Full disclosure: I only played Until Dawn for two hours. I’m sure I missed out on all the good stuff, the gory bits, the big decisions of who to save and who to kill — but none of that matters to me. The simple fact is I played Until Dawn for the full length of a movie (longer even, if the movie is an hour and a half), the equivalent of two episodes of an hour long TV show — and the story had yet to kick off. The story had yet to go anywhere, beyond the opener that set up nothing except the death of Josh’s two sisters. In two hours’ time, I snooped inside a backpack, took a railcar, had a snowball fight, had an argument, had another argument, had another argument, broke into a cabin, explored a basement, walked (for what seemed like forever) to another cabin, turned on the cabin’s power, had three pointless and very unscary interviews with (the usually excellent but, in here, poorly utilized) Peter Stormare — and established very little character development or real conflict in this time. I couldn’t take it anymore. I called it quits.
I rented Until Dawn for free (yay, local library!) to find a game I could share with my non-gamer wife. The mostly positive reviews and choose-your-own-adventure style mixed with the horror movie setting convinced me it could be a hit with her. I started the game on my own, to test the waters first and see if it was something she would enjoy. Two hours later, I knew the answer: my wife would have asked me to turn it off, long before the point I stopped myself, regardless of how good things may get later.
I’m sure I was just about to get to “the good stuff” but why is it so common in games to put up with a lot of pointless crap in order to get to “the good stuff?” And why do gamers put up with it, when a person who doesn’t typically play games, such as my wife, would check out long before? It’s pretty common to hear, in reviews or from people trying to convince someone to give a game another shot, that “it gets good” after x-amount of hours. Why can’t a game be good right away? And what makes a good game start off bad?
A few examples of good games that start off bad come to mind: Twilight Princess, Assassin’s Creed III, Grand Theft Auto V and a whole ton of RPGs. I think the reason they’re “bad” at the start is because they take way too long to get going. The meat of the story, the whole reason you’re experiencing the game in the first place, doesn’t get going until hours into it. By then, any sane person would check out — but gamers don’t. Is it because we’re conditioned, from a lifetime of playing games, to endure the boring, the repetitive, the uninteresting?
A good rule in screenwriting is that the inciting incident, the event that kicks off the movie’s story, must happen by page 15 (scripts usually go anywhere from 90-120 pages). Going by the rule of thumb that one page in a script equals one minute in a movie, that means the movie’s story gets going within fifteen minutes. Let’s think of some games that follow this rule (as close as they can, it may not be exactly 15 minutes): The Last of Us. Red Dead Redemption. Super Metroid. Link to the Past. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.Assassin’s Creed II. Sands of Time. Earthbound. Mass Effect 2. Portal 1 and 2. Grim Fandango. Full Throttle. All classics, all story driven, all kick their tale off immediately, or very shortly thereafter, and don’t let go (except for Red Dead and its terrible middle but the rest made up for it).
It boggles my mind how well Until Dawn was received. Review after review points out that all the characters represent well worn horror tropes (The Jock, The Flirt, The Virgin, The Stoner, The Black Guy), and admit that the characters don’t go beyond that — yet consider that a strength. That somehow bland, one-dimensional characters allow the player to settle into the horror setting more easily. I’m sorry but this is just lazy storytelling. Nor is this a problem exclusive to games, which is covered in Devin Faraci’s article, Movies Should Be Good. Well, I say that games should be good, too.
Let’s take a film that shares a lot in common with Until Dawn (seemingly because, remember, I only played two hours), Cabin in the Woods. The film also showcases the stereotypical characters of a horror film (Jock, Flirt, Stoner, Black Guy) to help the viewer settle into the fact they’re watching a horror film — but then it turns the stereotypical on its head to make something fresh, unique and memorable. Cabin in the Woods becomes a horror movie about horror movies.
Until Dawn, on the other hand, is a game trying to be an interactive horror movie — but it’s a bad movie. Two hours in, the length of a normal movie, and nothing of significance or consequence (except the opener) had happened. Could you imagine sitting in a theater for that long, waiting for the real movie to start? Then why is it okay to play a game that long, waiting for the real game to begin?
Non-gamers wouldn’t. Gamers shouldn’t either.