No matter if it’s a game or a film, If there’s a jump scare then I’ve probably jumped out of my seat and screamed due to it. Despite loving the horror genre, I’ve never had much of a resolve when it comes to withstanding these scares. However, one of the most high-profile horror titles in recent years didn’t have much of an impact on me, despite scaring plenty of others, and it’s due to a pretty glaring design flaw that most people didn’t experience.
I’m talking about Until Dawn, Supermassive Games’ breakout hit of 2015. While I adored the campy tropes and characters that made the story instantly relatable, there was one problem: I just didn’t find the experience all that scary. Endearing and fun? Sure, but the whole thing fell flat when it came to actually delivering the gasps of the horror movies it was trying to emulate.
Like a lot of the genre, Until Dawn relies on sudden appearances and characters jumping into frame in order to rile up the player during some of its important events. No matter what your personal opinion is on jump scares, there’s no denying that they’re effective (even if the reactions are sometimes unearned). However, nearly every single jump scare in Until Dawn failed to make an impression on me due to a very specific reason.
You see, if you owned a PlayStation Camera you were given the option to enable a setting that would allow the device to turn on during key moments. It would proceed to film your reaction to shocking reveals, and in turn you could watch these scenes back with friends or family. So, if you jumped out of your chair or screamed your lungs out during a particularly scary moment, it’d be permanently available.
Now, the intention of developer Supermassive Games is pretty clear here. One of the reasons why horror games have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past decade is thanks to the genre’s popularity among Let’s Play videos. People love watching players get spooked (be it genuine or exaggerated). So, they decided to put their own spin onto it where these moments could be shared later on social media. After all, we’re living in a connected world that allows clips to spread like wildfire across the globe, and there’s an added desire to make sure there is a virality to your product, as it can sometimes be the difference between a game recouping its development costs or being a financial failure for the company.
The idea is quite genius in theory, but the execution was off the mark, to say the least. See, the biggest issue with what Until Dawn did was that the PlayStation Camera emits a bright red light to indicate that it’s turned on. This is a problem since the device would stay off until about 15 seconds before a scripted moment that Supermassive Games deemed scary enough to be a recorded moment. This wound up ruining the factor that jump scares require to be interesting: surprise.
So, if you looked back at my saved videos of Until Dawn, you’d just see me blankly staring at the screen as moments (I probably would’ve been terrified by had I not been inadvertently warned about) occurred. It not only impacted the overall horror experience (if a horror game fails to actually scare or unsettle then does it really succeed at its goals?), but it accidentally created some hilarious videos where I just couldn’t be less engaged with moments that the developer had singled out as important.
What doesn’t help is that horror games are often played in a very particular setting. People want to create a spooky mood for such a title, and that often means turning off all of the lights. This allows them to focus purely on the television and to become more immersed in the experience. Well, at least until a bright red light comes on to warn you that a jump scare is imminent.
Now there are certainly ways that I could have circumvented this issue. I’m certain that some black masking tape would block the light entirely and then my experience wouldn’t have been hindered, but how many players are actually going to go out of their way? Plus, I like knowing when my PlayStation Camera is on, as the light is there for a good reason.
So, what could have Supermassive Games have done to fix this experience? There are a few tweaks that could have at least made it less predictable. For example, if the light turned on during random intervals it could almost be used as a meta aspect, where players would get anxious during dull moments. If you’re expecting something bad to happen, and nothing comes immediately, the tension is raised. Conversely, they could have also just had the PlayStation Camera’s red light on the entire time. That way it never spoils anything and doesn’t distract the player since it’s just a constant in the room rather than ruining an elaborate atmosphere they tried to create beforehand.
It really goes to show that ideas need to really be tested before they’re shipped, as something that was intended to be a cool bonus feature can have negative impacts on the overall product for some. Thankfully, most players didn’t own a PlayStation Camera at the time, let alone turned on the feature, but my playthrough of one of the best horror games in recent memory will forever be somewhat lackluster because of it.