Until Dawn

Until Dawn

Mike takes a look at the slasher genre and a few of the titles in a growing wave of upcoming horror games. [Warning: Blood and stuff.]

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Until Dawn is one of the larger productions in the upcoming slasher-based games. The title was originally announced as a PlayStation 3 game with Move support, but developer Supermassive Games is now putting everything they have into creating a PlayStation 4 exclusive.

Until Dawn is the story of eight people who spend the night in a cabin in the remote Blackwood Pines. The evening in question marks the anniversary of death of a departed friend. Of course, various personal relationships come to a head when you're stuck in one place with a group and that's before you get to the serial killer who's trying to pick them off one-by-one.

Like Lakeview Cabin, Until Dawn is a single-player experience, but it's one that you're meant to experience in linear fashion. The game's Butterfly Effect system means that when you make a choice, it reverberates forward, creating unforeseen consequences. Not all eight characters will survive the night, but it's up to you to guide as many as possible through this horrific ordeal. Until Dawn also wants to keep you honest, so the game has a strict auto-save system to prevent you from reloading before key decisions. Once a character dies, they're dead, buddy. Move on.

The switchover from PS3 to PS4 also came with it a new third-person perspective, so you can watch the cast fight to survive, instead of tackling the fear directly from a first-person point-of-view. That cast includes Nashville's Hayden Panettiere, Agents of SHIELD's Brett Dalton, Night at the Museum's Rami Malek, Meaghan Martin, Nichole Bloom, Jordan Fisher, Galadriel Stineman, and Noah Fleiss. If you're going to do extensive performance capture, you might as well show it off.

Until Dawn executive producer Pete Samuels was kind enough to talk about the game and the genre.

Why did Supermassive Games decide that a survival horror game was its next project?

Samuels: "Survival Horror" is a label that doesn't quite fit. Almost, but not quite. Sure, it's a horror story where the clear aim for the player is to have the protagonists survive, but it's a potentially misleading label. "Survival Horror", based on what people have seen in games previously, doesn't define Until Dawn.

As a genre, horror appealed to us as a means of delivering extremes in emotional reaction. The concept of dealing with the most base of emotions, fear and survival, and putting player's through that with challenging moral dilemmas and the ability to create their own version of the story through the decisions they make, was irresistible.

Fair enough. Why did the team decide to go with a slasher game?

Samuels: The premise of the typical slasher was interesting because it was something that people would find familiar, something that we could therefore subvert and use to surprise the player. "Slasher" is a label that people have attached to Until Dawn from what they've seen thus far. Everything that people have seen would naturally lead them to that conclusion, but it is another definition that won't entirely define Until Dawn when people experience the whole thing. We've always maintained that, in Until Dawn, not everything is as it seems.

The stated aim of Until Dawn is to create a "playable horror movie". How do you decide where to land on the line between movie and game?

Samuels: That's such a good and important question. The key word in "playable horror movie" is "playable", not "movie". What Until Dawn is striving to be is world-class within the specific genre of 'interactive drama'. It's been important to us that the player's judgment, speed and skill will be tested throughout in the context of an engaging story played out in a stunning set with believable emotional performances from our cast.

When we say "playable horror movie", that's what we mean. The judgment element of the gameplay is geared towards the player's determination of a given situation, and how they choose to respond to it, and whilst the skill and speed tests are delivered in branching set-piece situations, success and failure will determine the way in which the story plays out. Ultimately, the fate of each of the cast.

The player's 'score' is determined by how many of the cast live or die over the course of their story, which is inextricably connected to the player's skill and judgment. As we know, there are all types of gamers and they like all kinds of different things in their games, so no single game can be everybody's cup of tea, but alongside the skill/speed/judgment dimensions of gameplay we've incorporated elements of meaningful exploration and collection that fit with into the overall tone of mystery and horror.

The Butterfly Effect system means that not every character will survive the log cabin experience and auto-saves prevent jumping back in the title. Why is permanent death such a major part of the experience?

Samuels: At a really early stage permanent-death became a major driver for us. The fact that mistakes or misjudgments are non-trivial, because you can't just try again, provides the player with a similar anxiety that they'd feel when watching a tense horror or thriller movie. We felt that the sense of permanent vulnerability would add significantly to the overall fear and dread. It was a tough design challenge though.

It was also important that the player's Until Dawn story was a similar length, and just as engaging and enjoyable, regardless of who lived and died during the course of the night. We've created content that covers all possible scenarios, and this means that there is a huge amount that no single player will see on a single play-through. That's what makes each player's story and outcomes so different.

What makes Until Dawn different from all the other slasher games that are coming? It's getting crowded out there.

Samuels: I think that the level of immersion in the story and its scenarios will make Until Dawn different within the genre of horror games. That's partly due to the believability in its sets and performances, its cinematography, and its when-you're-dead-you're-dead game structure. I would be hard pushed to think of any other game out there that is like this. There are levels of engagement above and beyond the 'normal' that make Until Dawn truly unique in this space.

Making a life and death decision in the heat of the moment that will permanently affect the story that you play has proved a very powerful device. Having a protagonist's character arc measurably changing and adapt based on the choices you play is entirely unique in this genre. A character can end up a hero or a jerk or even a dead jerk by the end. Because all of this affects your outcome, effectively your 'score', it's a differentiating game mechanic as much as it's a storytelling mechanic.

What was behind the decision to go with extensive actor capture?

Samuels: The extensive actor capture was part of an overall style choice for Supermassive. Realism is important to us as an aid to immersion, and any other method used to deliver emotional reactions in the characters and realism in the game's scenarios would have clashed with that. The style we've chosen is the one that most strongly supports the aim of "playable horror movie" and better enables the player to immerse themselves in that fantasy.

What's required to really scare players and how are you making sure that's a big part of Until Dawn?

Samuels: Fear is generated by taking the familiar and safe and rendering it vulnerable and fragile. Horror comes from adding a dark peril to that fragility. The vulnerability comes from trapping, isolating and incapacitating the group early on and then injecting the horror.

Like most horror movies, we've used the concept of night as a way to incapacitate the group. It's dark. It's very deliberately dark. Making a video game dark is much trickier than you'd think. You can't just turn the lights down or it would become unplayable. We've had to go call in some very traditional cinematic techniques and tricks using camera exposure parameters to mimic the chemical reaction of film stock and create that feeling of dread and darkness while still being able to see enough to understand what is going on.

Until Dawn definitely broadens the range of what horror games can be. The three key elements of Terror, Horror and Disgust must exist in a proportion that's appropriate to the tone of the horror we're making, and we believe that we've got that balanced pretty well in Until Dawn. The most important, the Terror, is that feeling of dreadful foreboding. The fear of the unseen. Maintaining that in the right proportion is probably where we've put most effort because it's the most difficult tone to do well. It can't be there continuously, so we break the tension with some lightness from time to time before we hit the player with some more.

Horror's there too, and that's the fear of the visible threat. In our case, that's the killer and the killer's 'tools'. Then there's the Disgust, gore if you like, which serves as the infrequent, but memorable reminder of the frailty of human flesh. It's to be used sparingly, certainly for the tone that we're aiming for in Until Dawn, so the key word for us in relation to Disgust is "memorable". As gross as it is, for many who enjoy this type of horror, the Disgust is a big part of the pay-off.

Until Dawn is planned as a PlayStation 4-exclusive release. The game will be released on August 25, 2015.

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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