Let’s Study Horror Games, ep 8: Until Dawn and Games of Terror

Hello, everyone. I’m back. Let’s study horror games some more. In her 1990 book Games of Terror, Vera Dika
describes slasher film spectatorship in terms of its game-like qualities. On the face of things, this is a bit curious. American and Canadian slasher films grew out
of Italian giallo films, which at first glance are much more game-like in their construction. Gialli were genuine mystery films, usually
in the Agatha Christie “and then there were none” model, where the succession of victims
winnows down possible culprits, and gradually brings the killer’s motives into focus. But many slasher films abandon this mystery
element—especially those that are part of long-running franchises. Once the killer becomes the star player in
a franchise, it’s difficult to preserve the whodunit aspect. So with that guessing-game removed, what sort
of “games” remain? Dika’s answer is that the game lies in the
viewer’s recognition of the slasher film’s formal elements as generic tropes. There are “conventional indicators of the
killer’s presence”—for instance, the stalker cam that I talked about in the previous
video. By learning to read these indicators, “the
audience is given a knowledge of his murderous threat before the film’s characters have
become aware of it. These techniques create the film’s suspense
but, also, the film’s game.” Dika acknowledges that there are anomalies
and little untruths woven within these indicators—we could point to the fake-out stalker cam moments
I mentioned in the previous video, or the moments in Halloween when our suspicion that
we’re sharing a viewpoint with Michael Meyers ends up being unfounded. One’s genre-savviness relies on one’s
ability to not only pick up on the cues, but also to predict when they’re being employed
as a red herring. Slasher films are rather mechanical and unsubtle—as
Dika points out, they employ “relatively simple patterns” that, in their very simplicity,
“unmask” the sorts of “formal dynamics usually kept disguised in other films.” And it’s this straightforward legibility
that turns slasher films into a game for their audiences. It’s easy to learn their visual language. It’s easy to learn the rules that dictate
the consequences of character behavior. (“For instance, number one: you can never
have sex.” *booing* Even if the killer’s identity
isn’t a mystery, there are still plenty of things a genre-savvy viewer can guess at,
and correctly guess if they’re paying attention. Which character is going to be “final girl,”
to use Carol Clover’s terminology? (“Hi!”) What order the characters are going to be
offed in. The marketing campaign for the 2009 reboot
of Friday the 13th actually tried to make this guessing-game a central draw of the film,
teasing viewers with a body count and possible clues to which cast members would die, in what
order. The end result, Dika claims, is a form of
game-like spectatorship—though one that is “less like watching a tennis match … than
like playing a video game.” And 25 years after the publication of Dika’s
book, Supermassive Games finally translated this mode of spectatorship into an actual
videogame, in the form of their 2015 game Until Dawn. In terms of general form, Until Dawn is
modeled closely on Quantic Dream’s PS3 exclusives, in which gameplay consists almost entirely
of choosing story options and performing quick timer events. It seems like Sony was trying to build a brand
for themselves, cornering the market on these interactive-movie-type games. Until Dawn, however, is significantly better
than Quantic Dream’s output. It’s writing isn’t superlative, by any
means, but when it’s bad it’s at least bad familiar and predictable ways, common to its
genre—unlike David Cage’s writing, which is bad in ways no human writing has ever been
before. Its characters are shallow and one-note. Their interpersonal conflicts are petty and
tiresome. (Matt: “Seriously, Emily? What the hell, man?” Ashley: “Hey, listen, it’s probably nothing.” Matt: “Nothing? You think?” Ashley: “Well, yeah …” Matt: “Is it
ever just nothing with Em?”) But that’s kind of what you sign up for
in a teen scream horror genre piece, so there’s no point in getting worked up about it. There are several challenges to adapting the
teen scream format into a video game, and Supermassive succeeded at some of them better
than others. The first one is simple, but still pretty
substantial: it’s the matter of length. Your typical slasher film is around 90 minutes
