Until Dawn and Influences
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Until Dawn (Supermassive Games, 2015), the decision-driven slasher adventure. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
This essay also discusses a selection of classic horror films, including the following: Psycho (1960), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), Poltergeist (1982), Evil Dead II (1987), and The Conjuring (2013). Readers who have not seen these films may also want to set this article aside, as it contains spoilers for the films listed above.
Back in 2010, publisher Quantic Dream raised the bar for decision-driven game stories with Heavy Rain. Part thriller and part survival-horror, Heavy Rain gave players control of four different characters, and even the smallest choices could have fatal consequences. No one was safe, not even the protagonists, and that dynamic approach to storytelling inspired creators around the industry. One of those creators was Will Byles, executive creative director of the dynamic teen slasher Until Dawn (2015). Like the creators of Heavy Rain, Byles wanted to make a game where every choice mattered, and anyone could die.1 Together, Byles and his team combined the dynamic storytelling of Heavy Rain with some terror-inducing techniques from their favorite flicks2 to create a unique experience that feels right at home in the horror genre.
In Until Dawn, players must protect a remote cabin full of teens from wild animals, serial killers, vicious monsters, and nature itself. The story begins when some of the teens play a cruel prank on one of their friends, Hannah. Unfortunately, the prank goes horribly wrong, as teen pranks often do, and Hannah disappears into the snowy mountains with her sister, Beth. A year later, their brother, Josh, invites their old friends back to the cabin as a way of remembering his sisters. It’s supposed to be an ordinary gathering, but things take a dark turn when a ‘psycho’ breaks into the house and starts kidnapping the members of the group one by one. With the player’s help, the teens must do what they can to survive until help arrives at dawn (hence the title). It’s a classic horror set-up that draws heavily from the teen slasher flicks of the 1980s, but the cinematic influences run much deeper than the aesthetics. Using a selection of classic horror movies as their guideposts, the team behind Until Dawn seeded their narrative with the background conflicts, misdirections, and costly escapes that make great horror stories stand out from the pack.
After making Until Dawn, Byles cited seven classic horror films as the team’s largest inspirations: Psycho (1960), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), Poltergeist (1982), Evil Dead II (1987), and The Conjuring (2013). Although these movies vary in subject matter, target audience, and tone, they all share common traits that set them apart from lesser horror films. One of the first features these films share is a background conflict that originated before the start of the story. For example, at the beginning of Psycho, secretary Marion Crane wants to marry her boyfriend, Sam Loomis, but she can’t until he pays off his debts. Meanwhile, The Exorcist begins with the priest Damien Karras feeling he can no longer lead his congregation, as he has lost his faith in God. These conflicts don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both serve the same purpose in the narrative: they make the characters vulnerable. Just as Marion’s money woes lead her to rob her employer, setting off the chain of events that end in her death, Damien’s crisis of faith makes him hesitate when it comes time to perform a terrifying exorcism. If it weren’t for the initial conflicts, the characters wouldn’t be as susceptible to the dangers that cross their paths, and the audience wouldn’t have a reason to fear them.
Until Dawn takes a page from the scripts that inspired it by introducing conflict early on in its story. At the beginning of the game, ten teens are staying together in a remote cabin on the snow-covered Mount Washington. As is often the case in teen dramas, there’s enough romantic rivalry to bring tensions to a boiling point within minutes, and that tension escalates with a prank that ends with Hannah and Beth’s disappearance. When their brother Josh invites the remaining friends back to the cabin a year later, each group member is still wrestling with their role in the earlier tragedy. While they can all agree that no one wanted the missing sisters to get hurt, they disagree about whether or not they should feel guilty for their actions. Throw in a few break-ups and new romances, and the whole group becomes a powder keg ready to explode, and that’s exactly what happens when things start going wrong at the cabin.
