Greetings! You may know me as the author of the definitive Dead to Rights article (the longest videogame review ever – proving quality doesn’t matter as long as you have quantity), the definitive Heavy Rain article, the definitive LA Noire article, and, of course, the still-unfinished definitive series of articles about Deadly Premonition. Then again, you probably don’t know me, so consider that a super-self-aggrandizing hello. Point is, today I’m here to offer another definitive look at a video game – this time, it’s PS4 interactive horror movie Until Dawn!
I really believe that Supermassive Games are onto something with Until Dawn – I’ve always been a fan of the interactive movie genre, and this is one of the best efforts in it yet. Which is why it’s so frustrating that the story they’ve chosen to tell has so many logic and character problems keeping it from being a truly great experience.
Yes, a lot of things didn’t make sense in the world of Until Dawn, so I’ve taken the liberty of breaking all of the game’s troubling elements down and presenting them, enumerated for your convenience, not as a comment on the various problems’ gravity or significance.
For the record, this article is nothing but spoilers, starting after this block of text. To prove it, after this next paragraph break, I’m going to give away the game’s two biggest reveals, so you’ll be ready for the rest of the article. If you don’t want to know and intend to go into the game clean, please don’t keep reading.
Twist 1 – There is no Psycho, it’s just Josh pulling an ‘April Fool’s Day’.
Twist 2 – Hannah survived the fall at the beginning of the game, and after a month of starving, she ate her sister’s corpse and turned into a wendigo.
Enjoy! Because, really, how could you not?
Part 1: Architecture and Mortality
Until Dawn has a great premise for a main location – a swanky ski chalet which turns out to be connected to an insane asylum where a wendigo uprising had occurred some years earlier. While this may seem like a preposterous contrivance, the narrative actually does a great job of justifying it. Back in the mid-19th century there was a hotel which served as a dumping ground for members of rich families suffering some kind of exhaustion. They would go to relax and receive mild treatment, and of they if they proved particularly difficult to deal with, they could be moved through a series of tunnels to the actual asylum for a more hands-on approach: hydrotherapy, electroshock and the like. Then, some decades after the aforementioned wendigo tragedy, a movie producer bought the mountaintop and had the hotel torn down to its foundations, then built the ski chalet on top of them. While one could easily point out the mild contrivance that the construction personnel wouldn’t have bothered sealing up the underground tunnels, it largely works as a plausible explanation for a very creepy setting.
Far less believable is the game’s other conceit, that the hospital and insane asylum were built atop – literally a stones throw from – an active mine. This literally could not make less sense. Yes, the premise of the game requires a group of miners to have turned cannibal before being rescued from a cave in, then gone wendigo at the asylum where they were taken for treatment afterwards. All of this logically tracks, what profoundly doesn’t is the idea that an insane asylum would be located so incredibly close to the mine where all these problems started. This is actually impossible, in two different ways. The first is that, by its very nature – and asylum was designed to house and treat the emotionally fragile and well-to-do – it would necessarily be built far from both civilization and industry. Secondly, and this is so obvious I can’t believe I even have to write it – you don’t build the mine at the top of a mountain. The attraction of the asylum is its remoteness – it’s so isolated that the only way to get there is by cable car or helicopter. So whose idea was it to put a mine up there? A mine that would constantly need machinery and men to be moved in as well as ore and refuse moved out. Yes, mines dig deep into the earth, creating all sorts of logistical and engineering problems – but the people making them don’t compound those difficulties by starting a quarter-mile in the sky.
Nothing about the story requires the mine to be with within spitting distance of the hospital. The mine could’ve been 50 kilometres away – and the plot would’ve played out the same. All of the miners would have been brought the same asylum for treatment, allowing them to turn wendigo and trash the place, setting up the rest of the story. But the developers really wanted a creepy mine for a third of the game’s locations, so they made the story way more preposterous, even though simply saying that the mountain was host to a natural cave formation would’ve been every bit as effective without breaking all logic.
Part 2: More Like Ineffectual Ralph
This is Green Jacket, the guy who spends the first half of the game looming at the treeline, acting like a sinister Jason wannabe:
He’s introduced very gradually – first lurking in the background, carrying a machete, then stomping about with a flamethrower, before finally offering a huge dump of exposition before being abruptly killed off. The game also offers plenty of background information about his quest to keep people from building on the mountain. Apparently he’d made legal challenges when the movie producer was buying the mountain and starting construction, claiming that the land was ‘sacred to his ancestors’. These challenges did not go well, possibly because the character is played by Larry Fessenden, the game’s writer, as opposed to an actor who in any way visually reads as native.
As one of the game’s red herrings, Until Dawn expects players to be terrified at the possibility that Green Jacket is up to something sinister as he lurks around the fringes of the story, looming at people while wearing goggles and a scarf. This isn’t super-effective, since literally the first thing we see him do in the story is attempt to save the lives of a pair of teens who have stumbled off a cliff:
(This means we’re going to be on this guy’s side, how did you not know that?)
Yes, it turns out, halfway through the game, that Green Jacket was a square gee, just a helpful sort who, for some reason that’s never explained within the story, has made it his life’s work to contain and deal with the wendigos that have made the mountain their home since that whole miner cannibalism incident back in the 50s. So he doesn’t have any negative motives, and instead is more of a Crazy Ralph figure, trying to warn the kids away from Crystal Lake because of the death curse on the campgrounds.
Here’s the thing, though – Crazy Ralph only seemed crazy because he didn’t have any proof of Jason’s Mom’s murder plans, or in the second film, Jason’s existence. Green Jacket, on the other hand, has all the proof you could possibly ask for. He has something like a dozen wendigos locked up in the ‘prison’ section of the asylum. At any point he could just get photographic or video evidence of those crazy monsters and he’d have more than enough proof to convince anyone but the most masochistic/suicidal of cryptozoologists to keep as far from the mountain as humanly possible.
