Until Dawn, the interactive movie, and storytelling

Is Until Dawn the moment where videogames get movies better than movies get videogames?

My very first proper job in writing and editing was putting together the content for a magazine called PC Mart. Not many people read it, but I still loved it. The very first review I commissioned to another author for that magazine was of The X-Files CD-ROM game. This was one of those multimedia adventures that were popular at the end of the 1990s, where you watched some video, made some choices, and the story continued to play out.

This whole Choose Your Own Adventure concept is nothing new. Those of us who grew up with Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books will know all about it. Furthermore, videogaming – as soon as optical discs were available – would give us Dragon’s Lair, a supposedly interactive cartoon, which actually turned out to be a piss-poor ‘game’ that required you to bash the right button at exactly the right moment for the story to continue to play out.

The review came back for The X-Files game a week later, and it was a flat-out rave. Top marks, a magazine award, and a gushing 500 words of prose. 500 words of prose that contrasted with every other review of the game I’d read to that point.

In the gaming press, The X-Files had been slammed. This wasn’t a game, ran the argument. It was at best a decent video episode, sold at a premium price with limited interactivity. The reviewer in question, though, was an X-Files fanatic, and genuinely loved it. But he loved it, I realised in conversation with him, as an X-Files episode. He’d ultimately reviewed it as such.

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Fast forward to this year, and Sony’s Until Dawn seems finally to have delivered on the idea of an interactive movie, which has been something of a holy grail for both filmmakers and game developers for a good 20 years. Just look at the old Star Wars: Rebel Assault videogames for proof of that, or when Mark Hamill got cast in Wing Commander.

Until Dawn is what that X-Files game was trying to do, but was at the time limited by the technology. On the other side of things, it’s what the 1992 interactive film I’m Your Mana movie that gave audiences over 60 moments at which they could determine the plot, via a joystick to the side of their seat (a set-up that cost $70,000 per screen to equip) – tried to do the other way around. Neither hit big.

In an era where movies are desperately trying to recreate the success of certain videogames on the big screen – lord, please let Duncan Jones’ Warcraft film be great – one videogame has finally got it right the other way around. At least to an extent.

Until Dawn, then, was published on PlayStation 4 over the summer, and is being described as a “sleeper hit” by Sony, but in truth, it’s been a talking point for many weeks now.

The idea is that basically you play out what, on the surface, could be any one of a number of teen horror movies. Eight ‘controllable’ characters are holed up in a house in the middle of nowhere, for reasons that only characters in such productions would think were reasonable. And then it’s your actions that determine how the narrative of the game pans out, and just who survives.

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Thus, the first time I played the game, I ended up with different survivors and story threads to the second. Apparently, if I carried on doing so, lots more different eventualities would occur.

It’s an interesting game to watch, if not one to always actually play.

Until Dawn has a lot going for it, I’d argue, but that crucial bit in the Venn diagram that’s supposed to overlap, where the movie narrative and gaming mechanic work hand in hand, is just a little too small for my tastes. To a degree, it reminds me of when FIFA games started to do a lot of the football for you, a balance that series has desperately tried to work out – to varying degrees of success – ever since.

This is something that’s been picked up by both hardened and more casual game reviewers, and I’ve been more interested in reading verdicts on Until Dawn than pretty much any major game this year. Because it’s patently clear that this one hinges on what you bring to it.

If you play Until Dawn on your sofa, at the end of a working day, when you’d ordinarily be wanting to stick a horror movie on, then it’s hard not to get a lot out of it. There are several conventions of horror cinema and stories threaded in, as if you’re getting a Final Destination boxset on one disc.

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Furthermore, you can’t help but admire how it looks and is set up. There’s barely a window in the background, for instance, that the game’s camera can’t resist tantalisingly lingering on, and whilst the actual jump out of your seat moments are in lesser supply that I’d personally hoped, there’s little doubt that it sets up an eerie atmosphere.

In that sense, Until Dawn is more effective than many films, although not as many games. Videogaming, for some time, has done tension exceptionally well. A colleague of mine, for instance, had to call time on the excellent Alien: Isolation simply because he was so on edge all the time he was playing it, it wasn’t actually fun any more.

Until Dawn is fun, to its credit, but also, there’s little getting away from the fact that it gives you more to watch than do. So: if your gaming sessions tend to be a little less relaxed and chilled, that may be a problem. Games used to be lambasted for quick time events, those moments where footage played out on screen and required you to bash a button in time. Here, Until Dawn seems to get a pass. It also has key segments where you need to hold your DualShock absolutely still, which, naturally, I was useless at.

Furthermore, character interaction involves a bit of exploring, making decisions, and picking up Totems, that in turn offer clues to the underlying mystery behind the game.

I couldn’t help but admire the storytelling triumph here. Those cursed interactive movies of old ultimately had very few genuine forks in the story. I’d hate to see the planning grid behind Until Dawn‘s narrative, but it’s going to have needed more than one wall to host it. Key decisions and moments have a ‘Butterfly Effect’, and you’re alerted to those moments that have unknown consequences on how things are going to play out. I couldn’t help but get curious when that happened: had I messed up? Had I consigned someone to a gory death? Did I actually have fair control over what was happening?

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I can’t convincingly answer those questions, but I did, against expectation, find myself won over a little. I didn’t love it as a game, and I didn’t love it as a horror movie, but I was never bored with Until Dawn.

Perhaps more than anything, I found myself excited as to what’s now possible. That Until Dawn might just open the proverbial door for better stories to be told in as interesting a way. For me, the ultimate core problem of this game is that I didn’t really give two hoots whether any of the characters lived or died in the end, and the main attraction was in seeing how the story differed. A lack of investment in characters is fatal for a film, and not helpful for a game. But just imagine if the writers of some of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books had had this kind of technology at their fingertips. Until Dawn has put stories that are both interactive and don’t sell you short within grasp.

I’m pleased Until Dawn has hit, and hit well. Judging by the reviews from customers on Amazon, the response from those who have played it through at least once is very strong.

I think it deserves to be played, and may just, in itself, be a fork in the road for screen storytelling. That it proves that choosing your path in an adventure doesn’t mean weakening a story – videogames have long since proven that – and instead can get you more involved almost by default. It’s where things go from here that may just be the most exciting thing about it.

Oh, and one thing. In the spirit of modern movies, it’s worth sticking through the end credits of Until Dawn. There’s no Thanos, but these is that blockbuster movie staple, the post-credits sting. Although whether it appears does, of course, depend on the choices you make in the game…

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