Proper misdirection is an art, especially in the horror genre. The idea of misdirection is to make the characters or the audience believe one thing when in reality, the truth is something different. It sounds easy in theory, but in practice, it’s hard to create plausible yet false explanations for events while simultaneously setting up an equally plausible truth. The difficulty is worth it, however, as well-done misdirection can delight the people who catch the clues while shocking those who don’t see the truth coming. Psycho famously uses misdirection to make the audience, and the characters believe the killer is an old woman living in the Bates Motel, when the killer is actually her mild-manner son, Norman Bates. Meanwhile, The Conjuring uses a more basic form of misdirection earlier on by focusing on a haunted doll, Annabelle, only for her to play a minor role in the story. The other movies that inspired Until Dawn employ similar misdirections throughout the films, setting up false leads and fake-out jump scares to reward people for paying attention and scare those who are just along for the ride.
Until Dawn uses its fair share of misdirection, especially regarding identity. When the still-grieving teens first arrive at the cabin for their one-year reunion, some get the uneasy feeling that they’re being watched. That feeling is validated in the worst way possible when a masked man breaks into the cabin and starts kidnapping the occupants and forcing them to play the kind of sick games made famous by the Saw franchise. The ‘psycho’ seems like an obvious, lone threat, but players who are thorough in their explanations will start to find clues suggesting the ‘psycho’ isn’t who he seems and there are greater dangers on the mountain. Sure enough, the ‘psycho’ turns out to be Josh in disguise, and the real threats are the hungry wendigo lurking on the mountainside. This bait-and-switch keeps things interesting for the game’s six-hour playtime—over three times longer than most of the films that inspired it—and engages players who like playing detective while thrilling the ones who just want to watch the story unfold.
Survival at a Cost
It’s extraordinarily rare for every character to walk out of a horror movie unscathed. Even if everyone survives, they’re either physically or emotionally wounded by the ordeal, and they’ve often lost something they can’t get back. All seven movies that inspired Until Dawn adhere to this axiom, though their different approaches vary based on their tones. While Psycho, The Haunting, The Exorcist, Halloween, and Evil Dead II all end with at least one person dying, the only death in The Conjuring is the family dog. The comparatively-lighthearted Poltergeist is the one movie on the list without a single death (unless you count the bird at the start), but the Freeling family still loses their cursed house to a trans-dimensional rift in the end. Are they happy to be rid of it by then? Sure, but they still need to find a new place to live, and it’s unlikely their homeowner’s insurance covers ‘disappearance by haunting.’ It may not be a gruesome death, but it’s still a loss, and loss is the one thing that genuinely scares everyone.
As a decision-driven game, Until Dawn has a multitude of potential endings—256, if GameFAQs math is to be believed.3 Any combination of the player characters can die, from none to all and everything in between, but there is a generally accepted ‘best’ ending where everyone lives at the end. ‘Living’ might not be the accurate term, however, as post-game police interviews suggest the characters have been emotionally scarred by the evening. Far worse is the fate in store for vengeful brother Josh, whose story ends in one of two ways: either he’s brutally murdered by the wendigo who was once his sister, Hannah, or he starves in the mines and transforms into a wendigo himself. Whether becoming a wendigo is a better fate than death is anyone’s guess, but there’s no outcome that gives Josh a happy ending. It may not be a fair ending for the sick boy whose sisters died, but after everything he did to his friends, it’s certainly a fitting one—and it’s enough to remind us that survival can come at a heavy cost.
In setting out to make a cinematic horror game, Until Dawn-director Will Byles made a smart move by drawing from the best movies in the genre. Thanks to background conflicts, misdirections, and high survival costs that defined those horror classics, Until Dawn tells a terrifying tale that stands with the best of them. Developers who want their horror games to have a cinematic feel may wish to to use Until Dawn as a source of inspiration, and with any luck, their games can inspire developers in the future.
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1 Moriarty, Colin. “PS3’s Until Dawn Takes A Page From Heavy Rain.” October 2nd, 2012.
2 Byles, Will. “7 classic horror movies that helped shape PlayStation Plus chiller Until Dawn.” Playstation Blog, June 29th, 2017.
3 “256 Endings?” GameFAQs, 2015.
* Reference Footage: RabidRetrospectGamers. “Until Dawn Full Game Walkthrough No Commentary (All 10 Chapters).” YouTube, 2015.