Yet he doesn’t do this. During the years that construction must have taken, during the years that the movie producer’s family was spending vacations atop the mountain, all Green Jacket ever did was file a lawsuit and send some pointedly vague warning letters. Why? Why would he do that when offering the authorities a tour of the asylum would have proven his concerns to be absolutely justified, and gotten the whole mountaintop eminent-domained into a radioactive black hole? This is everything the character claims to want, yet he in no way makes any effort to make it a reality.
Also, and this is mostly unrelated, during those years I mentioned just then, there were wendigos running around the mountain, hungry for human flesh, who never bothered the dozens of construction workers or large family-and-friends groups who enjoyed the chalet. Which is just weird.
Part 3: Speaking of the Authorities…
I have a couple of practical questions about the asylum massacre that precipitated the mountain’s wendigo infestation. Here’s the sequence of events I’ve been able to cobble together:
1 – Miners are trapped in a cave-in, resort to cannibalism, and after being rescued, are escorted the ten-minute walk to the local crazy house.
2 – The mine is shut down forever, which is a normal thing that mines do after a single tragedy, despite the fact that we see plenty of perfectly stable tunnels running through the mine. Seriously, the mining company just locks the doors and sends everybody home, apparently forgetting that they’d ever invested any money in the mine. Only they didn’t actually bother locking the doors.
3 – Doctors at the asylum document the transformation of miner into wendigo with detached fascination, only bothering to take serious restraining steps after one of the miners bites the throat out of a hospital worker.
4 – The wendigos go nuts and tear the hospital apart, killing everyone. It’s so bad that the hospital’s head of staff locks himself in a secret safe room and kills himself. That was not an exaggeration for dramatic effect. Here’s his body:
5 – Now that everyone’s dead, the wendigo are free to roam the mountain at night, although they can’t leave it, because of magic that goes unexplained in the game’s story.
6 – Nothing. And that’s my problem with this story point. Shouldn’t there have been some follow-up to the whole asylum massacre? Let’s take a look at the size of this place, shall we?
Now let’s be conservative and say that there’s just 30 people working there at any given time, plus a relatively light 20 person group of patients when the miners arrived. A couple of weeks later, those fifty people were dead, torn to pieces by wendigos. Presumably another 30 people (estimating staff and guests) died when they attacked the hotel.
So that’s nearly a hundred people slaughtered by monsters. People with lives and families – in the case of the hotel guests and asylum patients, people whose relatives would have the resources necessary to make an extremely public fuss about the sudden mass slaughter of their loved ones.
Why wasn’t that fuss made? The game seems to suggest that the asylum was never investigated in any meaningful way. There’s plenty of evidence of the massacre – including corpses – left lying around. This doesn’t make any logical sense. If the government didn’t know what had happened they would have investigated. If they did know what had happened, they would have locked the place down for the rest of time. Yet neither of these things occurred.
The developers could have written around this with a lot of legwork, but they didn’t bother to do any, so they’re left with a gaping plot hole. And if you’re not interested in aiming higher than the plot of utter garbage movie Wrong Turn 4 in which this exact same thing happens, then what good are you, developers?
Part 4: A Miscasting For The Ages
This is Josh.
The plot is kicked off when his twin sisters die in a prank gone awry, and a year later he invites the culprits back to the scene of the crime for an incredibly inappropriate memorial party. Spoiler alert – he’s actually bringing them back for revenge, a reveal that arrives when most of the game is over. Unfortunately, everyone in the audience figured it out way, way, way before the characters.
This is a problem created by incredibly bad casting. Josh’s sunken eyes, creepy laugh, and incredibly sinister affect make him an intensely unnerving presence. Yes, this is a character with severe mental problems, but did he have to be so unbelievably bad at hiding them? What is served by the developers tipping their hats so obviously? If they’d put in someone blandly handsome like Chris or Matt in that role the audience would at least have a chance of being on his side, rather than spending the entire story wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.
And again, that shoe drops an incredibly long time after the secret has been figured out.
Part 5: The Utter Capriciousness of Matt’s Death
Spoiler alert, Matt can die in Until Dawn. Although I don’t suppose that’s actually much of a spoiler, since anyone can die in Until Dawn. That’s kind of the entire point of the game. The difference is that while every other character’s death requires the player to fail a QTE or make a bad decision, Matt’s fate has absolutely no clear connection to the choices anyone makes.
I’ll set the scene – Matt and Emily are precariously balanced on a ranger station which is midway through crashing down into the mine which, once again, was somehow bored straight down into the top of a mountain. Emily is perched on a railing while Matt is in slightly more stable position. Take a look.
Players are controlling Matt during this sequence, and they’re presented with two options: try to save Emily or jump to safety. If the player chooses ‘jump to safety’ Matt does that, and the station goes crashing into the pit, taking Emily with it. Attempt to save Emily and the characters will yell at each other for forty seconds, and then Matt will get a second chance to decide what to do. Again, he can easily jump to safety, and the same result plays out.
Here’s the thing, though – if the player take thes second option, and tries to help Emily again, the exact same thing happens. The ranger station shakes, Matt barely jumps to safety, and Emily falls down the pit.
So what’s the difference? Logic would dictate that there shouldn’t be a any. No matter what the player chooses the same thing happens at the same time, although I suppose if he jumped immediately that would’ve made it to the platform maybe ten seconds earlier – not enough of a change to impact anything. In both of these scenarios, no matter if Matt tried to help Emily a second time or not, he still ends up on the platform in the same amount of time having made same amount of noise. Why am I harping on this so aggressively?
Simple – if Matt jumps to safety. He essentially disappears from the game for the next four hours before being given a very easy chance to escape. If he tries to help Emily, wendigo Hannah immediately shows up and murders him. Like no QTE no chance to escape murders him. This isn’t the player failing a button press or making an affirmative decision. This is the game arbitrarily saying ‘choose option A or B, while the actions don’t have any meaningful difference, they result in diametrically opposite results’. That’s just bad design.