long. Playthrough times for Until Dawn can vary,
depending on how many collectables you seek out, and how bad you are at quick timer events, but I’d say the game averages somewhere around 7 hours. That’s a lot of extra time to fill up without
coming across as gratuitously padded. Until Dawn’s solution to this problem is
to effectively be several horror movies stitched together. It’s not always the smoothest experience,
but it does help justify the run time, and it has the added bonus of allowing the game
to traffic in a wider palette of tropes, from an expanded array of horror subgenres. The game’s initial story beats come across
as standard slasher fare. A group of friends return to a cabin in the
woods, on the anniversary of a tragedy. One year ago, they played a cruel sexual prank
on the daughter of the cabin’s owner, which resulted in both her and her sister dashing,
embarrassed, into the snowy night. The official story is that they’re both
still missing, but we, as players/viewers, saw them plummet, seemingly to their deaths,
after being stalked by a man with a flamethrower. Now everyone is reconvening for a yearly tradition
that their brother is determined to uphold, tragedy be damned. (Josh: “It means so much to me that we’re
doing this.”) The scenario is ripe with possibility: is
the flamethrower guy going to return and continue his killing spree, a la Pamala Vorhees in
Friday the 13th? Is there a personal revenge motive in play
for the teens’ past misdeeds, a la House on Sorority Row or I Know What You Did Last
Summer? Whatever the case, the game spends its opening
hour checking off multiple boxes in the “slasher setup” category, and continues to play up
these expectations by giving us occasional glimpses of someone stalking the cabin grounds. The game quickly contrives a reason for the
characters to split up, which is expected in this scenario. Once they split up, each group of characters
gets caught in generic drift, pulled in the direction of different genre tropes. Chris, Ash, Josh, and Sam are all pursued
by a masked man—certainly a very slasher-y trope. But once he captures them, he breaks the slasher
mold by placing them in elaborate death traps where they have to choose which friends live
and which die. So we’ve drifted out of 1980s slasher territory
and into 2000s-era, Saw-style torture porn. The game even pretends to be a ghost story
for a few beats in here, because why not? But in the end, none of it really matters,
as it is ultimately realized that none of these characters had been in mortal peril. Borrowing the twist from April Fool’s Day,
it turns out that all of the violence was staged via movie FX, in an elaborate prank
by Josh that was partly revenge for the deaths of his sisters, and partly a twisted form
of therapy. Josh’s ruse can’t account for the horrors
that were simultaneously befalling Mike, Jess, Emily, and Matt, however, and here’s where
the game plays its final card: in addition to everything else, the mountain is also being
besieged by vicious wendigos. The flamethrower guy, now revealed as not-evil,
shows up again to deliver all of the necessary exposition before being quickly dispatched. The last couple of chapters of the game are
basically a creature feature, as the remaining friends struggle to survive against what has
finally been revealed as a supernatural enemy. Oh, and it turns out that one of the sisters
from the beginning turned into an arch-wendigo, after she ate the other sister. This is a barely-coherent exquisite corpse
of a story. But you know what? It gets the job done. It fills out the game’s runtime adequately. Now that the basics of the game’s plot have
been laid out, I want to delve more deeply into Until Dawn’s game mechanics and storytelling
mechanics. There’s not really a clear dividing line
between these two in a game like this, and in fact the game attempts to play up the systemic
aspects of its story as much as possible. Throughout the game, you have access to two
different update screens, hinting at potential fallouts from the actions you have taken so
far. The most elaborate of these the the character
info screen, which has all of these little stat meters for character traits and relationship
statuses. These go up and down frequently, reacting
to even the smallest little dialogue options, which gives the impression that there’s
some sort of super-granular social simulation going on that will effect the course of the
story. This is not the case. There’s really only two moments in the game
