Narrative-heavy games with a focus on the cinematic are nothing new, and neither is the promise that they are often coupled with: "your choices matter." It’s a good hook, but the common pitfall these games share is that even though they can present difficult choices, you’re basically guaranteed to end up in the spot no matter what you decide. Until Dawn is the latest game to make these promises, and I played through the first few chapters of the game twice in order to test out how important your decisions really are.
Now there’s a couple of different ways your actions can change the game, the most obvious one being choices referred to as Butterfly Effects. These are usually the “in-your-face-press-a-button-hurry-up” decisions, and they have the strongest effects on the plot and characters. These choices are also distinct in that the game will take note of both what you chose and what the result was, making it easier to go back and change things in a second playthrough, which was exactly what I did.
Almost all of the Butterfly Effect choices are slow-burns. You make a lot of decisions early on, but none of them really take shape until chapters later. In the short-term you get some altered dialogue and maybe an additional scene, but nothing substantial. An early choice, for example, is moving a bat that you find in the basement of the house you’re in. If the bat gets moved, you then have option of using the bat when a character gets attacked later. A lot of decisions are used in ways like these, where they can change set pieces or make events more survivable.
The more interesting Butterfly Effect choices involve the relationships between the cast. Depending on how you interact with the other characters, they may be more willing to help you later on in the game. In the worst case scenarios, some characters might actively sabotage you and try to get people killed. These are where the choices in Until Dawn really shine, but unfortunately you’re not going to get the full effects of your decisions until much later in the game.
As most of the advertisements for the game can tell you, characters can live or die based on your decisions, always in correlation with the Butterfly Effects. Character death changes some dialogue and scenes, but ultimately it just seems to cut out the sections where you’d normally play as the deceased characters. Similar to the other choices, these variations also take a while to appear. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to kill anyone off in the early chapters.
Psychiatric sessions between a creepy doctor and an unknown client break up the action between chapters. On top of establishing a weird narrative structure, you can also make some more choices during these parts that alter the game. Most of the changes seem to result in a makeover of aesthetics rather than anything plot-heavy. For example, in one activity you’re asked to pick what you find more frightening from a set of two concepts, like say rats or cockroaches. To test out the changes, I first ranked rats as high as I could, then cockroaches. After picking rats, I noticed that there were rats crawling around in the background of the house my characters were in. When I put cockroaches at top, a big cockroach crawled right in front of the screen a little later into the game. While neat, the psychiatric sessions only seem to result in small details.
Beyond the Butterfly Effects and psychiatric sessions, the clues you can find can also affect the story. Outside of the cutscenes, most of the game has you wandering around snowy mountains and creepy buildings, and sets of clues pertaining to three different mysteries are spread throughout. These clues not only color your personal understanding of the game’s events, but you also get dialogue between the characters who have found these clues, often hearing their own theories about what is going on.
The clues are the smartest thing in the entire game. Each clue lets the player fill in the gaps with their imagination, and the circumstances of your game can further alter your understanding of the events. Not everyone will find the same clues, either because they simply missed some or because a decision they made previously may have barred them from it. These variations make it so that players can be thinking about the mysteries based on wildly different amounts of information, totally changing how they perceive the events going on around them. The clues are a really interesting way to give each player a unique experience, but sadly, once the mysteries are solved at the end of your first playthrough, the clues become irrelevant during a second one.
Until Dawn presents a lot of cool ideas when it comes to changing the narrative of the game, but most of it ends up being either unsubstantial or long-term investments with disappointing pay-off. Playing through the game a second time did not give me a dramatically different experience, and having to play through the early chapters with even fewer alterations ended up feeling like a chore. Unfortunately, I think playing Until Dawn once is more than enough to experience what it has to offer.