To be fair, though, it’s technically possible to contrive a sequence of events where Matt gets a flare gun he can use to scare Hannah off, but it involves the player either being psychic or consulting a walkthrough, so it’s not a real option for anyone playing the game for the first time and expecting to have some say in how the events transpire.
Part 6: Josh is Bad at Revenge
So Josh’s plan was to get revenge on his friends for their role in the death of his sisters. That’s all he planned for the weekend. Well, technically, all he planned for Friday night. I assume everyone would have left the next morning in the hopes of avoiding some super-awkward hot tub talk. The point is, he rigged the house to create a ghost adventure, faked evidence that there was a psycho on the loose, and had some Saw-themed traps planned. At no point was he expecting wendigos to attack. That’s important because of the form that Josh’s revenge takes.
Specifically, that it’s only ever targeted at three people – Chris, Ashley, and Sam. After everyone arrives at the chalet, Josh contrives to get half the group to leave – first by stealing Emily’s luggage to trick her and Matt into going back to the cable car station, and then by sending Jessica and Mike off for a sexy rendez-vous at the world’s least-convenient guest house. This allows Josh to focus on his main targets of revenge – his best friend Chris, who had absolutely nothing to do with the prank, since he and Josh were passed-out drunk in the kitchen when it was all going down; Ashley, who was at best tertiarily involved in the plan; and Sam, Hannah’s best friend, who, to be fair, probably should have done or said something during the planning stages, since betraying your best friend and humiliating them in front of their crush is considered something of a dick move.
(Pictured above to the left of frame: A dick.)
I can understand the focus on Chris and Ashley from a storytelling standpoint – they’re the most likeable characters, and the only relationship that the audience has a chance to get invested in is their budding romance. So obviously it makes for good drama to see them tested and pressured. But from Josh’s point of view, this makes absolutely no sense. The two people most directly responsible for his sisters’ deaths are Jessica, whose idea the prank was, and Mike, without whose participation the prank would have been completely impossible to pull off. Yet, as far as we can tell, his entire plan involves ruining Chris’ life by putting him into a series of trials where he’s forced to choose between his life and those of the people he loves.
Emily and Matt – eager participants in the prank that killed his sisters. Their punishment? Being forced to walk down a snowy path looking for some luggage that’s actually hidden in the basement. Mike and Jessica – the two people most directly responsible for his sisters’ death. Their punishment? A romantic night alone in a rustic cabin.
Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?
As far as the game was concerned, there was no second part of his plan – no tricks to torment Mike and Jessica, no traps waiting for Emily and Matt. He didn’t even seem to have any particularly dire fate in mind for Sam, beyond chasing her through a basement and tying her to a chair. No, if we’re going by the plans that Josh drew up and posted all over his workshop, after the two buzzsaw-related pranks were done being played on Chris, he was going to come out and gloat. End of plan.
How is he this bad at planning revenge, and how did the game’s developers not see the plot problems they were getting into? Also, wouldn’t it have been interesting if there had been some nefarious automated scheme afoot at the romantic getaway cabin, but Hannah attacks before it’s triggered, leaving it as a kind of easter egg for gamers who A: are paying attention and B: find Josh’s workshop and see the plans for it?
Of course, that’s not even the most implausible part of Josh’s evil scheme. That honour goes to-
Part 6A: Josh Didn’t Have Enough Time To Do Any Of This
Josh’s plan tracks for the first hour.
Part 1 – Get the other two couples to leave so that he can start using special effects ghost tricks to creep out Chris and Ashley, then drag Ashley out to the barn so he can-
Part 2 – Force Chris to kill either him or Ashley in a deathtrap that can only actually kill the fake Josh body that’s hanging from a wall.
That’s the last part where his plan tracks logically. I’ll explain.
Slightly after Chris sends the buzzsaw to kill Josh, here’s what the audience is supposed to think happens – the ‘Psycho’ who’s behind the evil games leaves his hiding place inside the chalet – from where he was watching Chris and Ashley’s ordeal – sets up some balloons leading Sam to the basement, then attacks her as she wanders through the house in a towel. He causes all this to happen by creeping into the bathroom and stealing her clothes while she’s relaxing in the tub, listening to her Ipod.
This all has to be done on a very tight timeline, because Chris and Ashley are likely on their way back to the chalet at that very moment, desperate to save Sam from the clutches of a Psycho.
The problem, though, is that the timeline is far tighter than it first appears. Because the Psycho is actually Josh, he can’t just chain Ashley and Josh to a wall and then turn his focus to Sam the way the game implies that he does. No, he has to climb into his fake body contraption and wait all the way through the ordeal, then play dead while Chris unties Ashley and the two of them leave the barn where all of this has been set up. It’s only after all that’s done that Josh can climb out of the platform he’s built for himself, put on the Psycho mask, and rush back to the chalet to begin tormenting Sam.
The barn is 90-second walk from the chalet, less than a minute if people are running. How could Josh possibly have expected to beat Chris and Ashley back there? And not only beat them, but have the huge amount of time it would have taken to set up all of this-
The party balloons with arrows on them which direct Sam into the home theatre where Josh corners her after showing her an edited video of him being killed.
When did he have time to do all of this editing in the three minutes that it should have taken Chris and Ashley to get back to the chalet? I know I said it was under a minute earlier, but during the trip back, they run into Matt and Emily, who make the argument that they should just all go for help instead of looking for Sam. Chris and Ashley don’t agree, so the two couples split up, but the whole conversation doesn’t take very long, and wouldn’t have delayed Chris and Ashley for more than a couple of minutes.