when the stats on this screen have an effect large enough that the average player would
notice. Aside from those two moments, it’s just
an exercise in smoke and mirrors. This character info screen took obvious effort
to create, which makes me wonder why it’s in here at all. Here’s my best guess: The game front loads
character introductions. They’re paper-thin stock types, as we would
expect, so there’s not a lot of role-playing potential here. The only choices you make are between different
ways to deliver expository dialogue about these character’s interpersonal dynamics,
which can’t actually change until much later. I think the developers were probably scared
that players would get bored during this section of the game, so they constructed this elaborate
ruse to fool players into thinking that the game is more complicated than it actually
is, with far more triggers for story changes. Again, that’s just conjecture on my part. As I said earlier, though, there are two notable
moments where these stats do have an effect on the story. When you’re playing both as Ash and as Chris,
you can pursue flirtatious dialogue with the other, gradually strengthening these characters’
mutual unspoken crush. However, if you chose to make Chris shoot
Ash when you’re trapped in the death device, she goes completely cold on him. That means that, later, instead of kissing
him for luck as he braves the wendigo-infested snows and then greeting him warmly on his
return, she’ll give him an icy-cold stare and then refuse to unlock the door for him,
leaving him to his gory death. That’s a definite, trackable story effect. The other moment is the culmination of Jess
and Mike’s sexcapade. Depending on your choices during the long
walk to the cabin, Jess’s libido will be more or less ramped up, and she’ll get more
or less undressed for her subsequent scenes. This is an example of the game’s developers
falling into their worst possible instincts when it comes to a system like this. To be clear: I’m not constitutionally opposed
to a sex scene in a game like this. Until Dawn is a love letter to the silly tropes
of teen screen horror films, and it’s par for the course for these films to contain
some cheesecake pandering to the teenaged male gaze. My beef is with how we get here: having Jess’
state of undress be our “reward” for making all the “right choices” is such a lazy
distillation of the “kindness coin” theory of romance that videogames too often perpetuate. (Mike: “Yes, m’lady.”) It invites players into a creepily mechanistic
view of interpersonal relationships. (Mike: “I was just answering a mating call.”) Did that joke land? Better check the status update screen! Did Mike placate Jess’s ego enough? (Mike: “I think you bring out the worst
in her.”) Better check the status update screen! Did Mike eulogize his missing friends with
enough convincing human emotion? (Mike: “Well, wherever they are, I’m sure
they’re happy we’re all thinking about them.”) Better check the status update screen! And the worst part of all of this is that
if you make the “wrong” choices, and Jess doesn’t get quite as naked, Mike sits down
with her and they converse, and she admits some of her vulnerabilities, and becomes more
well-rounded as a character. (Jess: “I act all super confident, and like a
total sexy babe and everything, but underneath, I gotta be honest: I’m really kinda insecure.”) Which is a much better payoff from a storytelling
perspective. But that’s merely the “consolation payoff,” with the “real” payoff being
some simulated underwear. It’s like this whole scene was written just
to highlight how creepy the system that surrounds it is. The other update screen you have access to
is the “butterly effect” screen, which tracks certain key choices in a more global,
less granular way. The game is really fond of the “butterfly
effect” concept, to the point where it informs a lot of incidental visual details in the game. This screen is less bullsh*t-y than the character
info screen, but it does inflate the player’s impression of meaningful triggers by giving
choices that have very minor cosmetic effects—for instance, a character might get a black eye—equal
weight with more consequential decisions. Ultimately, I think the best way to enjoy
Until Dawn is to ignore the endless stream of “status update” and “butterfly effect
update” notifications, and pretend that these screens don’t exist at all. The characters in Until Dawn like to ramble
on about choice and consequences (Therapist: “Everything you do has consequences!”)
