A Butterfly Flapped its Wings and I Played Until Dawn
I can’t say I had any intentions of playing Until Dawn. Back when it came out in 2015, I saw plenty of interesting trailers and positive reviews, but it never grabbed me. If I’m going to play a game, I want to actually play it.
Then, like any good horror story, I got engaged.
Readers may recall me mentioning my lovely (she may be reading this) wife in past articles. For those of you that are new, it is my life mission to force her into playing games with me because relationships just boil down to making each other do things they don’t really want to do.
Despite knowing her love of horror, it didn’t dawn (sorry) on me to play Until Dawn. Even after having a close friend of mine recommend the game, I still didn’t make an effort to play it. I eventually got the game for free on the PS4 and I STILL didn’t play it.
While I may sound like a procrastinator (I am) for continuing to put off playing Until Dawn, all these small moments helped guide me to that fateful night we finally started it.
Our family cleared out of our place after a night of playing cards. We were feeling pretty good from the drinks and weren’t ready for bed quite yet. I asked my wife what she wanted to do, and I heard the one sentence any man would die to hear, “want to play that one scary game you got a while ago?”
I booted up Until Dawn before she had a chance to change her mind. It hadn’t dawned (I swear I’ll stop) on me how much I actually wanted to play the game. After a couple years of putting it off, I finally had a reason to start.
Until Dawn opens with a group of teenagers staying at the Washington’s family cabin. The cabin resides on a cold, snowy mountain far from any sign of civilization. If this setting sounds cliché, that’s because it is. Until Dawn is a love letter to all those cheesy horror films we know and love.
The story begins with the horrible teenagers doing horrible things. A group of them conspire to prank Hannah Washington by telling her that Mike, a classic jock, wants to get with her.
O.M.G., Hannah probably thought. It was the moment she was waiting for! What a dreamboat!
Anyway, she rushes off to find him in the cabin while the others position themselves in strategic locations for ideal camera angles and maximum embarrassment.
While Hannah was off being unnecessarily ridiculed, I was given my first taste of gameplay as Hannah’s twin sister, Beth. I walked around the cabin to take in the environments. Being a long time Resident Evil vet, I was right at home in a world of fixed camera angles. Like Resident Evil, Until Dawn uses the camera as a tool to build tension and direct the game’s focus. On several occasions, I’d enter a room and the camera placement would reveal a gruesome scene or a lurking shadow. Every area had a cinematic quality.
Various items around the cabin shine against a dreary background. Shiny items can be picked up and manipulated by pressing a button or moving the analog stick. Examining items reveals elements of the current story or fill in blanks from the past. While picking up an item to investigate for clues adds a nice interactive touch, it can quickly become nerve-wracking when you’re running through the snowy forest, an unknown danger not far behind, and you have to move the analog stick in a certain direction to unlatch a gate that will probably lead to more danger.
In addition to utilizing specific buttons for item interaction, Until Dawn introduces other unique control schemes. The most unique of all was the inclusion of motion controls. Key sequences of the game require the controller to be held completely still to avoid making a sound. Some of these moments are literally life and death, adding to the pressure to not move. As in real life, these occurrences come up unexpectedly and require swift action. I failed many of them.
One of the first items I saw was a letter to Hannah from “Mike.” Dear, sweet, foolish Hannah, did you really think Mike could come up with this poetry without some help?
Shortly after finding the note, I was presented with my first decision. The choices in this tutorial are irrelevant, as is the outcome. What matters, and what ultimately sets Until Dawn apart from most other games, is the illusion of consequences that choices have on the story as a whole.
When I say illusion, I don’t mean the choices don’t impact the story, like so many other games. Rather, Until Dawn unfolds in a way where it’s nearly impossible to know how decisions will influence the story down the road, or the affect they have on the present moment. Even the choices that have no bearing on the story has perceived stakes.
To illustrate the choice system, Until Dawn includes something called the Butterfly Effect. This allows players to see how decisions compound over the course of the story, and how each decision led to the present moment. I could see how something as minor as shooting a squirrel could lead to a devastating outcome (like PETA coming after you).
However, not all decisions are tracked by the Butterfly Effect. Some scenarios present choices that have an immediate aftermath. Deciding to get out of a jam with brute force might put the player in a deadlier scenario.
To top everything off, it is rarely clear which choice is “right.” As a huge Mass Effect fan, I could typically discern which choice was Paragon, and which was Renegade (the obviously correct choice). Rarely did I fret over unforeseen consequences of my actions as a result of a mostly binary system.
Until Dawn presents many scenarios in which both choices seem plausible. More importantly, your choice feels like it shapes the entire story going forward. It’s difficult to look back and not wonder how things would have been had you picked the other option. Because of this, choices with no impact on the game feel as intense as those with major impact. Just the other day my wife texted me about doing something different in the introduction that she believed would change the entire course of the story. I’m 99% she’s wrong, but that 1% is what makes Until Dawn so special.
If all this talk of making choices has you stressed, don’t worry, it’s only a large chunk that you must make under short time constraints. Time and again, I’d panic when deciding to run, hide, or doing something incredibly stupid. Time would visibly run out, leading to split-second decision-making. Again, these sometimes trivial decisions had a monumental weight to them.
I just want to touch on one more thing about “trivial” decisions. There are many occasions in Until Dawn where it’s clear that a choice could mean life or death. These are the heaviest moments. On the flip side, some decisions seem so trivial that it doesn’t matter. However, this is not always the case. Something like exploring a room can seem inconsequential—in fact, for many gamers, it’s a must—but winds up having lasting consequences.
Until Dawn left me with an experience that felt unique to me. I made a lot of poor decisions and mistakes, but each one contributed to the story in its own way. Knowing how some decisions affected my outcome, and being left to guess how others may have, I can’t help but to play out different scenarios in my mind. While it seems like Until Dawn benefits from multiple playthroughs, I wonder if some of the magic would wear off by making different choices and potentially having the same outcome.
Then again, receiving a text from my wife telling me how excited she is to play through it again soon may change my mind. Flap goes the butterfly’s wings.
Sick of all those butterflies in your life? Tell me all about it in the comments below! Or talk about Until Dawn. Whatever works.