So there’s literally no time during which Josh could have set everything up for Sam unless we’re expected to believe that Chris and Ashley, desperate to save Sam from the Psycho, left the barn and then just kind of stood still in the freezing cold woods for a full hour before going back to the chalet. Which is what we’re expected to assume happened, because the developers assume the audience are idiots/not paying attention.
Think that timeline problem is bad? Check this one out. This is what the cable car station looks like when the last people arrive at the mountain.
Now this is what it looks like when Matt and Emily get back to it while fleeing from the Psycho.
When did Josh do all of this? Here’s the thing – when Sam and Chris arrive at the chalet, Josh is waiting for them with the rest of the group – presumably he was up there waiting for the first people to arrive. This means that the cable car station had to be trashed at some point between Mike and Jessica leaving it and Matt and Emily heading back towards it after finding out about the Psycho.
Here’s the problem with that – we can account for every second of Josh’s time within that window. Josh, in quick succession:
1 – Welcomes everyone to the chalet.
2 – Turns on a water heater.
3 – Plays a game of Ouija to dishonour his sisters’ memory/creep out Chris and Ashley.
4 – Fakes an emotional breakdown so he can run to the basement control room and start generating ‘supernatural’ tricks to creep out Chris and Ashley.
5 – Puts on the Psycho costume, abducts Ashley, sets up the barn ordeal, climbs into the contraption.
At no point in this sequence of events is there a half-hour window for Josh to leave the chalet, somehow sneak past Emily and Matt who he’d sent down the path to look for stolen luggage, trash the cable car station, including painting ‘DIE’ all over the walls, then get back to the chalet to continue his scheming.
Only a third party could have done all of that, which is what the audience is supposed to think it going on. But it’s a huge cheat on the part of the developers since there’s no way that damage to the cable car station could have been done by Josh.
Part 7 – Is Josh Psychic? Or Are the Writers Just Bad At Their Jobs?
One last thing about Josh’s plan – it required him to be able to predict behaviour in a way that’s flat-out impossible. In order to get Chris and Ashley alone for their torment, he tricks Matt and Emily into going to look for luggage, and sends Mike and Jessica off to the guest house. At first it seems like a good plan, but there’s a problem with each couple’s situation.
The first problem is with Mike and Jessica. Here’s what the path to the guest cabin looks like.
Yes, it’s completely impassible. What would sane people do upon finding this obstruction? They’d go back to the cabin, either to just sleep there, or to ask Josh if there’s another way to the guest house. If they come back to the chalet, though, Josh’s plan is completely screwed, because they’d arrive just as Chris and Ashley were searching the house for ghosts, and having four people doing that would have completely blown a hole in Josh’s ambush plans.
So Josh needs to know that Mike and Jessica are so insane that seeing the path blocked, their first idea is to climb down into an abandoned mine tunnel, hoping that it will have a useable exit which opens onto the path to the guest cabin. This is a flat-out crazy plan, since they don’t actually know where the guest cabin is, so even if the mine miraculously has an easily-accessible exit, once they reach it they will have no idea where they are in relation to the chalet or the guest house.
Even worse is the Emily and Matt situation. He sent them to look for luggage, and headed them down a path towards a severed pig head on a spike designed to freak them out. That’s all well and good, as it causes them to rush back to chalet, where they meet up with Chris and Ashley after the barn ordeal. Here’s where the psychic business gets bad again. The four characters offer two competing ideas: 1 – Get Sam from the chalet, then go for help. 2 – Just go for help, and worry about Sam later.
If all four people agree to either of these plans, Josh’s scheme is done. If four people are walking around the basement looking for Sam, he’s not going to be able to overpower them the way that he planned on jumping Chris and Ashley. Likewise, if they all head to the cable car station first and arm themselves, his plan is even more screwed when they inevitably head back to the chalet.
No, for Josh’s plan to work he had to know that not only would the group split up, but that they’re do it in the exact combination that they do. Which is so far past plausible that it lands right in psychic territory.
Part 8 – So I Guess Hannah’s Not That Hungry?
We’re given some clear information about the way wendigos operate in the world of the game. If you get so hungry that you resort to feeding on human flesh, you transform into a monstrous creature who is even hungrier than before, but that hunger can never be sated, and you’ll be obsessed with finding and eating as much human flesh as you possibly can. This makes the wendigos single-minded to the point that they’re actually fairly easy to trap. Green Jacket explains that he’s been able to round up most of the wendigos by simply leaving human limbs in opportune places and then waiting for a wendigo to show up. This is the kind of trap wendigos fall for:
They grab the arm and then a bear trap catches them. Not exactly rocket surgery, catching these things.
So if they’re that driven by a base hunger, and Hannah has been crawling around the mountain for ten months without any food, why doesn’t she kill and eat Josh? The only restrictions placed on the movement of wendigos is that that A: they only come out at night, and 2: they won’t leave the mountain. Neither of these were an issue.
Given the amount of prep that Josh put into the house staging and prop construction, he must have been living at the chalet full time for weeks, even months, only leaving to gather more supplies. There’s absolutely no way he carefully only spending dawn until dusk up at the chalet – because why would he, really – more importantly, though, the video he sent to invite everyone to the chalet weekend was shot in the chalet, at night-
So why didn’t Hannah kill and eat him? It can’t be because she recognized her brother, because she doesn’t. Here’s what happens when they meet in the game-
Yes, it’s possible for Josh to survive that meeting, but only if he recognizes Hannah and tries to communicate with her. So obviously that’s not the reason she didn’t kill him in the eight weeks he was just hanging out in her hunting ground while she was devoured from the inside by an insatiable hunger. No, the reason is that the developers didn’t think through the inciting incident that was needed to get the story going.