and the game really wants to frame the player’s interaction in those terms. But I think that’s a bad framing for the
game’s pleasures, which are much more about planting and payoff. Much like any half-decent horror movie, Until
Dawn asks its players to navigate a thicket of cues, picking out proper instances of foreshadowing
from mere red herrings. Some of the satisfaction to be derived here
is exactly the same as in any horror movie—for instance, properly identifying the culprit. Astute observers, for instance, might
track just how much Josh’s description of what it would take to bring Ash and Chris
together (Josh: “They just need, like, something to bond over. You know, some sort of traumatic event to send them
into each other’s arms.”) maps on to what happens to them before the
night is out (Chris: “I should have told you how I felt. Ashley, I swear when we get out of this … OH
GOD!!!!”). But an additional layer of satisfaction gets
added with interactivity. Rather than just correctly predicting the
order in which characters die, you can actively manipulate it. Rather than just steeling yourself for a jump
scare that you know is coming, you can actively avoid it. Yeah, I can see that that’s a severed head
there. No, I’m not gonna take the bait. I am too smart for that. Actually, I do want to go back, not to mess
with the head, but just so that you can hear the music. Hear how the strings crescendo again, as we
once again approach the head? The music in this game is pretty minimal,
and it doesn’t have any memorable motifs. But it can be impressively dynamic, and here
it reacts spatially to give us a little trope-y audio cue. Which I like. Other examples of genre cueing: if you pick
up the baseball bat in the basement, and comment on it, Josh will stash it near the boiler,
and you can use it against him later, if you hide there during Sam’s chase scene. This counts as a specific “butterfly effect”
moment. But it’s part of a larger spectrum of planting
that keen-eyed players will catch, not all of which is explicitly catalogued by the game’s
systems like this. For instance, the first time I watched the
descent into the basement and Josh warned about the broken stair (Josh: “Hey, watch
your step”) I made a mental note that that would probably be important in a later chase
scene. And, indeed, mentally cataloging that moment
boosted my reaction time during a later QTE. Similarly, if you have Chris shoot the squirrel
during the aiming tutorial, the game considers it an “affront against nature,” and counts
it as a butterfly effect moment, with Sam sustaining an injury. But there’s other nature-related foreshadowing
that isn’t counted by the “butterfly effect” mechanic. During Jess’s snowball fight with Mike,
the game warns you that “sometimes doing nothing is the right thing to do,” before
giving you the option of senselessly murdering an innocent robin. (Jess: “Oh no!”) It’s a moment that pays off during Matt
and Emily’s encounter with some rowdy caribou, where perceptive and genre-savvy players will
likely ignore the prompt to needlessly attack the deer—unless they hate Matt, and want
to see the story punish him for some egregious misdeeds. And we can do that! We can sadistically use the game’s story
to punish its various characters, making them act in ways that aren’t genre-savvy, and
will likely get them killed. Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit noted
that Until Dawn plays better if you don’t consider instances of character death to be
“failures,” but instead take a detached, director-like view of the proceedings, manipulating
characters’ fates from a degree of removal. I agree with this—and, in fact, I can’t
imagine approaching Until Dawn any other way. The game more or less announces this as the
“right” way to play, albeit in an ironic way, when the therapist chastises you for
playing with these character’s lives like a disinterested psychopath. (Therapist: “Now what gives you the right
to play god with these people’s lives?! What makes you so special, then, huh?”) A lot of the pleasures of recognizing the
various cues and plants and genre tropes in Until Dawn comes from you ability to use them
against characters you don’t like. For instance, if you like Ash, your’e probably
not going to let her wander away from the group to pursue a mysterious voice in the
mines that may or may not be Jess. But if you don’t like Ash—say, you just
saw her leave Chris to get decapitated rather than open the door for him—you might want
to guide her to act in a genre-unsavvy way, so that she faces some nicely symmetrical
karmic retribution. The character of Matt is one of the least
likable in the game, splitting the difference between a conceited jock (Matt: “She
was asking about my letter jacket.” Emily: “Right—because she gave a shit
about your ‘designer’ letter jacket…” Mike: “Why do you hate my jacket?”) and
an obsequious milquetoast (Emily: “Good effort, Matt!” Matt: “I’ll do better next time.”). He also has the least screen time and plot
relevance of any character in the game, and I think the reason for this is that they wanted
to make it easy for players to get rid of him. If you’re sick of seeing him onscreen, you
