Until Dawn is a unique take on the survivor-horror genre. Developed by Supermassive games, the title actually runs on a modified version of the Killzone: Shadow Fall engine. What sets the title apart from other survival horror games isn’t only its outstanding realism, but also its unique “Butterfly Effect” mechanic.
Let me set this up for you (and if you’re a horror movie buff, you know the drill): For whatever reason, a group of friends decides to commemorate the disappearance of their friends, sisters Hannah and Beth Washington, by spending a few nights in the Log Cabin they were last seen in. As social drama unfolds within the group, they begin to realize they’re being targeted by an unknown killer.
The game unfolds in a series of choices that the player must make to guide the characters through a variety of dangerous scenarios and social dramas. This is where the Butterfly Effect comes in: some choices weigh heavier than others, and in turn they change the outcome of the story. This stacking effect has lasting consequences which pile up and manifest themselves much later in the story.
In the demo, two romantically involved characters, simply named Matt and Emily, seek to reach a radio tower to call for help after one of their friends is murdered. A herd of elk descend upon the couple, and the player must choose to fight them or remain calm and push through the herd: choosing the peaceful route allows the player to continue, while choosing the more violent route causes Matt to be pushed to his death.
Choosing the peaceful path, I lead Emily and Matt up to an old ranger station. After getting the radio to work, the students are told that they’ll have to wait until dawn to get help, and if things couldn’t get any worse, the support cable tethering the station to the mountainside is severed, and the structure falls to hang off of a cliff.
In my play through, Matt escapes harm’s way entirely, but Emily is left stranded on a broken railing. Here, the player has the choice to save himself, or save Emily. You can choose to abandon her and save yourself since you discover that she’s been cheating on you with another one of the students, or you can choose to ignore that and save her. Being the nice guy yielded no reward – Emily dies, and Matt winds up getting impaled on a meat hook not long after.
One of the most interesting aspects of Until Dawn is the way the story is presented to the player. It fools you into thinking you have direct control, but because the story can recentralize itself around whichever character is still alive, the narrative is broken and it makes it difficult to pinpoint a main character. In that sense, Until Dawn trades action for storytelling, and each death comes with new knowledge on how to live through the night.