Part 9 – You’re a Terrible Doctor, Peter Stormare
Each of the game’s chapters post-prologue opens with the player controlling Josh (although they’re not told that immediately) as he has a hypothetical conversation with an imaginary psychiatrist. The doctor walks the player through questions designed to gauge what scares them most, but then those fears aren’t every really worked into the game, which is something of a disappointment. Switching whether a mannequin is wearing a clown or scarecrow mask isn’t the kind of phobia-based branching gameplay I’d hoped for when these sequences began.
Peter Stormare’s character, Dr. Hill, isn’t entirely a figment of Josh’s imagination. The figure players see at each chapter start is Josh using a representation of his actual doctor to work through his many, many, internal conflicts. And it’s good that he’s doing it, because he’s got a really, really bad doctor.
When Sam gets a chance to explore Josh’s workshop she comes across some revealing information. First off, she discovers that Josh has been under psychiatric care since he was around 12 years old due to ‘incidents’ at school, and also that he’s been on and off antidepressants for years. The notable part? When he’s off them, he has hallucinations and psychotic breaks. So not encouraging, then. More importantly, through, she finds a set of text messages between Josh and Dr. Hill.
In this text message, Dr. Hill warns Josh that actually putting his ‘plan’ into effect is a terrible idea, and tries to find out if he’s been taking his medication. Josh does an extremely bad job of reassuring the doctor that everything’s all right, leaving only one possible conclusion – that the elaborate revenge fantasy that Josh discussed in therapy is becoming a reality, and it’s all being managed by a guy who’s stopped taking the meds that were keeping him from going completely nuts.
At this point, Dr. Hill knows that Josh is planning terrible revenge on the people he blames for his sisters’ deaths, and also that the stress he’s under is probably going to lead to a mental breakdown if he doesn’t get back on his medication. What does the doctor do about this? Absolutely nothing. He doesn’t call the people in danger, he doesn’t contact the authorities, he just sits on the information.
Yes, there’s such a thing as doctor-patient confidentiality, but those rules go out the window the moment that someone’s life is in danger, which is absolutely the case here. The real tragedy is that the developers didn’t see the possibilities that the Dr. Hill character added to their story. How wonderful would it have been if, during the story, Peter Stormare was trying desperately to make it up the mountain like Scatman Crouthers in The Shining, warning of danger but, for reasons of medical integrity, being unable to explain why! Then boom, he gets killed unexpectedly just as he’s about to reveal the big twist, keeping the audience guessing for a little while longer!
Bad play, developers.
Part 10 – Worst. Search and Rescue. Ever.
Um… how did the authorities not find Hannah? Could someone please explain that to me? Because I paid pretty close attention to the geography of the game, and here’s what quickly became clear – when Hannah and Beth fell off that cliff at the beginning – that all happened within about 50 meters of the cable car station. We know this because when Emily and Matt head from there to the ranger tower, it takes them just two screens to get to the precipice. So while the girls spent a while running through the woods, fleeing in embarrassment/terror, they were essentially just taking the back route from the rear of the chalet down to the precipice/cable car station.
We’re told that after the girls disappeared. There was an exhaustive search of the mountain that came up empty. How is this possible? The hole they fell down is completely visible from the cliff at night during a storm, so during the day in helicopter it would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Why did no one search there? Seriously, how did they not search the mines for the girls? It’s not like they’re super extensive. We’re told that most of the mine was closed off by the cave-in, and since it never reopened, there’s just a few miles of accessible tunnels, and Hannah spent the entire time crawling around inside those.
Where exactly did they search? If the bloodhounds combing the mountainside found nothing, wouldn’t the mine be the next logical place to look? Whether operating under the assumption that they fell in through a hole or simply ducked into a cave to avoid the cold after getting lost in the woods, you absolutely have to at least give the mines a cursory look. Considering the fact that Hannah was down there for a full month crawling around within shouting distance of an exit before turning cannibal, it seems impossible that the search teams could have missed her.
This is kind of a huge plot hole, considering that the entire plot of the game teeters at the edge of it, but there’s an even bigger problem with this section of the story. Yes, even setting aside the complete ineptitude of the Canadian search and rescue teams, this part of the story still makes absolutely no sense. Why? Check out the next part.
Part 11: Seriously – How Are You This Bad At Being a Crazy Hermit?
Remember when we talked about Green Jacket’s motivation earlier? About how all he cares about is keeping people off the mountain to protect them from wendigos? We’ve got to come back to that now for a pretty important part of the plot. Right at the end of the teaser Green Jacket risks his life to try and rescue Hannah and Beth, first from a wendigo, then from plummeting to their doom.
(Seriously, he’s a good dude.)
He fails to save them, but he doesn’t fail to get some key information that serves only to break the story. Green Jacket knows exactly where the twins fell because he saw it happen. He knows they were on the precipice, and he saw both of them fall down this hole-
Which, again, is visible at night, during a storm.
So here’s the question – why didn’t he rescue Hannah? This is a guy who knows both the mountain and the mines beneath it like the back of his hand. He’s got maps as well as a journal dedicated to his exploration of the whole substructure of the mountain. So Green Jacket knows exactly where the twins fell, and could be down there to help them within the hour. Yet he doesn’t. Why?
I honestly can’t come up with a good reason. It’s not like the twins thought Green Jacket was trying to hurt them. There’s actually a pretty clear sequence of events.
1 – The twins are backed to the edge by a wendigo closing in on them. They clearly see the wendigo, and are frightened by it.
2 – They fall off the side.
3 – Green Jacket emerges from the woods and scares off the wendigo with a blast from his flamethrower.
4 – Green Jacket appears at the precipice and tries to save them.
So if anything, Hannah would be super happy to see this guy again, especially if it meant she was being rescued. Even if the trauma had confused her and she had somehow gotten it into her head that he was dangerous, it’s not like Green Jacket is under any legal threat. All he has to do is say ‘nope, she was attacked by a wendigo and I saved her’, then he can prove it by taking them to the asylum where he’s got a dozen wendigos locked up. There is literally no possible downside to Green Jacket attempting to save her – and he’s got a full four weeks to do it. Yet he doesn’t. He doesn’t even send an anonymous tip. Nothing.
