam and Rami Malek “plays” Josh.
Additionally, real independent horror movie posters are actually adorning the walls of the cabin’s theater/screening room. Fans have noted that The House of the Devil, Stake Land, The Innkeepers, Bitter Feast, Automatons, and Hypothermia can be spotted.3
In relation to actual gameplay, instead of killing bad guys or zombies as the player’s avatar walks through/explores a world, Until Dawn emphasizes dialogue and choices. Player interaction with the game involves deciding between two ways to respond to other characters’ dialogue and picking between two potential actions for the character to perform. When the player does get to control an avatar within the game world via the typical third-person camera tracking, you are limited to certain areas and invited to investigate an area for clues about what is happening/has happened.
The dialogue choices are important as character profiles (see above) change, reflecting the choices you have made throughout the course of the game.
Indeed, Until Dawn reflects a “branching narrative,” in which the choices a player makes actually changes the narrative course and events of the game. In fact, you can end the game with one or all of the characters surviving “until dawn.” The game prefers to call this the “Butterfly Effect,” in reference to the idea that if a butterfly flaps its wings somewhere, then some event will correspondingly happen because of it.
Not only does this encourage multiple plays through the game’s entirety, but it also gives players opportunities to see how the choices they make may be connected. Furthermore, many of the action choices of the game recall standard slasher film moments. For example, Sam is chased by the game’s mysterious killer while (of course) wearing only a bath towel the entire time.
Trying to escape the killer, would you (as Sam in the above image) chose to run or hide? Obviously, this brings to mind the idea of the “Final Girl” who survives until the end of the movie to beat the killer after being chased and tormented for a very generous portion of the film (made infamous by Halloween). Until Dawn enables you to help potential Final Girls (and guys) survive “until dawn,” and allows you to replay the game, make different decisions, and see how that could lead to certain characters surviving the night.
In sum, I highly recommend this game to anyone that always wanted to make decisions they thought were better than the ones teenagers make in slasher movies. The branching narrative and depth of the killer’s story/identity really makes Until Dawn stand out, and the acting is great!
For those interested, Until Dawn is available on PS4 via the PlayStation Store for $19.99.
Brooke Bennett is currently a graduate student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. She has written several pieces on The Walking Dead and loves to chat for hours about the cultural importance of all things horror. Her current favorites in horror are found-footage style films and zombie narratives. Brooke’s other work can be found on Academia and you can follow her on Twitter.