Until Dawn my hopes for the game weren't very high. I thought it was going to be a half-baked and campy interactive movie filled with unlikable characters and cheap jump scares. However, it turned out a lot better than I could have imagined and it now stands as one of my favorite horror games ever. Sure, the game can get really campy at times, and it has its fair share of jump scares. But it also features a clever script, an excellent setting, amazing atmosphere and (to my surprise) also managed to be extremely tense and scary at times.
Most games allow planning in some form. And not just any sort of planning, but meaningful planning where you can weigh your current data, plot a future course of actions, execute on those actions and then feel like you get a measurable outcome in the end. In Super Mario Bros you need to plan what path to take and how to avoid upcoming obstacles. In an RPG you need to consider how you spend your money and experience points to build up your character to suit your style of play and that character's effectiveness. There are tons of examples like this in games, and most games feature it in one form or another. Allowing for good planning is a one of the core features that make a game feel engaging.
However, in interactive movies, it's all about reacting to the events that unfold. There's not really any planning involved. You sort of live in the moment, and don't have much say in what happens next. For most of the time, the playable characters do what they feel like and let you occasionally take control to react to dangerous events or to make a tough decision for them. Sure, sometimes you can makes up plans to support certain characters so that they'll side with you later on. But all of that is pretty fuzzy, and mostly it won't be very useful to you. It is often hard to get a sense of what you near future possibilities will be at all. You might plan to do A, B and then C, only to have the game take control after action A and do something completely different. This means that, for the most part, it's impossible to plan ahead; in fact if you plan too much you will most likely be disappointed. It is often best to just go along with the flow. I think this lack of an ability to plan is one of the key reasons why many people feel that interactive movies are not proper games.
Side note: I think that the inability to plan and over reliance on reactive play is also why many people feel walking simulators aren't proper games. It is often stated that it depends on fail-states and the like, but I do not think that holds up. I will get back to this a bit more at the end of this essay.
What I found to be even more effective in allowing me to plan was in guessing plot-points which became a crucial part of the decision making. The most prominent of these was figuring out who was behind the torment of the other characters. I theorized quite early on who it was, and could then make a bunch of choices based around that. Connected to this is the fact that this is probably the only game I have played where it turned out to be beneficial to be a skeptic. I suspected that the movements of a spirit board was due to someone messing with it, which (together with a couple of other pieces of evidence) then led me to believe that certain ghost appearances couldn't be real either. All of these conclusions turned out to be true and allowed me to make much better decisions. In the end, the whole revelation is a bit implausible and very Scooby Doo-like. But it went quite nicely with the B-horror tone of the story and more than any other interactive movie I've played it made me feel that my understanding of the story mattered.
This doesn't mean that Until Dawn does planning perfectly - far from it. But it does show that smaller design changes can make a world of difference. It's also very important to note that a big reason why all this works is because of the Multiple Deaths System. Without having the very clear feedback of seeing your characters die or survive, and the tension that comes along with that, the features I've mentioned would have lost a lot of their impact.
Other Good Stuff
Those previous two points are what I feel are the major elements that make Until Dawn stand out from the crowd. But the good stuff doesn't end there. There are a lot of other interesting design choices that have a big influence on the experience.
First, exploration bits feels much better than in other interactive movie games. Often when you're given control over your character, the pacing often gets messed up. But in Until Dawn it just makes the game feel more like Resident Evil without the combat. One contributing factor is that that there're a lot of clues and totems for the player to find. These provide a nice sense of the sort of "item looting" common in survival horror games, and since all the things you can find are a part of the narrative, it never feels out of place either. The other factor is that you never know when you'll encounter danger, so walking down a murky hallway can be incredibly tense. Combined, these two elements make these exploration segments very engaging and make them feel part of the overall narrative.
Second, knowledge of the game's lore can help you survive situations, meaning that you're rewarded for paying more attention to it. For instance, there's one moment where knowing that monsters can't see you if you stand still is crucial when making a choice. And in another, remembering that monsters can imitate the voices of their prey will help you avoid walking into a trap.
Third, each of the characters has meters that go up and down as you make choices. At first it feels like unnecessary fluff, but it actually helps you get a bit more "ownership" over the characters. It's sort of an extension of the "Clementine will remember this"-line from the Walking Dead, giving an indicator that your actions have consequences. But more than that I think it's a way to see that your character changes depending on how you play. And then, the effect is similar to how you get more attached to your character in X-COM as they level up.
Fourth, it constantly varies its environments. This is what I like to call the Super Mario way of location progression. It has long been a common thing in games to let the player linearly progress through various environments. You start up in the forest, then go to the swamps, then to the mountains and finally you arrive at the castle. Super Mario doesn't work like that. Instead it constantly swaps between the environments, keeping the locations fresh. I think this is a really good design principle that far too few games use. Until Dawn does it well, both by having a lot of different locations near each other, and by switching character perspectives throughout the experience. This means that normally kind-of-dull environments, like the mines, always feel fresh and interesting to be in.