It’s impossible to even claim that Green Jacket assumed they were dead, and didn’t bother checking to make sure. Not only for the most basic reason – it’s an hour out of his life, why not go and check? But for the far more important reason that Green Jacket flat-out explains later in the game that he salvages body parts from corpses to use as bait for wendigos. So worst case scenario, he gets down there and they’re both dead, he’s got two fresh slabs of wendigo-bait to trap the last of the creatures roaming around the mountain.
Yet Green Jacket doesn’t go and rescue Hannah, for the sole reason that if he did, it would have broken the plot. Which is a plot hole so big it essentially swallows the entire story.
Part 12: Information Control is Difficult When Dealing With a Branching Narrative
It’s far too easy when making a video game or film to get confused about what information the audience has as opposed to what information characters have – and this particular mistake can leads to some egregiously bad plotting. This becomes even more difficult when dealing with the kind of branching storyline that can occur in a videogame. Until Dawn is a perfect example of this, as it’s entirely possible for the two pieces of information that the entire finale of the game relies on to never actually be received by the characters who act on that information.
When Green Jacket arrives to let all the characters know that there are wendigos on the loose, Chris immediately volunteers to do the noble thing, because he’s a good guy. He and Mike had just left Josh tied up in the barn, and leaving him out there with monsters is basically murder. Green Jacket goes with him on the attempted rescue, and on the way there, Larry is nice enough to inform Chris about the key points of wendigo physiology – first, they’re weak against fire, and have to be burned before they can be killed. Second, and way more important? Their vision is movement-based. Remain absolutely still and you become invisible to them. This becomes a gameplay mechanic that will be key for the entire rest of the story..
Here’s where information management problems come in. After Chris discovers that Josh is gone, dragged away by Hannah, there are four different ways he can die before getting back into the chalet. If that happens, and he doesn’t make it back alive, there’s no reason for all of the other characters to know they should stand still in order to become invisible, even if a wendigo is looking right at them – yet somehow they all do.
The game does contain one possible explanation for them having this information, but it’s a bit of a stretch. At one point, Ashley does get her hands on Green Jacket’s hunting journal and flips through a few pages which contain the factoid in question, but there’s no indication that she internalizes that information – she’s way more focused on the question of whether or not Emily is turning into a werewolf – and even if she does, she certainly never tells anyone else, so even there the universal knowledge of wendigo physiology is left completely unexplained.
As bad as that is, there’s a way bigger problem centred around Chris’s possible death – namely that it can invalidate the last two acts of the game. As the game winds towards a close the characters are caught in a bit of a pickle – trapped on the mountain full of wendigos, and the only key to the cable car is in Josh’s pocket. Actually, they don’t know this for sure – the key could be anywhere in the house, and it’s actually far more likely to be in a drawer or on a hook in Josh’s workshop or surveillance room, but whatever, they decide to just assume he’s got the key on him. So we will as well. The plan: go down into the wendigo’s lair, find Josh, then get the key and come back.
Beyond the suicidal impossibility of this plan, there’s actually a pretty huge problem to contend with – if Chris dies, they shouldn’t be able to come up with it.
When Chris and Larry get to the barn they discover that Josh or perhaps Josh’s corpse has been dragged away by Hannah. It’s this information that allows the rest of the group to figure out that Josh, or at least his corpse, is in her lair. If Chris gets killed they don’t have this information, and they have no reason to venture down into the mines. As far as they know Josh’s body, along with the key, is still sitting in the barn, and they’ll be in no hurry to try and get it since doing that just got Chris killed.
It’s not like they’re capable of just imagineering this plan on their own – as of this point, the entirety of their experience with wendigos has been Emily running away from Hannah, and Mike seeing Jessica dragged to the mine entrance. When he followed them there, depending on how fast a route he took and how good he is a quick time events, he sees Hannah drop Jessica’s injured body, or mangled corpse – presumably in disinterest. Then, unrelated to anything Hannah or Mike does, the elevator Jessica is lying on gives way and she falls deeper into the mine. Based on that information alone Mike should have no idea that Hannah even has a lair, let alone any interest in dragging people to it.
Yet this crazy assumption is made and all of the other characters go along with it, and it turns out to be right.
The end of the game is pretty much nonsense if Chris doesn’t survive.
Part 13: No Offense Sam, But You Are Not Much Of a Leading Lady
In theory, the audience should see Sam as the game’s lead. She’s the first character they’re put in control of after the prologue, she’s played by the actor who was the most famous when production started, and the storyline is rigged to ensure that she survives right up until the final confrontation no matter how bad people are at playing the game. Unfortunately, the developers seem to think that simply doing that will be enough to endear her to players and never bother giving her any characterization at all.
Sam doesn’t have a point of view, ideas, opinions… really any personality that we can notice because she never interacts with other characters enough to exhibit one. Her only contribution to the game’s story is to spend half a chapter trying to run a bath. Then, later, exploring Josh’s secret workshop and uncovering him as the villain of the piece. For someone who claims to have been Hannah’s best friend, she definitely doesn’t seem all that broken up about her decision to not stop the prank that caused the twins deaths. In fact, the only people who seem guilty about last year are Chris and Ashley, which is weird in one case, since Chris was legitimately not in any way involved in the prank – he was passed out drunk in the kitchen with Josh at the time.
This lack of any depth creates a bizarre situation – the entire endgame centres around Sam because she’s the only character guaranteed to be alive to take part in it. But since Sam hasn’t gone through any real struggles or developed as a character, players spend the climax of the game in the shoes of the character that they’ve spent the least time getting to know or caring about.
Part 14: Also, Sam’s Kind of an Idiot.
