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Until Dawn: Hinting at an Evolution on "Walking Simulators"

Until Dawn gives us moments of choose-your-own-adventure gameplay that is distinct from the idea of "emergent" gameplay. It has moments that teach us that personality and character relationships matter, and choices relating to them have consequences.

I read Raph Koster's classic game design book A Theory of Fun for Game Design this week.  Hm, "read" may not be the right verb.  Inhaled or guzzled feel more correct.  I couldn't put it down - it is too fascinating!  Koster dives into what games are truly about - what is the value of the medium of games compared to music, painting, film, and etc.  It's a fascinating read that helped to solidify some heuristics that were in my head.  It also introduced new ideas that I had not gotten to yet.  It is a worthwhile read for any aspiring game designer.  His main thesis is that games are all about teaching the player something valuable.  This got me thinking about Until Dawn - a recently released game that has garnered a lot of attention on YouTube.

I had grouped Until Dawn as a "walking simulator" in my head.  Walking simulator, as I use it here, is a type of video game where the player actions consist of not much more than walking around and having the story happen to them.  While reading Koster's book, I realized that Until Dawn had a bit more to it than that.

I don't find walking simulators interesting as games.  I have created one myself, Erusal, which has hilariously become my highest rated Game Jolt release (Erusal was a one month exercise I set for myself while waiting for VR dev tools to mature).  I understand that different people enjoy different types of experiences, but walking simulators, to me, are a misunderstanding of what is fit for the video game medium.  In a walking simulator the player walks around an environment (usually very pretty and with lovely music), but not much happens until they reach certain trigger points.  Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is an example of what I am talking about.  The YouTuber in the video I just linked to makes a good point of saying that a player "needs to be essential" to make a game more than "poetry and a slideshow."  Walking simulators are basically a play or movie, but the player can slow down the action or get lost - killing the desired emotion that the story designer intended.

Until Dawn gives us a few moments that hint of something more than a walking simulator.  Initially I did not like it because the mechanics seemed to consist of "walk around," "do quicktime event," and "make decision to choose a predetermined ending."  After reading Koster, however, I realize that a few decisions that the player makes are essential to the experience, and they must demonstrate certain skills in order to achieve the ending of keeping everyone alive.

There are certain characters in Until Dawn that are doomed if you do not make the right choice based on their relationships with other people and their personality traits.  This is where the game shines as interesting to my game designer side.  The easiest example of this is the character Chris.  If you do not make good choices relating to dilemmas that involve his love interest, she betrays him and this causes him to die!  The game trains you to understand that your choices have consequences, and in this thread we see that developing a relationship that is true to the characters is vital to their survival.

Unfortunately, certain characters will not die until after certain story epochs, even though it appears that they have the opportunity to die.  This is a bit frustrating.  It was a specific choice by the developers in order to dictate a specific story.  It creates walking-simulator-while-pretending-not-to-be-a-walking-simulator moments.  This choice is pretty heavy handed, and is a cardinal design sin according to Koster.  I do not agree with this choice by the developers.

I wish the game had more of these threads that mattered.  The game has smaller choices that have small effects - one choice gives a character a black eye for the rest of the game, and leads to a small dialogue tidbit latter in the game - but very few of these "wow, you caused another character's emotions to change" moments that specifically affect the story.

Until Dawn hints at a very interesting choose-your-own-adventure style of game that is distinct from the idea of emergent gameplay.  It gives us a glimpse of what it could mean to have a game where you need to understand each character's personality and motivations in order to achieve different endings.  I look forward to seeing further evolution of this game design.

Like this article?  Maybe you will like my other blog entries on Gamasutra or on my website jackpritz.com.

You can also follow me on Twitter @jmpritz

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