This year will unquestionably go down in video game history as the year of the action epic.
The delays that plagued 2014 turned 2015 into a golden year. Almost every month brought us a highly anticipated game that was years in the making. And most of these titles had a similar feel: an action/role-playing game hybrid set in a large open world and designed to suck more than 100 hours of your life away.
We got the big three: CD Projekt RED’s “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt,” Konami’s “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” and Bethesda Game Studios’ “Fallout 4.” This is an unbelievable top tier that reigned over several other critically acclaimed titles within the same genre, such as “Bloodborne” and the latest “Assassin’s Creed” and “Batman: Arkham” releases. I can’t fault any writer, publication or fan for choosing one of these titles as the best game of 2015.
However, Supermassive Games’ “Until Dawn” was the best game of 2015.
The PlayStation 4 exclusive was one of two games I gave perfect scores to throughout the year, the other being “Fallout 4.” I loved “Fallout 4,” but its warm, familiar glow was ultimately its downfall in this competition. It was like previous “Fallout” games, and a little similar to its strong competitors in this year’s crop.
“Until Dawn” was unlike anything I have ever played – in this year or any other. It came close to completely bridging the gap between movies/TV. Real, recognizable actors used some of the best motion-capture technology available to create flexible roles that bent to the player’s every whim – essentially, they had to play the same character in several ways to account for dozens of different plot lines. And each cast member made it work.
“Until Dawn” released on Aug. 25.
I don’t like horror movies, and I don’t like the survival horror genre. But somehow “Until Dawn” melded the two into a gripping narrative filled with difficult decisions with lasting consequences that latched onto me and refused to let go. I finished the game in two four or five-hour sessions in two days. That never happens anymore. I am old and busy, so slamming through a game in quick successions means “important” adult things like dishes, laundry, work and social interaction fall by the wayside.
Unlike what could loosely be called its competition – episodic titles like “Heavy Rain” or the Telltale games – “Until Dawn” is flushed with life-or-death decisions. Most episodic games have one, maybe two of these every few hours or so, but Supermassive pounded five or six into the same time frame.
The plot somehow breathed life into the cheesiest of all horror stories: A bunch of high school students meet up at the rich kids’ parents’ secluded cabin in the wilderness for a few nights of booze and debauchery. By allowing me to toy with the conventional narrative, it bypassed the predictable boredom I feel while watching horror movies or playing scary games. I could – to a considerable degree – decide to keep the promiscuous girl alive and have the girl next door get her face ripped off. I told the tough guy to run instead of fighting the monster.
Supermassive also threw some curve balls. A few silly mistakes on my part led to the deaths of three of my favorite characters – personalities that I spent hours molding to suit my view of a perfect narrative. I tried to get a whiny, mean character killed at every corner, but she kept surviving. She fell through buildings. I ordered her boyfriend to abandon her several times, but she was resilient. These quirks gave the game an edge. Yes, I had the power to make decisions, but I was far from in control.
I enjoyed the little things in “Until Dawn.” Every few hours, the main story paused to allow me to review my decisions. A “previously on ‘Until Dawn’” TV-style recap added to the cinematic feel. The ability to playback the fateful decisions you’ve made in a pause menu was a nice touch, and the “butterfly effect” mechanic improved upon a traditional survival horror tactic – allowing players to peer into the future by exploring their surroundings.
As I wrestled with possible choices for top dog in arguably the best gaming year in a decade, I just kept coming back to “Until Dawn.” Games like “Metal Gear” and “Witcher” are far superior technical achievements – much “better” games in the traditional sense. And I probably enjoyed playing “Fallout 4” more than the playable slasher flick.
However, the emotional spectrum I felt while playing “Until Dawn” gave it the edge. There’s wonder, frustration, excitement and anger wound into a beautifully crafted package. The overall experience was slightly different than any other game I’ve played, and that gave it the edge.