Monday, October 5, 2015

Not a review: The point when I stopped playing Until Dawn

Had I actually been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn, I most certainly would have found the wherewithal to complete it. But I have not been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn. It is in my house because GameFly sent it to my house. I'm going to send it back as soon as I'm done writing this. I haven't beaten it and I never will. I value broad critical perspectives, but this time I'm taking a shortcut. I hate Until Dawn, and I'm fairly certain that if I continue playing it, I'll hate it even more.

It is relevant to this discussion that I also hate Heavy Rain, adventure titles in general and virtually any game that treats interactivity as an obligation. The only exception is when the driving narrative happens to be really good; Telltale can get away with it because the first season of The Walking Dead is the only piece of entertainment to make me cry, and that's significant no matter how you look at it. The characters in Telltale games are also capable of opening drawers without chaperoning; they don't, in contrast to Until Dawn's cast, reach for said drawers and await further instructions whilst we hold a trigger and yank the analog stick about. Again: treating interactivity as an obligation. Can we not just assume that these people know how to open drawers?

Maybe not, because Until Dawn is a tribute to the slasher film, specifically the kind in which a group of insufferable teenagers travels to a cabin in a remote location on the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of their friends and blah, blah, blah. I'd think the purpose of applying the David Cage formula to familiar cinema tropes would be to have a more personal stake in them, but I immediately wanted all of these smug, shallow, unfunny jerks dead. Maybe that's the point of a slasher movie, but then the David Cage formula dictates that we need to spend a couple of hours faffing about with no run button before we get to the juicy stuff.

By the way, this game is really high on itself for suggesting (repeatedly, through both an animated intro and abundant in-game dialog) that the choices you make will shape the narrative. Have you heard of the butterfly effect? It's the idea that something as insignificant as-- oh, you do know what the butterfly effect is, because of course you do? Sorry. The game really doesn't think you understand the concept, which is why it defines "butterfly effect" on no less than three separate occasions and uses butterflies as an indicator of whenever you've made a choice that will affect the narrative. One character even says, "Boom! Butterfly effect." The game replays this line later during a recap. I hate Until Dawn.

I made it as far as my first major encounter with whoever the villain in Until Dawn is. He'd set up a Jigsaw-like scenario in which two of my "friends" were strung up in front of a massive buzzsaw and I was forced to select which person I wanted to save. Since I know how horror villains think, I chose to sacrifice the character I wanted to save, knowing that the contraption would go against what I told it to do. That's precisely what happened, and it was a brief spark of triumph for being one step ahead of the game.

Then it hit me.

Oh god. Please don't tell me that the same character gets sliced up in that scene regardless of which way you turn the lever. I've known games that did that! The original Infamous had a dreadful sequence in which Cole had to make the classic "superhero choice" -- pick between saving a bunch of civilians or the woman he loves -- and it rearranged the circumstances behind the scenes so Cole's girlfriend would always die. That was another game that put a big emphasis on choices and consequences. Bunch of hot air that was, but at least we got a solid action-sandbox title out of it. If Until Dawn were to pull the same shenanigans, when choices and consequences are the only trick up its sleeve, that'd be a total deal-breaker. But they wouldn't do that, would they?

They did. No matter which "choice" you make during the buzzsaw sequence, the same character always gets cut in half. Which means I'm calling BS on this whole enterprise right now. Until Dawn, you're barely a game, you have no immediate thrills and your one claim to fame turns out to be a charade. A game that actually fulfills the promise of actions having consequences would be high on my list, but despite its big song and dance, Until Dawn is just like all of the others. You and David Cage should hook up.

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