Halloween Horror Highlight – Until Dawn
It’s the spookiest time of the year, and all through October I’m going to share some horrific highlights of games worth your attention this Halloween. First up, let’s take a look at Until Dawn, and get to the heart of its ramifications regarding human insecurity.
The greatest trick Until Dawn ever pulls is convincing its audience that it isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. In reality, the game is a calculated tour de force of storytelling, prompting twists and turns only the most mindful of players will ever predict. But perhaps its most impressive achievement is treating them as smart problem-solvers eager to unravel a compelling mystery without holding their hands the whole way through.
A stereotypical ‘cabin in the woods’ horror story this both is and is not. At first glance, all the properties of a contrived and unconvincing thriller are quickly set into motion: the mysterious disappearance of two young girls — brought about by a harmless prank; a cast of recognizable teens who can’t stop obsessing over drama and sex amongst each other; a haunted old house where they all decide to stay, full of creepy corridors, a mysterious past, and plenty of wildlife to jump scare the audience into frustrated bewilderment.
Furthermore, the developers seem far too impressed with their clever take on configuring the concept of the “butterfly effect” into the fabrics of a video game. It was about the third time they openly mentioned how “Your choices will dramatically affect how the story unfolds” where I began to become groan-inducingly annoyed.
But this is intentionally designed to get the player to think intelligently about their actions. Decision-making is a rapid-fire investment, and Until Dawn wants you to understand that going with your gut is not always the smartest move. Critics lauded over Telltale’s The Walking Dead given its concept of a horror game where the scariest part is making a choice; but whereas that series is a deceptive sequence of fairly linear events, Until Dawn is far more exemplary in execution.
As its episodic format begins to play out, the surprises begin to take shape in a truly organic, and provocative manner. The mystery enshrouding the overall scenario shifts dramatically throughout, positing the player to constantly be thinking two steps ahead, lest losing another key character within the contexts of the murder plot. It simultaneously subverts the prior expectations regarding a lack of novelty or surprise, while also proving its central gimmick as worthy of being discussed.
Shades of paranormal activity evolve into serial killer territory, later ultimately culminating in something a bit more monstrous. All without skipping a beat, the writers maintain this ever-revolving hallway of familiar situation types with incentive to wax irrational.
Encouraging the ludicrous, so to speak, as a means of both critiquing our collective allure towards horror tropes, as well as showing appreciation towards them. Horror films (and games) can often forget to have Fun. Until Dawn revels in its stereotypes, plus a profound lack of sensical scenarios, stripped almost directly from B-movies of yesteryear, providing jump scares, a trivial cast, and a heightened sense of the unknown to provide an underlying layer of festivity to the overarching “horror” of it all.
Because facing the unknown is truly the most basic and essential of horror tropes. What Supermassive Games have accomplished here is deliver an interactive experience in which death and drama can be averted at the click of a button; though there’s really no such thing as a “right” choice.
It’s almost like the game pits the player into the role of a writer, manipulating outcomes but with only a vague sense of where the story will go. Making choices is usually based on how they want to perceive the characters to act: a half-finished play where the plot is far less pivotal than the relationships forged between these various familiar archetypes.
When prompting the player to choose between two dialogues responses, the character turns their head towards the left or right, indicating a thoughtful response. I love it; it’s a subtle nod to listening to the devil and angel resting on your shoulders, but far less of a black-and-white moral conundrum. Instead, it posits one of two directions for the conversation to go, once again highlighting the branching of paths throughout relationship building, as well as provide some vague notion towards how the scene will eventually play out.
Like walking through the shady woods of a dramatic dialogue. The nature of the conversation is as wild as the wintry forests housing these archetypal teens. Ultimately the game posits a consistent question: is survival based on presumption, or careful analysis of others as though they were caricatures? And how does one get close to another with perceptions constantly clouding their rational judgements?
Quicktime events are such a stereotypical game design gimmick and no other game utilizes them more effectively than Until Dawn. Their very inclusion within the contexts of the game’s functionality directly mirrors, and to an extent even upends the archetypal personalities which make up the eclectic cast. Subverting expectations, putting a spin on tropes to further incentivize a methodical thought process from the player: this is what makes Until Dawn such an effective interactive experience.
Sight is a pivotal recurring motif throughout Until Dawn. Searching areas, finding clues, making sense of the details you come into contact with; this is what essentially makes up most of the ‘gameplay.’ Survival is all about knowing where to look.
But perhaps what Until Dawn most explores is human insecurity. How we shape our personas into untruthful fiction, as a means of coping with our greatest of collective fears: alienation. It implores you to gradually perceive these characters as something more than the archetypes they are originally established as. Emily, the bitchy ex-girlfriend, becomes a model of self-empowerment; Jess plays the sexy blonde type only to build herself up to be worth something to someone; Mike is a caring jock with more compassion to offer than his charming grin lets on.
In a society where we are constantly judged by the visage we artificially don, it takes bravery to subvert the expectations others have of us. In other words, to rise above gut reactions and make serious considerations regarding who we really are, and who we aspire to be. To walk the walk and talk the talk. To touch the nerves of alienation directly and learn to forget the way things are ‘supposed to be.’ To venture into the wilds, the shady unknown, to explore survival in its most raw element.