Review: Until Dawn – A Sort of Butterfly Effect

My mom loves watching stupid teenagers die. I’m not talking about real teenagers, just the ones in slasher films. She loves watching the deranged murderer observe the isolated forest cabin from afar. If a cell phone battery dies or car won’t start, then she’s watching the right film. She guided me through the first scene of Until Dawn, making the decisions as I controlled the characters. Instead of investigating the strange noise on the branching path, she directed me to the path of footprints. Until Dawn’s deliberate use of horror tropes means it doesn’t demand logic, it encourages idiocy.

Each character’s fate depends on whether or not you want them to fulfill their horror film destiny. The meathead jock doesn’t need to die in a bout of pointless heroics – unless you want him to. Each decision affects the characters, yet the decisions don’t affect the story. Regardless of who lives or dies in Until Dawn, the murderer’s identity and the storyline remains the same. Until Dawn’s thrill in controlling the fate of endangered teenagers excites curiosity to see alternate outcomes. But it’s the second playthrough that exposes the meager impact of the supposed pivotal story points.

The first playthrough of Until Dawn takes advantage every opportunity to surprise you, even when you expect it. The steady flow of jump scares, initiated first by the close group of friends, sets an uncomfortable tension. The horror film tropes reassure that these harmless scares build to obvious, more dangerous scenes. With the focused camera angles and scripted camera shots, Until Dawn replicates a movie. It contains the techniques and scenes directors use in horror films while handling the control over to the player.

Until Dawn looks like a movie until it asks the player to make recorded decisions. These actions impact the livelihood of each character, even if they seem trivial. Some earlier events carry over in strange ways you never expect, while others make huge impacts. Until Dawn refers to the impact of each choice as the Butterfly Effect. It means each action or inaction, not matter how small, can alter outcomes. In the context of a horror film, the result of some choices becomes a little more obvious. If you run from a murderer, history shows hiding under a bed doesn’t work. Every bed hidden or not hidden under changes the results, except they don’t change Until Dawn’s story.

The lack of true agency in altering the storyline makes the second playthrough more sluggish than exciting. I wrote down how I handled the major plot points so I could do the opposite the second time around. The prospect of polar opposite choices made me giddy. I couldn’t wait to see the differences. To my disappointment, not much changes. Some characters survive while others die, but the story unfolds in the same order. Each choice only impacts the characters, not the conflict or events around them. And because nothing changes, you walk down the same hallways at the same pace. My second playthrough spoiled my impressions of Until Dawn.

Games designed for multiple playthroughs need to trim the fluff. Since Until Dawn remains unchanged in subsequent saves, expect tedium to ruin the pace. Other multiple ending or decision driven games need to consider the player’s time. To see the multiple endings in Nine Hours, Nine Person, Nine Doors (999) – a text based puzzle game on the Nintendo DS – you repeat everything. You need to solve the same puzzles, read through the same dialogue and explore the same areas. Like 999, Until Dawn forces players to watch the same flashbacks, listen to the same dialogue and walk through the same hallways.

With the inability to skip sections or walk faster through large areas, Until Dawn slows progress. To quicken the pace, skip all of the optional collectables scattered throughout. Supermassive Games claims the collectables helps solve the mystery. While the collectables help understand the story, I saw no notable effect on the game systems. Until Dawn doesn’t remove the fluff; nor does it assist players curious to see the alternate outcomes.

Until Dawn excels so much during the first playthrough that I wish I never played it twice. The illusion of story altering choices and new save oversights spoils the impressive performance of the cast. The looseness between the actors and actresses made me laugh so many times. The actors spoke like real friends, not phoned in individual performances. Supermassive Games highlights their talent with the facial motion capture technology. While some spots look a little out of sync, it still conveys the subtle emotions and reactions of each person. The cast’s great performance left me anxious and excited to play again. And since games built around choice entice players to revisit at least one more time, then why wouldn’t I? But if the second time through exposes a game’s flaws, we shouldn’t ignore them.

The difference in playing Until Dawn with a logical or idiotic approach shows how a single decision impacts the characters. Despite the implications of the Butterfly Effect, Until Dawn’s decisions won’t change everything. If my mom chose to follow the strange noise instead of the footprint, nothing changes. We arrive at the same point in the story with just a different way of getting there. Regardless of who lives and dies, the story will chug forward, independent of the surrounding events. The mystery of the first playthrough sparks imagination, only to deflate curiosity because of the unaffected order of story. My choice to play a second time changed my opinion of Until Dawn – a choice I can’t redo.