Until Dawn and the illusion of choice

Until Dawn is good at making you think it has a lot on its plate - but does it really?


Halloween is coming, and being the horror junkie that I am, I figured I would talk a little bit about one of the few horror games that we've seen this year that has received a lot of attention: Until Dawn, a sort of digital choose-your-own-adventure book with quick time events and split-second decisions that seem to influence the story.

But do they really?

Let's take a look at the problems this game has when  it comes to truly giving players control over the narrative.

Problem One: The "killer"

Here is a screenshot from one of the most high-octane scenes in the game, where one of the many characters you take on the role of, in this case, Sam, is being chased by the "psycho" antagonist.

You have mere moments to decide whether Sam is going to throw a vase at the killer or just make a break for it, and even if you make the "right" choice here, you have more sequences down the line that will determine whether she is caught or not.

The real kicker? It doesn't matter. The psycho who chases you for more than half of the game isn't really out for blood, he's just messing around. While this is a great bait-and-switch for when the real monsters show themselves, it doesn't make for great gameplay. 

The psycho doesn't kill anyone, so this entire chase sequence is, essentially, meaningless. Whether you get caught or not, Sam is unharmed. In fact, Sam can't be killed until the very last scene of the game.

Problem Two: Deceptive mechanics

When you're playing Until Dawn, you feel like your choices will have meaning. The game will constantly update and remind you that your choice has had an impact on events to come, specifically through a message that your choice has caused a "Butterfly Effect." The game presents the "Butterfly Effect" as so important that it provides you an entire page with every possible "difference" you can make within your game.

Of course, a lot of these choices are as inconsequential as Sam being caught. They affect how the story will reach its next scene, but those next scenes are going to inevitably happen.

The game tries so hard, mechanically, to hammer into your head that your choices matter, which is often a lie. Beyond the "Butterfly Effect" updates, there are totems lying around throughout the game. A lot of them. And they seem to be little hints and warnings for the player. Picking one up plays a brief, vague animation that warns you of something to come. This deceives the player into thinking that the scenes featured on these totems can actually be avoided, or that the player can play a hand in changing the foreshadowed outcomes.

This is rarely true.

You could go through the entire game without finding a single totem and still receive the most positive outcome, and you could completely botch a number of the "Butterfly Effect" moments and still have all of your characters survive.

Problem Three: Even near the end, the game pulls punches

Now, I enjoyed Until Dawn. It was fun, cheesy, B-movie entertainment in the form of a video game. But the problem is, it makes promises that it just can't keep.


You would expect, once the later chapters begin to occur, that things are going to get serious, that character mortality rates will spike. And they can. But even when the monsters are bearing down on you, there are scenarios where, once again, the danger is entirely illusory.

Perhaps most irksome is the fact that there are two "invincible" characters. Besides the aforementioned Sam, there is Mike. At one point near the end of the game, Mike is stranded in an asylum. During this time, he is relentlessly pursued by the inhumanly powerful wendigos. There are quicktime events and choices to be made, but, ultimately, all of these choices are meaningless, because Mike is one of the two characters in the game who, no matter what, will always survive until, at least, the very last scene of the game, because the game's narrative simply cannot handle the possibility of an outcome where either of these characters do not play lead roles in that final scene. 

The finale of the game is where the vast majority of player deaths will occur, unless you fail a quick time event very early on in the game, or somehow manage to make some very stupid decisions, like shooting one of your friends in the head.

Now, I enjoyed Until Dawn. It was fun, cheesy, B-movie entertainment in the form of a video game. But the problem is, it makes promises that it just can't keep.

Problem Four: The ending

Ultimately, the only real thing you can change in Until Dawn is the ending: who survives, who doesn't, and how the characters feel about each other. Sure, some scenes throughout the game might have slightly different dialogue depending on your choices, but where the characters go, what they intend on doing about the problem they're facing, all of these things are outside of the player's control. This makes the choices you made along the way feel inconsequential, as the scenes that will play out in the game are inevitable. 

You are always going to see the final confrontation taking place in the cabin. You are always going to have Sam there to distract the wendigos as she saves her friends, one-by-one, while Mike is getting ready to torch the whole place to the ground. And after that confrontation, the only true variation in the game presents itself in the ending, which is really just a series of police interviews with each individual character who survived. Sure, their interviews will change depending on their relationships with each other, but to have all of your choices build up to nothing more than an epilogue that happens alongside the passing of the credits?

I don't know if I'm willing to accept that as the game taking my choices seriously.

In the end, Until Dawn is a fun horror romp, but it fails to truly deliver on the idea of choice, which makes it feel like it's trying to be something that it's not. The mechanical concepts within Until Dawn that create the illusion of choice make it seem like an ambitious, extensive project, and this can deceive players into thinking they missed a lot in their first playthroughs, but upon playing for a second time, it should be clear to most people: you did very little to change the story.

Published Oct. 22nd 2015
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