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Here’s What Happens When Great Indie Horror Directors Make a Video Game

Here's What Happens When Great Indie Horror Directors Make a Video Game

Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick wouldn’t have been obvious choices to pen the biggest horror game of the year. From its announcement in 2011, “Until Dawn” was pushed as an interactive story, a cinematic choose-your-own-adventure of a bloody and violent variety: play the victims of a horror movie, and do your best to survive the night. It was a game that would live or die on its narrative, so a compelling story was not optional. Entrusting such a vital part of the project to names unfamiliar to many video game players would seem, on first glance, a risky move.

But Fessenden and Reznick are hardly unknowns. A staple of the indie horror world as a writer, director, producer, Fessenden is also master of the short-lived cameo. Even if you haven’t heard his name, anyone from horror fans to genre dabblers have likely watched him meet a grisly end — there are a running joke on Fessenden’s sets that he’s going for a record number of on-screen deaths.

Fessenden’s also produced more than two dozen microbudget horror films through Glass Eye Pix, the independent film studio he’s headed since 1985 (which is currently the subject of a 30 year anniversary retrospective at New York’s IFC Center). As a mentor of sorts, Fessenden has taken a particular interest in discovering talent in the genre. Graham Reznick, who first debuted under Glass Eye’s banner, was one of these.

“Until Dawn” is a videogame about a group of teens trapped on a mountainside with a dangerous killer. The setup is cribbed from the halls of cheap slasher flicks. It makes perfect sense, then, to put a maven of low-budget horror and his protege at the helm.

The unique voices of Fessenden and Reznick come through clearly in the story. Isolation is a theme both writers have circled with an almost predatory focus in their previous work. Reznick’s debut “I Can See You,” described by the filmmaker as a “psychedelic campfire tale,” concerns a group of young ad-men who decide that a camping trip is what they need to bolster their flagging creative efforts. It predictably goes awry, though in a deeply unpredictable way. Fessenden’s vampire flick “Habit” follows an East Village bohemian whose friends seem powerless to halt his self-destructive tendencies; “Wendigo” and “The Last Winter’ deal with isolation of a more literal kind, in a frozen and still wilderness not unlike the setting of “Until Dawn.”

At the beginning of the game, a blizzard is beginning to sweep down out of the Northern reaches of Canada, and already the wind is howling just outside the windows of the Washington Lodge. There’s no cell reception this high up the mountain, and sparse electricity. As the curtain of night and snow closes around them, it’s clear that they the teens holed up here are on their own until morning.

One year ago, at this very same lodge, a cruel prank resulted in the disappearance and presumed death of two friends. Most of the characters still harbor some guilt over that, and are clearly uneasy together. The mountain retreat offers them a chance to reconnect with one another, but soon they’ll learn that they’re not alone.

As the player, you control all eight of the main characters, with the game rotating you through the cast at dramatically appropriate moments. The main “play” element, aside from occasional shooting gallery moments, comes in the choices you can make. You control one side of every conversation in the game, and while your characters all come equipped with personalities, you can often choose how hard you want them to lean into their archetypal roles.

Reznick’s ear for multi-layered dialogue is on full display. While the expected innuendos come early and often, all the banter has a fragile quality to it, and suggests tension simmering beneath the surface. Before the scares start, these characters are already going behind each other’s backs, or, if you make a few key dialogue choices, lunging for each other’s throats — telling Matt, our resident jock, that his girlfriend was scene hugging her ex-boyfriend will result in the two guys going into a full alpha-male showdown.

In dangerous moments, the stakes for these choices get a lot higher — it isn’t about hurting someone’s feelings any more. With the music pounding and time for decisions limited, the action sequences are tense and stressful. Occasionally, though, some choices seemed to be arbitrarily worse than others. Picking between a risky but quicker path and one that’s safer and slower is one thing — you can make an educated decision, based on clear information. But trying to decide whether to run or hide while being pursued by a malevolent something suggests a game of random guessing, one with lethal and permanent consequences for failure. When a character dies because of a choice made with partial information, it just feels punitive.

Backed by Sony and intended to be a PS4 exclusive — the kind of game for which people would buy the system — “Until Dawn” almost certainly utilized a larger budget than Fessenden or Reznick had faced on independent film productions. Among the teens propped up for slaughter are some recognizable faces: Brett Dalton (“Agents of Shield”), Rami Malek (“The Master,” “Mr. Robot”) and Hayden Panettiere (“Heroes”) all must have come with sizable price tags.

Clearly no expense was spared in the graphics department, either; those fresh, young, pricey faces are rendered with meticulous realism, down to the birthmark over Nichole Bloom’s left eyebrow. The lighting and particle effects on display are astoundingly detailed, though one would expect as much in a game set at night, in the middle of a snow storm.

But working on a project of this size couldn’t come without cost of a different kind. It’s hard to imagine that “Until Dawn,” which telegraphs its twists like a bad boxer, came from the same minds responsible for Glass Eye Pix’s idiosyncratic catalog. The game isn’t dumb, but it does hit a lot of expected beats, as though there was a list of tropes being checked off in the writing room. Crows, rats, spooky masks, subterranean caverns, and even a Saw-like contraption are all on display. Jump scares arrive at timely intervals. For a game that depended so heavily on narrative choice — it’s essentially the only method players have of interacting with the game in a meaningful way — the story is so by-the-numbers that often pivotal moments fall flat.

The pacing of the game’s second half bears some serious strain as well. There’s a reason why the typical slasher movie was not meant to last six hours. By the three hour mark in my play-through, none of the cast had died yet, and the carefully-built tension of the early sections was leaking from all sides. But that was only the case for my single experience, and “Until Dawn” claims that no two games will be the same.

The game designers refer to the network of branching pathways as “The Butterfly Effect,” named after that oft-cited hypothetical theory. Small decisions made over the course of the game allegedly lead to dramatic consequences. The sheer volume of variation supposedly ended up swelling the script to a mammoth 10,000 pages, written over four years. It’s possible that a more unique, poignant story lurks in those pages, but I didn’t manage to find it as acting director.

“It should never be horror for horror’s sake,” Fessenden said back in 2011. Unfortunately, that’s the direction “Until Dawn” takes — even if the filmmakers do their best to push it further. One gets the sense that it might have been too big to allow Fessenden and Reznick’s unique sensibilities come through.

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