Until Dawn may very well be the next great step for horror video games. Its focus on choice, non-linearity, storytelling, and satire is providing a great foundation for this fledgling genre, and developers have to be very wise to not only pay close attention, but take heavy inspiration from what developer Supermassive Game has created.
Now let’s dial it back a bit and discuss exactly why horror games have been lacking in quality these past several years. Capcom’s Resident Evil series, which is arguably the biggest horror franchise in the world, has not been able to deliver a great entry since creator Shinji Mikami’s wonderful Resident Evil 4 all the way back in 2005. Ever since Mikami left Capcom in 2007, the series hasn’t been the same. Resident Evil 5, which is directed by totally different people, focuses a lot more heavily on action and co-op gameplay rather than atmosphere, puzzle-solving, tension, and actual scares. It is set in sunny South Africa; it has you constantly partner up with another character; and it turns protagonist Chris Redfield into a boulder-punching behemoth. Resident Evil 6 has the same type of issues.
The Dead Space series has also suffered the same dip in quality as the third and latest entry focuses on action, and abandons the simplicity and terrifying nature of the first game. The indie scene is definitely doing a better job as titles like Amnesia and Outlast are actually quite frightening, but they feel like unfinished, bite-sized products more than anything. Mikami, who is now a head of his own studio—Tango Gameworks—did release a good horror game (The Evil Within) that is inspired by Resident Evil 4, but the game falls apart towards the end when it forces the player to shoot through an obnoxious amount of enemies.
Do you see a common thread here? Developers aren’t able to effectively balance action with horror. How can you make a player feel capable enough to kill a monster, but weak enough to consistently scare them? This is an issue that Until Dawn fixes by, well, completely removing it from the entire game. It focuses on a bunch of young adults trying to run away from a serial killer. The only way you, the player, stand a chance is by outsmarting this madman. The storytelling heavily inspires the gameplay as you constantly have to make tough and often terrifying decisions that will affect the rest of the game. Forget about shooting or slashing monsters, you’ve no weapons at your disposal save for your brain. Use it.
This type of design is actually very prevalent in the first few Resident Evil and Silent Hill games. In Silent Hill 2, which is considered by many to be one of the best horror games ever made, protagonist James Sunderland is a scrawny guy that can barely fire a gun; you barely use it in the entire game. In Resident Evil 1, you always have to save your ammo for some of the biggest baddies that you’ll inevitably come up against. As for the rest of the monsters like zombies? Avoid them.
A huge reason why Until Dawn works is because it so obviously borrows plenty of these ideas from both games. You need to make the player feel physically weak but mentally capable. This is key when making a horror game, and if you take a look at some of the best games in the genre, like Silent Hill 2 and Resident Evil 1, they do exactly that. Until Dawn acknowledges this, but it also borrows from games like Heavy Rain and even Mass Effect when it comes to player choice and exceptional storytelling, and the way it tells its story; plus it also makes fun of some of the best old-school horror movies, like Friday the 13th and Halloween.
Until Dawn doesn’t introduce anything new or groundbreaking. It doesn’t revolutionize the genre like, say, Resident Evil 4. But it is a perfect amalgamation of the best horror has to offer, and it reintroduces and puts a huge emphasis on things like making the player feel powerless. Sometimes going back to basics and adding only a little bit of new flavour is the best path to a great future.