Let’s Study Horror Games, ep 8

I have returned, bearing new content. This episode isn’t based on any prior material—I had been meaning to write on Until Dawn here for ages, and just ended up making a video for this series instead of writing a blog post on it.

Work and other publications slowed down my progress on this series (remember back when I though I’d wrap it up in February—and that was my pessimistic assessment?). But I worked on ep 9 concurrently with this one, so it should be up in just a few days. I’m hoping to conclude the initial 10-episode run of this series by the end of April.

Script below the jump!

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 elements—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 the 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 identity of the killer 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 will 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 closely modeled 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 is bad it is 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: “You think?” Ashley: “Well, yeah …” Matt: “Is it ever just nothing with Emily?”) 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: 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 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 death 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 that 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. This 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 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 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 it’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 bullshit-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 might, 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. 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 you know is coming, you can actively avoid it.

Yeah, I can see that that’s a severed head there. No, I’m not going to 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 of 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 being 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 accordingly. (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 either he 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 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 variable 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 to 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 to the cable car?”) but there’s no way she could possibly see its absence given the monitor’s resolution. Mike says 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 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?”)

Cecking 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 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 player and player-character. Thanks for watching, and I’ll be back soon.

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