have a variety of spectacularly violent ways for him written out of the plot, from needlessly
picking a fight with some caribou to breathing too loudly around a wendigo. This is the case with Emily, as well, who
is written to be aggressively unlikeable. (Emily: “Oh, did you not hear me? Was your sluttiness too loud?”) She’s the type of character that the audience
would be rooting against in a slasher movie, the type of character who would probably outlive
a whole host of more-likable characters, before finally getting her gory comeuppance. The game indulges in players’ likely hatred
of her, and gives us plenty of chances to not-so-accidentally fail a QTE section while
controlling her, leading her into some exceptionally horrific deaths. Emily, however, presents some storytelling
problems for Until Dawn, exposing some of its weaknesses. And I’m not just referring to the fact that
the tone of her character has misogynist undertones, a bit too-well preserved from the source inspirations. (Emily: “Wow, Matt. Good call—radio. So smart.” Matt: “Why are you being so b*tchy?”) She also exposes some weaknesses in the ability
of Until Dawn’s story to dynamically adapt. Despite the suggestions of the butterfly graphic
used in the game’s opening moments, the plot of Until Dawn doesn’t really branch. The game has a variable body count, ranging
from everyone living to everyone dying. But despite these deaths, the broad plot beats always remain the same. Jess will always be abducted by a wendigo. If the player messes up at all in the resulting
rescue sequence, she will die immediately. Otherwise, Mike will see her plunge down the
mine’s elevator shaft. She spends most of the rest of the game unconscious
in the mines, unable to affect the story at all. And Mike assumes that she’s dead, which
means he behaves identically. (Mike: “Jessica’s dead.” Sam: “What?!”) Chris and Ash will always be abducted
and placed in a deathtrap choice scenario with Josh. In this scenario, Josh will always appear
to die, as that’s how he’s constructed the mechanism. Matt has his own Jess moment, where he either dies, or he’s banished to wander the mines and have no effect on the rest of the
story. Chris and Ash go through another torture
porn scenario, but it doesn’t matter, because all of this is fake. Josh also tries to incapacitate Sam, but if
he succeeds that doesn’t matter, because she’s only out briefly. Josh reveals his scheming to Chris, Ash,
Sam, and Mike. Mike is mad, either because Jess is dead,
or because he assumes she is—either way, his dialogue is the same. (Mike: “Jessica is f*king dead!”) The group then restrains Josh. These characters meet the flamethrower
guy, who introduces the real threat of the wendigos. (Flamethrower guy: “This mountain belongs
to the wendigo.”) Emily shows up too, if the player successfully
navigated her through the mines. Josh is stolen by wendigos, flamethrower guy
dies. Chris can die here, too. The remaining characters retreat to safety
of Josh’s control room. This group will always include Sam, Mike,
and Ash. It can also include Chris and Emily, depending
on their fates. Mike resolves to get the key to the cable
car from Josh, which means venturing into the wendigo’s main nest (Mike: “I’m
gonna get that key, right from that thing’s god damn bedroom. And then I’m gonna get us all the hell out
of here.”) by means of the sanatorium. Ash and Sam realize that Mike will be
in danger, because the flamethrower guy kept live wendigo in the sanatorium. Mike locked the way behind him, so they take
an alternate route to the wendigo’s nest. Ash can die here. Chris can too, if you’ve kept him alive
up to this point, but choose to act stupid with him here. (Chris: “I—I’m coming!”) Sam and Mike convene at the nest and get
the key from Josh, but can’t escape with him in tow. Players are given a chance to help Jess
and/or Matt escape the mines and survive the night, if they’ve survived so far. No matter the outcome, they remain ensconced
in their own bubble, and can have no effect on the rest of the story. All the other surviving members re-convene
at the lodge, where they can all live, or all have one final chance to die. The writers have cleverly constructed this
story to change as little as possible, while briefly giving players the illusion of consequence. Not only is this not a true branching narrative,
it barely even counts as a “beads on a string” narrative. For the most part, you see the same stuff
happen in the same order, just with a few lines cut here and there because a given character
is dead. I don’t think this is a bad way to approach
writing a game like this. Theoretically, since so little changes, it
should free up resources to make sure each moment flows smoothly, no matter the configuration
of characters present. The writers always know, for instance, that
the surviving characters are going to hole up in Josh’s control room, and concoct the
plan to get the cable car key. The only variables in play are whether Chris
and/or Emily are present. Which why it’s so baffling that the developers
treated Emily’s possible deaths the way they did. Since Matt is by this point either dead or
