The best horror movie of the year might just be a video game. Though it’s available on the PlayStation 4, and you play it with a controller, Until Dawn is really as much a film as it is a game; borrowing from some of the biggest horror franchises around, like Saw to Evil Dead, it combines the tropes into a terrifying experience that’s both familiar and unique. But it’s that added layer of interactivity — the fact that you actually have some measure of control over the events — that makes Until Dawn something special. It’s a horror movie where you can actually tell those stupid teens what to do, in hopes that they’ll actually survive the night.
But if you’re anything like me, you’ll end up making the same mistakes they would.
For the first few chapters, Until Dawn feels like a hodgepodge of cliches. Exactly one year after two of their friends mysteriously disappeared, a group of eight high school kids heads up to a secluded cabin on a mountain, with plans for a night of debauchery. A morbid anniversary, reckless teenagers, and a dangerous, isolated mountain (which also happens to be home to a condemned psychiatric hospital): you get where this is going.
Until Dawn is happy to stew in those low expectations early on. The kids are almost all obnoxious and bratty, and the creepy, surprisingly huge house and its surrounding area are full of cheap jump scares; you’ll scream, and then you’ll groan. If you need an indication of just how rote the game is initially, one of the key scenes involves a ouija board. About four chapters in, though — after a brutal sequence where you have to make a horrifying choice ripped straight out of Saw — things begin to change.
Until Dawn plays like a narrative-heavy adventure game, reminiscent of Telltale games like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. You’ll control all of the eight main characters at different points throughout the story, walking them around environments, investigating with a flashlight, talking to people, and making decisions. (There are action sequences, but they’re relegated to quick time events in which you must reflexively hit a button in order to succeed.) Sometimes these choices are small — do you check a phone buzzing in someone’s bag, or respect their privacy? — but much of the time you’re choosing between life and death. And the answer isn’t always clear. When you’re being chased, is it better to hide or keep running? If you had to pick one person to live over another, could you do it? The further you progress, the tougher the choices.
Usually when I watch a horror movie, I get angry at how obviously stupid the on-screen characters are. There’s clearly a killer down that darkened hallway, so why would anyone go down there?! But in Until Dawn, in which I’m armed with the knowledge of an observer — I can see the events from multiple perspectives, and I can catch on-screen moments that the characters miss — I still made some bad decisions. According to the developers at Supermassive Games, it’s possible for everyone to make it through the night alive — or for no one at all.
In my case, I had a 50 percent success rate with four survivors. That may sound okay, but each death felt like a failure of my intelligence and cunning to keep these kids alive. Because while the characters all start out as bland stereotypes — the dumb jock, the annoying rich girl — Until Dawn does a sly job of turning them into real, believable characters worth caring for. Even after one of the huge plot twists, which renders one member of the group as a seemingly unsympathetic psychopath, I still cared when he ultimately died.
Some of this has to do with the great acting, which includes talents like Hayden Panettiere and Peter Stormare, as well as the photorealistic visuals that make the characters look like, well, real people. (The in-game menu shows a close-up of the active character’s face, and when they look directly at you, it’s eerily human.) But the connection you feel with the doomed teens also stems from the fact that you’re as involved in the adventure as they are. When that girl is in shock because her boyfriend died, it’s really because you made a choice that led to his death. Responsibility is as powerful a burden as it is a reward. I found myself particularly attached to one character, and when she died suddenly toward the end of the game, it hit me in the gut. I had a hard time paying attention to the last few minutes of the story, I was in such shock.
I couldn’t fix this. You can’t go back to an old save file to try things over. Your mistakes are permanent.
Until Dawn is one of those experiences that will have people debating what qualifies a game as a game. There isn’t really a challenge, and when you make a mistake it doesn’t impede your progress, it simply changes the story. But whatever you want to call it, it’s worthy horror; it takes the best of both film and games and combines them into a terrifying, heart-wrenching experience. Often when I finish a game or movie like this, I’m left with lingering questions about what really happened. With Until Dawn, the only real question I have is what might have changed if I had been a little bit smarter, a bit quicker to react. It’s such a strong feeling that I’m planning to play the game again, to spend another 10 hours in a creepy, uncomfortable place, just so that I can see if I can save everyone this time.
It turns out those kids aren’t so stupid after all.
Until Dawn launches tomorrow on PlayStation 4.