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    Until Dawn: Teens that go bump in the night

    Much has changed since we previously saw Supermassive Games’ schlocky  teen-slasher, way back in August 2012. Where once it was a firstperson  Move-based showcase for Sony’s motion controller, now it’s become a thirdperson, DualShock 4-based outing exclusively on PS4. The shift has been about a lot more than reskinning the game for different hardware, however. Everything, apart from  the core inspiration behind it, was thrown out and built again anew new assets, new systems, even a new cast was brought in to redo the motion capture and dialogue.

    The game we saw two years ago no longer exists, in other words, but its spirit lingers on in its predilection for torchlight, its use of DualShock 4’s motion sensing, and its familiar genre shivers. Like its ’80s and ’90s horror flick inspirations, Until Dawn focuses on a group of stereotypically beautiful teenagers, eight in total, who find themselves trapped in a lodge as a killer in a clown mask attempts to hunt them down. You take loose control over these adolescents one after another, exploring the cabin to solve puzzles and encountering tough choices in your bid for survival. But whenever a character does meet a gruesome end, that’s it. The narrative will continue and that character’s death will play a persistent part in the rest of the story as it unfolds. Supermassive calls this the Butterfly Effect, and momentous outcomes, such as surviving an attack, are indicated onscreen with a flashing butterfly icon.

    Much of what makes choices impactful can only be apparent over the course of the game, however. For example, should one character survive, will that be at the expense of two other characters later? Such scenarios are what keep Until Dawn intriguing, even if the mechanical act of playing it is less so.

    We pick up our pad for a scene that begins with Sam, one of the game’s main characters, played by Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), taking a bath. She hears a noise, dons a towel, and realises her clothes have been stolen. From there, we guide her around the lodge as she attempts to discern where her friends have disappeared to. This quickly escalates into a chase scene, which plays out via QTEs, during which we have to make quickfire decisions by tilting the controller towards one of a few options. As the killer draws near, should we hide under the bed or leap over it to continue running? Should we barge into a locked door to attempt to win our freedom, or frantically search for the missing doorknob on top of a nearby wine rack?

    These crucial decisions can feel much too arbitrary in the moment that they’re made. When the killer catches up with Sam and gasses her unconscious after one snap misjudgment, it’s easy to feel like you never had a chance. This sense of disempowerment may be the point, of course, but without the wider context it can feel jarring.

    However, action scenes such as this are not the foundations upon which Until Dawn is really based. We’re promised that much grander, more morally ambiguous decisions lie in wait. One example sees you and a fellow teen tied down as a buzzsaw approaches. You’re told you can shoot the other person and be allowed to live, but to not do so will apparently ensure you both die. Whichever direction you take in this scene, there’s the sense that you can own the act of making that choice and the repercussions that follow.
    We’re promised that grander, more morally ambiguous decisions lie in wait
    The lodge and its inhabitants have been crafted in the same engine that powers Killzone: Shadow Fall , and while screens so far are too dark to show it, a raft of minute details have been grafted in. Facial animation is superb, with Panettiere’s Sam noticeably reacting to the atmosphere around her, clenching her teeth with repressed fear as she approaches a daunting doorway, for example. The control system enables some of the more innovative use of the DualShock 4 hardware yet seen. While the standard method of making a choice is to tilt your lightbar in the direction of an option and to press X, there’s the occasional twist. One such sees Sam hiding in a lift shaft as the killer lurks ominously nearby, onscreen text telling you to keep still. Move your DualShock 4, even slightly, and the killer might hear you. It’s harder than it sounds to remain perfectly still, especially as the clown-faced Saw 7 reject before us bangs a spanner on a gas tank, mumbling, “I can smell your fear, Sam.”

    But for all Until Dawn’s pretty looks and new takes on QTE convention, they  don’t diminish the sense that your input into what is happening onscreen feels slight,  at least in the context of the moment-to-moment action. It doesn’t matter if you are unaware of where the choices will lead you, but it is important that you feel, as a player, that you have a purpose.

    Perhaps that will occur beyond the granular level, and if Supermassive’s Butterfly Effect plays out as intended, then it could be that the Guildford-based studio is about to nail a new step forward for interactive horror. Much like poor Sam, though, mess it up and it may as well be another luckless teenager heading down to the basement alone.

    Alone In The Dark
    Crafting decisions for the player by riffing on teen-slasher movies can’t be easy, since part of the appeal for a knowing audience is in screaming “Don’t go down there!” at the screen. If the player’s in control, why would they ever willingly split up from others? “We make it meaningful by branching,” says Supermassive design director Tom Heaton, “by giving you all that variety of experience. We try and balance it so those choices are difficult. We’ve got great big moral choices in there. Should you split up or stick together? Everyone will stick together! They know not to split up! So we have to bias  it a bit in favour of splitting up.”

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