Developers: Supermassive Games
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
"We're not hiding it," says Supermassive Games' Will Byles to us behind closed doors at Gamescom. "Every prevalent theme and cliché from all of your favourite teen horror movies, they'll all be in our game. It's a bit shameless really." He's not lying. The following hour-long presentations features a gaggle of holidaying teens, a cabin in the woods, a plethora of cheesy innuendo-filled one-liners, an abandoned mine, a lurking beast-cam that hides in voyeuristic fashion at windows (complete with animal sounds and heavy breathing), strings that rise and fall dramatically, power outages, indecipherable scrawlings, and a really angry totem pole.
Announced at Sony's Gamescom press conference this year, Until Dawn looks to use the immersive potential of a first-person game, marry it to an immediately identifiable genre to which it might pay homage and parody, and craft a world discoverable through the Playstation Move.
The setting is textbook teen horror: eight hilariously one-dimensional teens decide to take a holiday near Mt. Washington in British Columbia, at a luxury ski-lodge owned by one of the teens' parents. The demo we saw was taken from chapter three, titled 'If you go down to the woods today...', in which a couple - Michael and Jessica - are exiled from the lodge (or "sex-iled" as Jessica puts it) for excessive amounts of PDA. Josh, the son of the lodge's owners, gives them a key to a cabin in the woods and basically tells them to go do their sordid business elsewhere.
The chapter begins with a long trudge to the cabin, alternating perspectives between the two characters. The trek through the snowy, dark forest is fittingly atmospheric. Falling snow is buffetted by swirling winds that whistle through the trees, carrying the occasional animal noise from areas beyond the beaten path. The lights are out, and the electric gate is locked shut, so the first order of the day is to get the generator running once again.
The mood setting is accomplished in fine fashion, but it's difficult to get a handle on just how much the Move feeds in to the experience. In an effort to make the experience as accessible as possible, Supermassive have managed to create a game that only uses the Move button and the trigger. There are no visible issues with navigation during the demo, and things like pulling on the cord to start the generator, pulling levers, lifting the gate latch, and flicking switches all come off first time without a hitch. We won't know about mo-con error margins until we've put the thing in our hands, but it's at least encouraging that the demo came off without a hitch in that respect.
Interactivity is limited, however, and Supermassive clearly won't be rushed when it comes to the set up. Getting back to the demoed chapter, the walk to the cabin is a long one, filled primarily by the odd cheeky reference to what our lusty rebels are planning for when they get there. But there are some things that stand out and point towards a larger arcing narrative that the player can explore as much of, or as little, as they want.
A tree a little way out from the lodge has crime scene police tape around it, fluttering in the breeze. It triggers a snippet of conversation about a seemingly tragic event from the year before. The names Hannah and Beth are left to linger in the air, before Jessica hurriedly moves the action on. The pair later come across an old, abandoned mine shaft. Mike makes a joke about miner curses, finds a suspiciously fresh cigar on a nearby oil drum, some odd symbols daubed in red on a nearby wall, and a mini totem pole near the mine buffers. "You'll be able to refer back to the clues you find in a menu and maybe start piecing together a wider picture of what's going on in the game," says Byles later on. "It's entirely up to you just how far you want to go, but the clues will give you a better idea of the underlying story and flesh out some of the details, and being thorough might even save a few lives."
The rest of the trip is punctuated by a few deliberately cheap jump scares: a wayward bird, a hockey mask dangling in the window of a snow-locked tractor, claw marks on a tree, a deer skull on a log. At one point, Mike loses Jess, the strings rise and swell with dissonant tension, spines begin to tingle. She bursts out from behind a drift, laughing, much to Mike's chagrin and embarrassment, but the camera soon cuts the blurred vision of some creature not too far off in the trees - a beast that comes packaged with eerie bass strings and hoarse, deep breathing. A little later on, a deer crosses the couple's path, only for it to appear seconds later once more, following the sounds of tearing flesh and animal screams, gravely wounded and churning the snow with its convulsions. A thunderous stab of music, and it's dragged into the undergrowth before the couple's eyes. Bears are assumed, but they cannot know for sure.
The strings explode, the camera gets shaken up, and the two of them bolt for the cabin as fast as they can.
Back in the cabin, the lights go out one again, and the noises outside grow more and more wild. Every slice of activity is greeted with the wail of a creepy violin as the game's creators now tease the player with tense build ups to nothing. The windows, the mirror, the shower curtain...nothing to fear behind any of those, but all attention is transfixed on the demo screen. Until Dawn doesn't break the mould at all when it comes to inducing tension, but it really does execute rather effectively.
Speaking of executions, it's not long before our delightfully shallow teen leads are stripping down and getting friendly. One last little scare leads to Jessica roaring out of the front door and bellowing snide remarks to her friends (the new suspects rather than a bear), slamming the door behind her afterwards. Of course, no sooner has she done that, and hit Mike with a seductive smile, when she's ripped out through the door by the unseen creature, leaving behind a messy trail of blood.
Mike gives chase, using a chisel found earlier when fixing the electrics to smash the nearby gun cabinet and pick up a shotgun along the way. The strings are going nuts by now, Mike's panted breathing racing, the screen blurred by adrenaline, and the sound of his heartbeat pulsating out through the speakers. Tracking the blood leads him a pipeline, following the screams leads into the mines. Creeping up to the shaft's elevator, he calls out to no avail. The lift rises, revealing Jessica's bloodied body, and the beast cam resumes, with the demo cutting out just as the creature rushes a sobbing Mike.
To be honest, we're rather up for a bit of rip-snorting popcorn horror fun - in spite of the game only supporting one player, Byles said that the team hoped it might be a game a group of friends or maybe a couple could plan a night around, perhaps swapping the Move controller to and fro.
However, Byles also revealed at the end of the presentation that the fates of all eight characters lie firmly in the hands of the player. "This is survival horror in the most purest sense of that term," he said. "There's something out there trying to kill all of you, and you have to try not to let it." We asked whether or not all the player might be able to rescue all eight, and Byles simply smiled enigmatically. "We don't want to spoil the surprise or ruin the story for anyone," he continued, "but all of their fates will be in your hands."
Teen horror is a genre that's been fairly played out at the cinema, but we reckon there's room for an interactive experience that challenges you to take the clues embedded in a game and use them to save some lives...or condemn your favourite movie tropes to a messy death. If there is a criticism at this early stage it's perhaps that for all of the things Supermassive gets right, there was little of the shocking gore that forms the heart of so many teen horror experiences. Even at the revealing of Jessica's body, a few red marks were the only indications that she'd been in a scrape. Given the rather more stringent classifications that games are subjected to due to their interactive nature, one would hope that Supermassive would be aiming for the 18+, but it looks like they're targeting a 16 rating.
Of course, after bemoaning uber-violence in the industry it might seem strange to be saying give us more blood in this instance! But teen horror is a genre made up of three things: sex, scares, and shots of messy, bloody deaths. Our short demo gave us the first two, but to really make the most of this setting it may have to embrace the third, too. For the moment, however, colour us curious - Until Dawn's narrative structure is most intriguing indeed, with Byles suggesting that individual chapters could see multiple endings that then feed back into the later story.
Of course, we don't know how true that is yet, or just open the narrative will be and exactly how the player may affect the story. We don't know quite how accurate and the msooth the Move integration is. We do know that the game is around six hours long, and that Supermassive are aiming for a full retail release, but we don't know the extent of the game's replayability just yet. We can't wait to find out, though.