written out of any possible impact on the story, Emily is the only one who has spoken
to the ranger and therefore has knowledge of the deadline for rescue that gives the
game its very name … the only one with direct knowledge that the key to the cable car is gone … (Emily: “Mike, there’s no key for the cable car”) and the only one with
any sense of where the wendigo’s nest might be. (Emily: “I saw some horrible stuff down
there. I think it’s where that thing lives”). As you might expect, she plays a huge role
in this scene if she’s alive, basically setting up all of the exposition and stakes. Of course, players may have gleefully let
her get killed earlier. In this case, the writers had a real challenge
on their hands. It’s not insurmountable, but they really
botched it. In Emily’s absence, the characters make
untenable leaps in logic, and this scene is downright incoherent. Sam ascertains that the key to the cable car
is missing, which the game tries to motivate by having her look at the security monitor
(Sam: “Do you have the key for the cable car?”) but there’s no way she could possibly
see its absence given the monitor’s low resolution. Mike announces that he’s going to get the key
from the wendigo’s lair, but he has no way to make a guess as to where that is (Mike:
“I’m gonna get that key, right from that thing’s god damn bedroom”). At this point in the scene, he hasn’t yet looked
at the map the flamethrower guy had, and in fact he isn’t even aware there is a map
yet (Mike: “Is that a map?”). Everything’s introduced in the wrong order,
and nobody seems actually motivated to say anything that they say (Mike: “I’m just
saying, it’s weird.”). A whole other can of worms is opened by the
fact that, even if Emily is alive for this scene, it’s possible to kill her, as Mike
gets paranoid about the fact that she’s been bitten by a wendigo. (Mike: “This is the safe room, Em!”) From a writing perspective, he has at least
has the decency to wait until after she’s dispensed all of her useful exposition to
do this. Still, though, the scene gets really weird
afterward if you actually go through with it. Character dialogue and blocking doesn’t
adequately account for the fact that there’s now a grisly corpse in the room. (Sam: “Hey, are you okay?” Chris: “He was right there, and—“ Sam:
“What, the flamethrower dude?” Chris: “Yeah! The weird guy. He got himself killed.” Sam: “Was it the wendigo?” Chris: “Yeah.”) The failure of this scene to properly account
for the various possible fates of Emily is especially jarring, because elsewhere in the
game the writing is surprisingly adaptive to account for small things. Picking up clues in the environment has an
especially outsized effect on the character dialogue. In this short exchange with Mike, there are
all all sorts of clue-related triggers in Sam’s dialogue. (Sam: “There was a message from his doctor,
and it mentioned a plan.” Sam: “I found these blueprints for a crazy
machine. Just like the one Josh was in, but it was
fake. It was for a dummy.”) And later, on she can confront Josh about
his motivations, if the player has examined the right things. (Sam: “You’re crying out for help, Josh. C’mon—you wanted to get caught, didn’t
you?”) Checking out things in the environment also
leads to a series of scenes in which Sam and Mike piece together that Josh’s sister Hannah
became a wendigo, and then later share that information with Josh, resulting in him surviving
when she attacks him. The fact that the writers could do all of
this, but then weren’t up to the task of making the basement planning scene coherent
in Emily’s absence is kind of mind-boggling to me. But it shows how hard it is to have a reactive
story like this hold together, even if you’re taking shortcuts by sequestering certain characters
away in plot-irrelevant bubbles. So that’s Until Dawn. Its writing is not ambitious, nor is it always
coherent. But I think it serves as a solid proof-of-concept
that the sort of “games of terror” that Dika traced in audience reception of slasher
films can be transferred in to video game form, given an extended and more explicitly
interactive form. I’ve spent most of the time here talking
about its story mechanics, but I want to briefly say that I like the game’s visuals, too. Its preference for wide shots, for placing
a mo-cap animated character in the midst of an impressively-rendered environment, presented
from an interesting angle, helps add some visual flair even to those points of the game
when you’re just walking from one place to another. And the game knows how to use framing—whether
it’s pulling your attention to a clue in the foreground (Ashley: “Check this out,
Chris”) or using a jump scare to open up a framing-based knowledge gap between you and the character you’re controlling. In the next episode, I’ll take a look at
two other games with genuinely branching narratives both of which are on the fringes of the horror
genre, but I think have a lot of interesting lessons to impart about the relationships
between players and player-characters. Thanks for watching, and I’ll be back soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *