Published Sep 24, 2015Branching storylines have been a selling point in games for years, though more often than not, it's hard to tell if your decisions are actually impacting the narrative or just setting up multiple endings. The latter is a lot more economical, of course, because you only have to build a linear storyline with a few different conclusions. A true branching narrative forces the game maker to devote resources to a lot of content that may never get seen unless played multiple times.
But Brit studio Supermassive is hoping you do just that with Until Dawn, a teen-horror tribute structured something like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game where a number of plot choices must be made that set you down divergent paths. The studio sells this mechanic as a butterfly effect — the chaos theory concept that small events now can lead to big changes later, i.e. a butterfly flapping its wing eventually causing a hurricane.
Here, you can actually tell it has an impact because you control eight different characters throughout the game, and any one of them (or all of them) can die and stay dead. It builds the story slowly with smaller, non-fatal decisions, and lets you know after the fact when you've made a decision that may prove calamitous later on.
The set-up is that a group of attractive young friends, lovers and frenemies make their annual trek to an abandoned ski lodge a year after a tragedy cut their previous trip short. If that seems as bad of an idea as going into the basement alone, well, it is.
The plot's primacy is certainly appealing to fans of story-driven games, though others may get annoyed at the quick-time event controls employed elsewhere. The story is not as ambitious as it wants to be either, eventually falling victim to its gleeful toying with genre tropes rather than transcending them.
What gives the game a bit of a boost is the wonderfully realized motion-capture acting — including Mr. Robot's Rami Malek and Heroes' Hayden Panettiere — as well as the intricately animated snow-packed setting and a dedication to character development that is too rare in modern gaming (even if the characters are still slotted into horror-flick archetypes).
Despite being a genre love letter, and thus a good bet for slasher fans, Until Dawn can't quite match the postmodern pizzazz of, say, the film Cabin in the Woods, despite being both self-aware and set in a cabin in the woods. (Supermassive Games/Sony Computer Entertainment)