Until Dawn Review

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Nobody was buried under snow in my playthrough…

I’m gonna go ahead and preemptively declare Until Dawn as my sleeper hit of the year. I mean, sure, I heard a bit about it, and even thought I’d probably like it. But I did not expect to love the game as much as I do. As we played, Steve-O and I had a harder and harder time turning the console off each night when it was time to quit. I was skeptical at first. While Until Dawn meshes two of my favorite genres, Survival Horror and Narrative (Point and Click, I guess they’re called), I was concerned the game wouldn’t give me enough anxiety to be scary, because it’s not really based on player skill, per se. Plus, I figured, it’d rely mainly on jump scares. Meaning not scary at all.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, there are jump scares. And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit how many of them I fell prey to, even when I felt them coming. But we still felt a lot of the anxiety you’d typically get while playing a survival horror game. It just manifests itself a little differently. Instead of thinking “I’m out of healing items and ammo and have to make it to the next save point without dying and having to do everything all over,” your train of thought instead is, “If I do this wrong I’ll get this character PERMANENTLY killed.” No do-overs here, people. Like Heavy Rain, making a wrong decision can get a character dead, and there ain’t nothing you can do to fix it. Save starting a new game file, anyway.

Until Dawn is not very forgiving, either. Very few of your decisions are black and white in terms of outcome. In fact, people are still debating on message boards about what actions, conversation decisions, and collectibles lead to which outcomes. Moreso than Beyond Two Souls and Telltale Games’ selections, Until Dawn relies on the player finding collectibles to further enhance the story. And it appears that, on at least one prominent occasion, neglecting to pick some up can lead to a character death.

Speaking of collectibles, I really like the Totem concept. While exploring, you can pick up color coded totems that will foreshadow possible events in the future. For sadists like us, it means we still get to view a character’s death even if you don’t put the events in motion.

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One of our friends just disappeared? Let’s do it!

In case you’ve missed some of the commentary surrounding this game, it does, indeed, feature a bunch of horny high schoolers trying to get laid. Yes, even that snow-covered picnic table is no match for adolescent libido. What, there’s a killer on the loose? All the more reason to get laid one last time! The game certainly starts off with the typical cheesy 80’s slasher horror movie feel. But a few hours into the game we came to realize it evolves into something more. Let me put it this way: We began our adventure fully intending to get everyone killed. Yet, as the game progressed and we spent more time with these entitled brats, we sort of grew attached to them. We actually didn’t want most of the characters to die. (Not all, but most)

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Apparently Sam is an expert rock climber.

Until Dawn relies on timed QTEs and conversation options for the bulk of the gameplay. There are a handful of events requiring the player to aim and shoot guns, but they’re few and far between. During chase sequences, you often have to make timed, off-the-cuff decisions about how the character should progress. Fast or cautious? Left or right? Hide or try the door knob? Each decision potentially changes the future framework of your experience with this game whether you realize it or not. Don’t enter Until Dawn thinking that your decisions won’t change anything more than some dialogue subtleties like Telltale Games’ series. No. Until Dawn is, I daresay, the first game of this genre I’ve played to fully realize the butterfly effect. Everything else I’ve played before now barely scratched the surface.

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People still toy with these things?

Excellent butterfly effects and 80’s horror flick homages aside, Until Dawn is also well crafted on the aesthetic side of things. The graphics are excellent. The character models and facial recognition are top-notch. Remember Heavy Rain showcasing character facial expressions during the pause menu? Same goes here. Character’s profile pics change depending on their condition in-game as well. Someone take a little tumble or get in an altercation? Their pretty face now has bruises or cuts. Also, and I really appreciated this, the menu actually displays the character’s current relationship status with the rest of the cast! What a novel concept! You’re also shown how you’ve royally f***ed up their personality, to boot. Each character begins with 3 prominent personality features. They certainly don’t have to STAY brave, or loyal, or smart. Player actions and conversations will change all that, and the game will always keep you updated on how your choices are changing the framework.

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That’s one messy hickey.

Until Dawn breaks up the suspense by interjecting sessions with a psychologist. While I didn’t dislike these portions, and I did appreciate how the scenery eventually morphed into some messed up Silent Hill imagery, they did feel like Shattered Memories rip offs. Every session you had to answer his questions. In turn, these made small changes to the game. If you say you’re scared of spiders, they will crawl across the screen at one point. It’s small, superficial things like that. Miniscule in comparison to the rest of the butterfly effects this game offers. However, I did like how they helped unravel one of the game’s major mysteries.

There isn’t much else I can say without spoiling all the fun. Your first game will probably hit or fall just shy of the 10 hour mark. Despite being a short game, due to its high replay and production values, I think its totally worth paying full price. Until Dawn has set a new precedent for “Choose your adventure” games. I can only hope other companies are taking notes.

Book Review: World War Z

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Who reads these pesky books anymore?

While it does feel like if you wait long enough, a movie adaptation will eventually appear if you don’t feel like reading the book, I can’t begin to figure out how Hollywood can churn out a movie even remotely resembling this book. Strangely enough, it isn’t because of incredibly written characters, emotions, or settings. It’s only due to the unconventional nature of the storytelling.

I love to read. I also love zombie lore. So why is it I haven’t read any zombie apocalypse novels until now? I guess I didn’t know where to start. Or, hell, that zombie apocalypse novels really existed. Plus, admittedly, one of my main attractions to zombies is the guiltless gratuitous violence. Reading about bashing zombie brain matter ain’t quite as gratifying in text as it is in a video game or *some* movies. When I saw ads for a zombie apocalypse movie with Brad Pitt’s face plastered all over I knew I was going to see it. When I learned it was based on a novel, I was obligated to read said novel.

Here’s my theory: The author, Max Brooks, probably isn’t an idiot. I’m sure he and his publishing company know that zombie stuff isn’t generally taken very seriously by critics, literature snobs, and the general public (See if I save your asses when the apocalypse DOES arrive). Therefore, they probably had a closed door discussion during which his agent and such said, “Nobody but the same dead head crew that read the Survival Guide is gonna read a freakin’ zombie novel.” So they had to get critics to rave about the book. And what better way to get lit and critiquing snobs to rave about a book than to do something different. Seriously. I can picture some of my creative writing professors waxing poetic about this novel just because it takes an unconventional approach to book writing. These would be the same professors who swore off the fantasy and sci-fi genres. And don’t get me started on NY Times reviewers. I tried reading movie reviews on their websites a couple of times before. Exhausting is all they are.

The book is built as a compilation of interviews the “main character” conducts ten years after World War Z actually takes place. There are significant pros and cons to this storytelling approach.

The pros I examined: You get a holistic view of the entire world’s reaction to the zombie virus outbreak. The author is very tuned into each country’s political, social and economical situation before the war. This is a theme laced throughout the book. The interviewees are constantly pointing blame at their inept government leaders. And yet each situation is unique to each country, which I thought was pretty cool. He also didn’t have to worry about writing a main character that a lot of readers wouldn’t click with. The main character asks a few questions to his interviewees throughout the novel, and that’s about it. Well, except for the beginning when he sets the stage for the big “Why.” I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t because we just like gratuitous zombie violence.

I’ll admit, I have a hard time finding more pros to writing a book this way. There’s no main character to relate to. By the time I got into one character’s history and story he was moving on to someone else. The common threads of pain, despair, and loss are all there, and I have particular images still stuck in my mind, but I had a hard time weaving a fluid tale from it all. Hell, after I read the book I looked at the summary on Wikipedia and was like, “Oh, so THAT’S how it all went down!” Also, everything is passive. One basic and helpful writing advice I was given while paying a state university a stupid amount of money for a creative writing degree was, “Show, don’t tell.” This book is all telling and no showing. Therefore, while reading, there’s little to no anticipation or fear felt by the part of the reader. It’s all over. Mankind survived. Here’s a little bit of how they did it.

World War Z has taught me it isn’t necessarily bad that zombies aren’t taken seriously. I guess I’m conditioned to appreciate them in their B-movie gratuitous violence glory, and not in the literary sense. With that being said, I’m still open to reading more zombie apocalypse-centric novels that maybe don’t try so hard. Please help me out with any suggestions for reading material!

I do plan on seeing World War Z in the near future. I am bracing myself for the possibility of enjoying the movie more than the book for the first time, no matter how loosely based I’m sure the film is.