Okay, here are a couple of key pieces of evidence Sam discovers while creeping through Josh’s evil workshop.
That’s a plan for how Josh pretended to be cut in half while actually remaining safely behind a protective barrier while a latex body filled with pig intestines and blood was splattered everywhere. You know what would have been a nice touch? If Chris and Ashley had noticed that the intestines all over the floor weren’t steaming because they’d been sitting out in the barn all night, waiting for the show to start. That would have been a very clever way for them to figure out the situation. But let’s move on.
The plans for the buzzsaw machine itself.
A tape recorder with audio of Josh practicing the ‘Psycho’ voice.
Also, there’s the matter of the aforementioned correspondence with Dr. Hill, which allude to Josh’s evil plan.
Armed with these four piece of evidence, there’s only one possible conclusion that someone could come to – there is no Psycho, only Josh. So what do you imagine that Sam says when she runs into Mike just a minute after finding all the evidence? I’m betting it’s not this:
So, just for the record, Sam saw the video where Josh has been cut in half, then soon after she found a detailed explanation about how Josh built a contraption to make it look like he was going to be sawed in half, but really it was all an evil game he was playing. Yet she still thinks he’s dead. Oh my god, I’m actually glad there’s not more of you in this game, Sam, you’re the worst.
That’s not just me saying that, either – Sam fully establishes herself as the absolute worst a few minutes later, when confronted with a de-masked Josh.
Sam, it’s really easy to say that it was obviously someone after you’ve the room full of evidence indicating that it was them. But here’s the thing – you had that room full of evidence, and you still didn’t think it was Josh. It took Josh pulling off his mask and saying ‘it was me all along!’ and then doing a maniacal laugh before you figured it out. I know your pride was bruised by how hoodwinked you were, but at this point, you’re just making yourself look bad.
Part 15: Sartorial Choices of the Damned.
So the majority of the wendigos in the game are miners, or rather were back in the 1950s when a mine collapse drove them to cannibalism. Of course, even if you didn’t know their backstory, taking one look at them would let you know all you needed to about their former line of work.
Check it out – jeans, denim shirts, overalls, all in remarkably good condition considering that the clothes have been worn by creepy cannibal monsters for 60 years. Now let us compare that to how Hannah was dressed when she turned cannibal.
Jeans, a snow jacket, and she eventually takes that grey sweater off of Beth’s dead body. And here’s how she’s dressed nowadays–
Not sure how those flimsy panties survived when everything else perished, but the point is clear – a single year of living is a wendigo destroyed every piece of clothing she owned. So how on earth are the miners still dressed like miners? More to the point, though, why are they dressed like miners at all?
Yes, they were actively mining when they turned cannibal, but they were rescued and brought to the asylum where they were treated for two full weeks before going full wendigo and trashing the place. Now I’m not an expert in psychotherapy, but I feel like one of the first things you would do as part of treatment would be to have all of the miners get rid of the blood, dirt, and bodily-fluid soaked clothing that they were wearing during the worst month of their lives. Shouldn’t all of the asylum wendigos be dressed in simple patient clothes? How are they still wearing outfits that should’ve been torched in an asylum incinerator a half a century ago?
Part 16: Pecking Order.
Why does Hannah hate the other wendigo’s? Is this clear to everyone but me? Am I taking crazy pills? I played through the game three times taking vastly different routes and getting extremely varied outcomes, and at no point was it ever even slightly clear why, during the final showdown, Hannah and the asylum wendigos start fighting to the death.
I’m not complaining about the scene itself – it’s actually all very well executed! The wendigos have great character design and super interesting movement, so it’s incredibly fun to watch them fight each other – I just have no idea why any of it is happening. The asylum wendigos want to kill and eat the group, Hannah wants to kill and eat the group. The asylum wendigos have no trouble working together to accomplish this goal, Hannah wants to kill all of the asylum wendigos – to the point that she’ll prioritize doing that over killing and eating her former friends. This isn’t out of loyalty to them, either – if Sam, Hannah’s supposed BFF, attracts any attention she’ll immediately wind up gutted by Hannah for her troubles.
So does this conflict between monsters make sense to anyone? Because to me it feels like a contrived set up for a cool action scene.
Part 17: Until Dawn Needed a Better Replay System.
As previously mentioned, I played until Dawn three times – this was not made easy by the game, which offers no method for letting players see how different decisions would have played out other than to restart the chapter where the decision was made, and then play the game until they reach the point where that decision pays off, even if it’s hours away. Get Jessica killed early in the game, but want to see how it would’ve played out differently if she’d survived? I hope you enjoy the prospect of wading through five hours of identical content before discovering that your reward for saving Jessica is a single chase scene so generic that it’s the exact same one Matt gets if he survives, and then three lines of dialogue in the end credits. That’s it. There isn’t even an additional scene with her and Mike. It’s inexcusable that this stuff wasn’t easier to find/unlock.
There are a number of ways, this could’ve been done better – some kind of a flowchart showing all of the possible scenes in the game, and then letting people try to get those scenes by making various decisions, perhaps even telling them how to do it once the game has been completed once. Additionally, it would be nice if players taking second and third trips through the game were able to skip dialogue and scenes that they’ve already experienced – just adding in this option would make it way easier to find what it been changed. Players would pay a lot more attention to the non-skippable dialogue and scenes, knowing full well that their alternate decisions had created them.
As of now, Until Dawn is a game that wants players to replay it, but doesn’t offer enough changes in the storyline to warrant it, given how difficult it is for them to do so.
Part 18: Seriously Though, What About Chris And Ashley?
I’m puzzled by how badly the developers bungled their game design when it comes to the branching story. I mentioned this in my main review and it really is a big problem. To avoid work, the developers basically excise characters from the storyline once it’s possible for them to die. I hope you didn’t get too involved in Chris and Ashley’s relationship the way I did. Because after Chris and Larry go to check on Josh the two of them don’t have any more meaningful interactions. Hell, Chris has maybe four more lines of dialogue in the entire game.
