"As a gamer, I’m saying ‘put the camera down and fucking run’."
These are the words of Valve's Gabe Newell, 'father' of Half-Life and Portal - an eloquent statement uttered during a discussing with J J Abrams on the respective merits of storytelling in video games and film at 2013's DICE festival, a keynote speech that highlighted just how close the two mediums have grown in recent generations.
While action shooters have long competed with their big-screen counterparts to sate audience's hunger for explosions, one gaming genre that's started to tip its nose in front of its cinematic counterpart is horror. It's one thing to hide behind your fingers as the bad guy creeps up behind the next poor victim, quite another when you are that victim.
Until Dawn is one such game. A survival horror set in the chilly climbs of a mountain retreat, eight friends find their trip take a turn for the sinister. So far, so average teen-horror-popcorn-flick - but its the manner in which the eight interlocking stories of the game's characters can shift the whole narrative that makes Until Dawn a unique, chilling experience.
Ahead of the launch, we spoke to the game's script writer Larry Fessenden to discuss why horror games are a bigger thrill than ever, while co-writer Graham Reznick takes us through the scariest video games he's ever played.
What drives the horror in Until Dawn?
There's a constant question as to 'what’s really happening'. At first you feel like you’re in a slasher film with the familiar tropes of eight kids in a remote location and something is clearly going on, someone is stalking them and somebody is messing with them. So you presume there is a villain but then the [question] deepens as to who the villain is and why they'd be doing this. There is a sense of a haunting histories that are shared by the characters from the previous year, a shared incident that occurred on the same mountain side.
So there's a number of hard tropes that draw you in and lull you into thinking that you know where you're at. We constantly try and undermine those expectations in the game, which takes new contours and so there is a sense of genuine mystery. The horror exists in the choices you make [and] have a real effect on life and death choices.
What strengths do you see video games having over other narrative systems? Particularly with horror stories?
Horror is a heightened genre to begin with, when you go to a horror film you know that there is going to be life and death conflict and that’s already thrilling. In a video game you are actually challenged to make decisions that will affect the outcome of your characters life.
I think a video game is a great medium for horror because the way we’ve designed Until Dawn is that the choices you make are permanent if you die you have to start over, you are finished with the game so we like to raise the stakes and try and get the heart racing through that kind of structure that’s the choice we made with this medium.
What's key to maintaining a sense of suspense/horror over an entire game?
Well we keep upping the ante... I’ll be quite honest: as the game starts it, appears to be a fairly straight forward, Hollywood slasher scenario. Eight kids going to a remote location, in this case a lodge on a snowy mountain. There’s somebody perusing them, some villainous character - but what we do from there... let’s say it keeps you entertained and tormented for a period of time.
After an hour or two, we raise the stakes and you realise that things aren't what you assumed. We're always one step ahead of the audience; that’s the challenge of a movie as well - going against the early assumptions people have against these characters. You know the dumb jock, the sexy couple - and then you try to give some subtlty to keep the audience on their toes.
You can chose to not actually go in the basement... but what if that’s the wrong choice?
Are there any tricks for horror games that films can’t use?
That’s a good question. I mean, I keep coming back to the sense of responsibility, the personal responsibility of the player. In the movie you say "don’t go in the basement that’s ridiculous", but in a game you actually can chose to not go in the basement... but what if that’s the wrong choice?
What’s cool is that you’re constantly experiencing the branching out of the story: If you decided to shoot your girlfriend because the choice was you or her. You then have to live with that. The game is an embedded experience, so this stuff becomes more and more weighty on your conscious; you go down that one path, you’re stuck with it and that I think presents a unique experience. In a movie you can judge the characters and remain relatively safe.
Where do you see horror games going in the next five to ten years?
I think what we've seen even in our process moving from PlayStation 3 – 4, you see the motion capture technology is more sophisticated so you can get increasingly subtle performances out of the actors and that leads to even more engagement by the player with what’s going on - so I think horror becomes more psychological for one.
What I enjoy about this game is... you know in normal game 'conversations' where the choices appear, and instead of a simple response "like go through the door" it’s literally "do you want to answer that question sarcastically or compassionately?".
Now imagine when you get into even more sophisticated technology, where you don’t even have the question flash up on the screen, you’re just kind of guiding the characters through those choices. I think it’s all going to be about the capture technology and then audiences getting used to the sophistication of these games.
Until Dawn is out now on PlayStation 4
"The level design in 1 and 2 was maybe the most nervewracking ever, but since that's been covered thoroughly elsewhere, I'll point out a lesser known highlight: Doom 3 had some brilliant, terrifying sound design.
"It was the first game I'd played in 5.1 surround and hearing a whispering sound behind you as you crept around the ducts of an abandoned space station was incredibly unsettling. Recently, Alien Isolation reminded me a lot of my experience with Doom 3.
THE COLONEL'S BEQUEST
"As with most Sierra games, there were so many horrific and hilarious ways your character could die. Unlike Kings Quest or Space Quest, The Colonel's Bequest took on the tone of gothic mystery and horror.
"It might be a difficult sell with an audience today but it kept me up nights as a 10-year-old. Well worth checking out if you dig 80's adventure games."
"Those hanging tentacle trap creatures? Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope."
The 7th Guest
"The first great horror/puzzle game of the PC CD-ROM era, and the obsession of my 7th grade classmates and I.
"It truly scared the pants off me back when I was a kid: the blend of live video, pre-rendered CG, and playable areas/puzzles was really remarkable at the time. A great, fun concept with excellent design. Now that I'm thinking about it, I might have to find a port and play it again!"
SILENT HILL 2 / P.T.
"Silent Hill 2 - part because of brilliant design and part because of the bizarrely wooden translation - achieved a kind of 'playable madness' that stands up there with the best representations of insanity in other mediums.
"Doors leading to impossible places; a hellscape reality bleeding into our own; long, tense walks down seemingly endless corridors; glimpses of a nightmare logic town history; disturbingly upsetting enemies; wonderfully haunting music and sound; labyrinthine structures rendered out of abstracted human flesh. Yet somehow it all created a coherent experience, and it holds up to modern replay very well.
"P.T., the playable teaser for the now cancelled Silent Hills, was so incredibly good, such a terrifying tease... the loss of Silent Hills might be this console generation's greatest tragedy. But at least we got P.T., which, for a free teaser, was a hell of an experience and an excellent successor to the 'playable madness' of early Silent Hill."