The Telltale Towel
by JASON ARTIS-CHO
Sony Computer Entertainment
When Sam (Hayden Panettiere) emerges from a long, hot bath at the winter escape of her friend Josh Washington (Rami Malek) her clothes are gone. She wraps herself in a towel, holding it together with one hand, and begins to go find a suitable outfit. Panettiere has never exactly been much of an actress, but it would be a lie to suggest she was not suited for this role.
Evening at the Washington lodge lasts about nine hours. No one eats or sleeps at all during this time, because when an intruder is not sedating them with sleeping gas, other strange events unfold. When she reaches the lodge from a decrepit cable car station, Sam immediately feels subdued. It was one year earlier that a cruel prank drove her friends Hannah and Beth out in the snow, where they were never seen again.
Tongue-in-cheek horror was appropriately retired by Joss Whedon with The Cabin in the Woods. There is not much to make fun of here anymore, so the only silly parts of Until Dawn, which released this Tuesday for Sony’s Playstation 4 console, are watching the clearly older actors and actresses in the cast of the interactive game snipe at each other with ridiculous insults and lame flirtations.
Surprisingly, Until Dawn features no sex. The most nude anyone ever gets is that white towel, and a pair of intensely tight exercise pants that Sam puts on when she feels like the towel meme has run its course.
Instead the game is mostly focused on atmosphere. At first all the teen characters are incredibly selfish and unlikable, but moving through a series of bleak, gorgeous landscapes changes our perspective on them. Emily (Nichole Bloom) is a half-Japanese princess of entitlement when Until Dawn begins — by the end her facade is peeled away to something darker and more sympathetic. No film could accomodate the kind of slow, subtle character development accomplished through a game that is the actual length of the events described.
Although there is some noticeable frame hitching when the game functions under heavy load, for the most part the extensive motion capture with this talented group of actors allows Until Dawn‘s visuals to really shine. Some of the underground space becomes a bit generic, but the amount of locations is sufficiently diverse and impressive given that the initial expectation is one night in one house.
The main activity for the player consists of collecting clues to the year-old disappearance of Hannah and Beth Washington. The lodge was built in close proximity to a sanatorium and a set of no longer operative mines, both of which figure prominently in the game’s mystery. One of the game’s women has a tattoo meant to reference the butterfly effect.
It is not clear how the wings of a butterfly could ever cause a hurricane, and the choices you make in Until Dawn never emerge as very consequential. Like in similar games from Telltale and Quantic Dream, this aspect of the narrative is meant primarily to engage you with the story rather than affect the outcome in any specific way that would make the journey substantially different from what it might have been.
Given that, Sony has blocked Twitch.tv streamers from archiving their broadcasts of Until Dawn, feeling it will discourage possibly buyers of the game. It is possible to get a sense of Until Dawn from watching someone else play it, but the remarkably lifelike visuals are heavily impacted by artifacts that streaming introduces at all but the highest resolutions.
The resolution of Until Dawn‘s story is appropriately satisfying, and the action at the end that results in the survival of some but not all of these teenagers makes for a nice payoff. Still, the outcome is nowhere near as memorable as the desolate landscapes of Until Dawn‘s abandoned buildings and unforgiving wilderness. These isolated moments deepen Until Dawn by providing the desperate echo of another experience, one that is primarily about fortifying yourself against loneliness.
Jason Artis-Cho is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Chicago. This is his first appearance in these pages.
“Birch Tree” – Foals (mp3)