Until Dawn, Adventure Games, and Console vs PC Graphics

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Another game I checked out to catch up on the PlayStation 4 is what will probably be my only run through Until Dawn. Word-of-mouth gave me the notion it was basically “what if a David Cage game had better writing?” Its grasp of the kind of story it tries to tell in an interactive way does it a great service and makes it something unique even among adventure games, though it could still learn a few things from adventure games. Until Dawn is also possibly one of the best showcases of what consoles are still capable of, but not in the way you might think.

I still don’t really like how games like Heavy Rain or Until Dawn will have so many  QTEs and other elaborate button combinations that try to imitate physical actions for which a game controller was never designed. Otherwise, these are pretty much adventure games, and I prefer how Telltale basically makes the same kind of game but with a smaller budget and better writing while actually owning up to being adventure games. Life is Strange might be even better at this based on the free first episode I finally tried. Oh, and why does Until Dawn, like David Cage games, have to emphasize the “choices have consequences” thing as if the player has never seen an adventure game before (like a Telltale game)?

Otherwise though, Until Dawn actually has a good understanding of the genre it tries to apply to the adventure game formula — the teen slasher flick. Now, I haven’t actually watched a slasher since probably the Scream trilogy back in the 90’s, but maybe that series’ deconstruction was an ideal place to leave off. The characters in Until Dawn initially fit neatly into the typical slasher archetypes but develop to be slightly more nuanced as the story goes on. A lot of the choices and possible character deaths are also pretty smartly handled and often in-tune with what usually happens in the movies. Not getting them killed actually requires an understanding of the themes of the story. Unfortunately the black guy is by far the easiest one to get killed because of an unintuitive series of events.

I’m probably not gonna repeat the game though simply because of how hard it would be to do so. You can replay episodes but not individual scenes, and no changes overwrite your original ending. If you actually care about repeating the whole thing though Until Dawn is pretty replayable. This game, like Cage’s games really, is to a movie what Japanese visual novels are to books. Maybe Until Dawn should have taken some pointers from the VNs that let you skip through repeat non-interactive content to see other possibilities relatively easily, like the Zero Escape games. Come to think of it maybe Telltale should think about that too.

Another thing I noticed about Until Dawn is that it regularly looks shockingly realistic. It’s barely interactive to the point of pretty much being an FMV game rendered in real-time graphics, but it takes advantage of that. Until Dawn’s combination of character animation, camera angles, and lighting make for some of the most realistic moving shots I’ve seen in any video game so far, console or PC.

This and Uncharted 4 are console exclusives that look better than probably anything I’ve seen running on my far more powerful PC so far. I’ve seen people toot a horn holding up games like this as an example of the PS4 being a better deal than a gaming PC — that it won the technology war because it has the prettiest looking games. I think having the prettiest looking games is no longer a matter of hardware, but rather money.

The cost of making beautiful PlayStation games like this is high enough, think of the cost of building games to make the most out of $400 graphics cards, and for a smaller audience at that. There’s basically one game doing that today — Star Citizen, and I think of that game as less of a game and more of a dream of a game. Even in 2007 the original Crysis was pretty much the last PC exclusive you could point at and say “consoles can’t do that.” It still looks as good as some modern console games nine years later. There was a brief period from around 2011 to 2013 when big-budget multiplatform games like Battlefield 3, the Crysis sequels, and The Witcher 2 focused on PC first and console second. That’s pretty much the closest PC will get these days to having the most cutting-edge graphics — better-looking versions of games that get all their money from the console market.

My GTX 1070 is great, but having the best graphics is an overblown advantage to PC gaming, and is far from the only one. The most interesting PC exclusives of the last decade have been lower-budget games that either do things that require a mouse and keyboard, or simply couldn’t be produced in the market of a closed platform like a console. The beginnings of Minecraft probably serves as the most important example.

Another advantage games like Uncharted 4 and Until Dawn have in the visual department is their structure. Heavily linear games filled with bespoke set pieces and fixed camera angles let developers focus more intensely on polishing up the art assets they know the players are going to see. These kinds of games haven’t gotten big budgets on PC for a long time. Furthermore, Sony is unique among first party publishers in its willingness to back linear narrative-driven games like UnchartedUntil Dawn, David Cage’s games, or The Order: 1886 enough to produce such expensive graphics. Basically nobody I can think of who does that is releasing PC games. The more popular games on PC are open-ended, systemic affairs where even with millions of dollars, developers have less control over what players see and thus take a broader and shallower approach with what looks good. The Witcher 3 looks beautiful with its wide vistas and dense forests, but by its very nature can’t have interior scenes as perfectly lit as what’s in Until Dawn.

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