Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Cabin the Woods

Game: Until Dawn
Supermassive Games, 2015 (PS4)

There’s a lot to admire in Until Dawn’s ambition. Technically it’s a stunning achievement, even if the PS4’s hardware isn’t quite up to the task of rendering its ultra-realistic, motion-captured cast in real time at anything like a consistent frame rate. The idea of applying the Telltale formula to an 80s horror film and throwing a more constant threat of character death into the mix certainly seems right up my alley. After all, who hasn’t wanted to yell at the characters on screen in a slasher movie for their constant stupidity and lack of basic self-preservation instincts? On paper, the idea of directing their behavior from position of cast puppet master sounds like a perfectly fine concept for a game.

Alas, Until Dawn not only mucks up the execution of that concept but falls prey to the same old hoary tropes of the slasher genre itself. Not content just to give you a limited range of choices often stripped entirely of story context, it frequently takes even that power from the player and has the characters do the same old stupid slasher stuff anyway. It’s an insulting way of trying both to blame the players for their mistakes - though good luck knowing what those mistakes are - while wresting control at the most critical moments of consequence. Characters splitting up to investigate clear deathtraps entirely on their own? Check. Leaving crucial weapons and MacGuffins behind out of sheer blind stupidity? Check. Stopping in the middle of a life-and-death chase to argue about petty teen social vendettas? CHECK CHECK CHECK. Frequently the player has no say in anything but how badly the characters will suffer based on a series of quick-time events - though maybe one in a hundred of these quick-time events might be the trigger that later gets someone killed.

I’m hard-pressed to think of many games that have come this close to realtime-rendered photorealism.

Until Dawn also embraces the absolute worst narrative elements of its source materials without the slightest inclination to subvert or improve upon them - this is far more Friday the 13th Part VI than The Cabin in the Woods or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. The characters turn out to be the same old awful slasher clichés we’ve seen a thousand times over, from the Dumb Jock to the Slutty Slut to the Hapless Nerd to the Queen Bee Bitch to the Virgin Final Girl, and Until Dawn shows not the slightest inclination to bring depth or empathy to these teens* over its grueling 10-12 hours of running time. This would have been a hard task even in the best of writer’s hands, given that the story begins with these characters doing something absolutely vile to one of their friends, but the failure to give them any kind of self-awareness or remorse for the bulk of the narrative prevents any real feeling of player connection to these brats.

In fact the game goes out of its way to goad the player into killing them, reveling in some of the nastiest and most misogynistic aspects of the genre as it gleefully pushes the most egregious elements of their personalities to the nines and literally asks the player point blank whether they wouldn’t enjoy their gore porn more if they would just give this Queen Bee the violent comeuppance she deserves, or punish the Slutty Slut for her slutty sins accordingly. It’s all very gross, very puerile stuff, the kind of thing you might have once taken for granted in genre B-films but would hope a “story game” in 2016 would have moved past by now, particularly given what a debt Until Dawn owes to the much better-written Telltale titles.

If nothing else there’s some genuinely fine cinematography on display from time to time.

Perhaps just as unfortunately, Until Dawn has also failed to learn the fat-stripping lessons from Telltale’s more recent entries. As bad as the story beats of Until Dawn might be, they’re not half so bad as the hours the game forces you to spend shuffling through its fixed-camera environments with Resident Evil-era tank controls as the characters perform literal pixel hunts and struggle to find doors invisible behind blocked angles. Frequently beautiful environments, to be sure, but it’s hard to appreciate the depth of care that went in to the art design when it’s used in service of 90s gameplay relics and equally dated 90s horror game clichés (SPOILER alert: you’ll spend about half your time in a spoooooky old insane asylum, as I’m sure absolutely no one everyone could have guessed). At least the fixed camera means we always get a cinematic view of those clichés.

I really got the sense that the lion’s share of Until Dawn’s resources, fiscal and mental, were poured into its production design at the expense of everything else. Constant frame dips and stutters aside, the mo-cap’d character animation is truly something to behold, with possibly the most nuanced and expressive facial models I’ve seen this side of the uncanny valley. Apart from some audio mixing issues, the voice acting is similarly about as strong as it gets in gaming, and a game cast of film and TV celebrities do their damnedest to elevate the trash that is Until Dawn’s script to something at least vaguely human. For stretches it does feel very much like you’re inhabiting an actual movie. Unfortunately, if at the end of the day the best you can say about Until Dawn is that it’s an especially long and well-produced Friday the 13th sequel, you’re probably better off just watching Friday the 13th. 

* Played here, true to genre form, mostly by 30-year-olds.

Disliked it.

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