Likewise, the moment Matt either does or doesn’t die in the falling tower, or Jessica does or doesn’t die before taking an unexpected elevator ride, they disappear from the game entirely. Save for that brief chase scene that one or both of them can experience, they don’t appear until the ending. Even Emily, who is apparently the developers’ favourite character (are they insane?) mostly disappears after her big dramatic chase scene. Sure there’s the brief, mostly ludicrous, scene where they try to decide she’s turning into a werewolf and needs to be shot, but after that, absolutely nothing.
Until Dawn wants players to get is wrapped up in these characters and their lives, but then it throws them away the minute they run out of gameplay utility. I’m not saying the game needed a Return of the King-esque series of epilogues to deal with the aftermath for all these characters and their relationships, but it definitely needed more than it currently offers. Especially when, after building up such an interesting cast of characters, for the last two hours the game essentially forgets that anyone other than Sam and Mike even exist.
I know would’ve meant a lot more work to change the way the final encounter plays out based on how many characters survived to get there, but considering that the entire point of the game is whether or not players are able to keep these people alive, allowing them to play some meaningful role in the ending would’ve been a well-deserved reward for those who were willing to put in the skill and effort.
So that’s Until Dawn – a fun slasher film/monster movie game which stands at the top of its genre, despite a poorly-thought-out plot and some problems with the ‘branching story’ concept. Now, allow me to leave you with a few final thoughts, none of which were important enough to flesh out into a full part.
Where did they park?
I have no idea where all the characters parked. Sam is the last to arrive, and she gets to the stop on a city bus – and this has to be one of its last stops before turning around. But when he gets there no other cars are in evidence. There’s no way everyone took the bus – some must have carpooled. Also Josh definitely has a vehicle of some kind, given all the nonsense he’s moving up the cable car.
So where’s the parking area? I’d assume across the road, but that would only make sense if it was directly across the road, and we can clearly see a guardrail blocking that area off. I think the developers just flat-out missed this one.
Seriously, Supermassive Games?
According to a recent Reddit AMA, developers Will Byles and Tom Heaton listed Emily as their favourite character, and called her story arc the most interesting and heroic in the game. Well, she has the best chase scene in the game, but beyond that, I don’t see anything positive about her character. She’s a complete monster from beginning to end, and you people are crazy for liking her. She has no arc. She’s horrible to everyone, then she runs away from a monster, then she resumes being horrible to everyone until Mike either shoots her or doesn’t, at which point she’s either dead, or she resumes being horrible once again, trying to get Ashley killed during the escape.
Although their preference for the character explains the scene where, if Josh tells Dr. Hill that he likes Emily least, the doctor ‘You know, she’s not really that awful’.
Speaking of that terrible Search and Rescue…
In the opening true crime podcast the local cop explains that they think Green Jacket, who they know is squatting the creepy asylum, might have been involved in the disappearance, but they searched the place and didn’t find any evidence.
Seriously? Is she just lying? How could you have not found evidence? That place is like the Costco of evidence. Between corpses, wendigos, traps, diary entries, pleas scratched into walls, piles of bones, and filmstrips that somehow still work sixty years later, the police would have to spend months, even years, cataloguing everything they found in the asylum.
They don’t have those in Canada.
You know, for a game set in Canada, about Canadians, they developers weren’t super-careful about avoiding mentioning things that aren’t in Canada. There are a few instances, but the worst is someone mentioning AP classes, which don’t exist outside of America. Hey, I think it’s cool that they want to set the game in Canada because that’s where wendigos actually live, but maybe a little more research might have helped?
You’re all horrible people.
I feel like the main game should have taken place more than a year after the horrible tragedy, because right now, everyone but Chris and Ashley kind of seem like monsters. Just ten months earlier, this group of ‘friends’ got Josh’s sisters killed, and now they’re all super-psyched to go back to the scene of the crime so they can hang out? Who are these people, and why aren’t they worried that this is going to be amazingly awkward, which it absolutely should have been?
I get why Chris and Sam go – Josh seems a little unhinged in the video, and as his friends they’ll want to see if he’s okay. Ashley kind of makes sense as well, as she feels guilty and wants to be near Chris. I have no idea why anyone else goes, and the very fact that they feel that they seem to look on their trip to the chalet as nothing more than an opportunity to drink, party, and hook up seems so cold as to be nearly monstrous.
Seriously, though, put a few more years since the tragedy and it’s a little more believable that people would accept the invitation, since they’d naturally assume that feelings had cooled somewhat. Right now everyone but Ashley and Chris seem like unfeeling beasts.
Larry Fessenden, who co-wrote the game and stars as Green Jacket made a movie called Wendigo back in 2001. I haven’t seen it, but I thought it was worth pointing out!
Who thought this was a good plan?
I can’t stress enough how crazy it is that no one calls out the insane plan to head down to the wendigo lair and find Josh’s keys. This should have been a branching plot, if one at all – at the time the plan is come up with, if Emily has survived, she’s told the rest of the group that a helicopter is going to arrive to rescue them in two hours.
How is trying to explore a mine, basically unarmed, in the hopes that you’ll find some keys on a corpse, a better plan than waiting for two hours? If Emily dies during her chase, then sure, this makes sense, since they don’t know help is on the way – but if they do, why on earth would they try something so stupid?
Where is your luggage, people?
Okay, so Sam has a backpack, and Chris has a backpack, and Emily famously has her two bags. But where is everyone else’s luggage? When they all turn up at the chalet, waiting to break in, nobody seems to have any bags with them. Mike and Jessica head off to the guest cabin with literally just the clothes on their backs. Not even a toothbrush between them. Have these people never gone to a cabin for the weekend before?