Again it's important to note here how much the Multiple Death system plays into all of these things. For instance, much of the dread that makes the exploration and clue hunting engaging comes from the knowledge that any choice could be a crucial one. The same is true for the second and third points too. And the varied environments rely heavily on there being multiple characters to play.
The Not So Good Stuff
Now that I have gone over the good things, it's time to briefly cover some of the not-so-good things in Until Dawn.
- The game often doesn't support a bunch of actions that it should have been possible to perform. For instance, there are doors here and there that it should have been possible to at least try to open. And far worse, at one point the characters turn away from a gate they could easily have jumped over. (You climb far more difficult things throughout the game).
- A few of the choices in the game can lead to unfair dead-ends. For instance, one character is bound to die pretty early on if you haven't made a few specific choices earlier in the game. The big problem here is not that it felt a bit unfair, but that you can't see any reason why it happens. If you can just get a sense of what went wrong, you can learn from your mistakes and do better later. But when that's not possible, your sense of being able to plan is decreased, which is a shame when the game builds that up so nicely in other places.
- The settings in Until Dawn look great, but I always felt that I was unable to properly explore them. One reason for this was the locked camera angles which focus more on making the shot look nice than on providing a good play space. Another reason is that many set pieces are simply not possible to explore. The game just decides that the characters wants to do something else instead and has them leave the area. The game is excellent at building mood in many ways, but I felt annoyed at how the game seemed to constantly hinder me from taking it all in properly.
- It is very uncertain when the control over your character will end. The best is when a dangerous encounter happens or you reach another character. In these cases the control method switch (from full analog to quick time events or dialog) and the break in control feels natural. But on many occasions the game starts a cutscene when you don't expect it to. For instance, after going down some stairs, the game suddenly decides that your character should go into a home cinema room despite there being lots of other places to explore. From a design point of view I can understand why this happens - you need to make sure that certain plot events trigger properly. But as a player these things deprive me of my agency and some of the immersion is lost.
Interactive Movies And Beyond
I feel I have a weird relationship with interactive movies. As I mentioned earlier, after playing through a bunch of Telltale games I've grown a bit bit tired of the format. But despite that they keep pulling me back. I ended up liking Until Dawn a lot more than I expected. Shortly after I also gave Life Is Strange a go and while it wasn't as good as Until Dawn, I liked it quite a bit too.
So why do I like them? I think there are three major reasons:
- They have a proper setup that defines who you are and why you are there. I am so sick of games, and it's especially common among horror games, that just throw me into an environment and expect me to care without giving me a reason to do so. Interactive movies (well most of them at least) work hard to provide intrigue and mystery from the get-go, properly setting me up to enjoy the rest of the story.
- The main focus is on telling a story. I don't mean this just by them being very linear and movie-like, but more that just about every choice is made in accordance to intended narrative. For instance, Until Dawn has collectibles but puts a lot of effort into making sure that they are connected to story. This creates worlds that feel more "real" and are easier to become lost in.
- They lack the fluff that that is so common in other games. The uninspired shoot-out sections that are obviously just there to make the game longer, extensive weapon upgrading, narrative-wise meaningless collectibles, filler mini-games and so forth. Interactive movies aim at giving you a specific experience and make sure that all of the game's aspects help fulfill that goal.
It might seem like I'm heading towards the good old "gameplay vs story" discussion here, but the point I'm getting at is a bit different. I don't think that gameplay is something inherently opposite of story. In fact, in the way I see story many of the classically super-gameplay-focused games like Super Mario have a ton of story in them. As you board an airship dodging cannonballs while trying to get one of Bowser's sons, a very rich narrative is created.
Instead, the problem lies in controlling the player's mental model of the game. That is how they perceive the game's virtual world to work, and what aspects that become most important in shaping how decisions are made and emotions evoked. When you want to focus on story you have to cut back on a lot of useful gameplay methods. The biggest issue is that you need to make sure that players do not end up optimizing for best possible progression, but act according to the intended narrative. There are also a bunch of things to consider in order to keep players immersed in the world. (For more information check out this essay). In the end it all comes down to storytelling games getting less gameplay per buck, as you can't rely on a fun and addictive gameplay system being core of the experience.
We found this out when creating SOMA. It's the one of our games that has got the most praise for its story, but it's also perceived as the one lacking the most in the gameplay department. Recently it occurred to me that one of the major things that make people feel the game lacks gameplay is because most choices are made as reactions. This even includes many of the puzzles, which have been designed with the focus to be streamlined and coherent with the narrative. This makes the game lack that proper feeling of being able to meaningfully plan ahead. So despite there being lots of things to do in SOMA, it feels like something is missing gameplay-wise.
The problem here is that we simply cannot increase the gameplay in any trivial manner. That would cause a whole bunch of other, worse, issues. So the way forward is to find other ways in which to increase the sense of "playability". And here I think there are at least two vital things that can be learned from Until Dawn:
- To find ways to, in a story-focused fashion, ramp up the tension and sense of accomplishment. The Multiple Deaths System in Until Dawn does a fantastic job at this.
- To allow players to make plans based upon how the narrative unfolds. The player should not just react to events as they occur but be able use tactics and long term planning in a way that feels meaningful.