A while back, a friend and I attempted what we called a Maximum Chaos playthrough of the game Until Dawn. Until Dawn is basically an interactive horror movie, presented cinematically but offering its players the chance to steer the story in different directions based on character interactions, decisions, and quick time events in action scenes. The Maximum Chaos run involves picking the most risky choices, starting as many fights between characters as possible, and not hitting any of the QTEs, leading to the most exciting, dramatic, and gory story possible. Given Until Dawn’s “anyone can die” premise, this leads to some interesting and brutal action. But, as we learned along the way, it also reveals that certain characters are quite literally indestructible no matter what your button-pressing and narrative choices inflict on them, and some are far too easy to damage, which leaves the game with some unfortunate implications.
Spoilers for the game, character deaths and possible endings beyond this point!
Until Dawn is based entirely around horror genre tropes, and it knows it. The setup is a deliberately standard “teenagers in a cabin in the woods, oh no, something scary!” scenario, with the eight main characters all traveling to an isolated ski lodge to reunite after two of their friends disappeared there the year before. Naturally, spooky stuff starts happening, and the player has to pilot the cast through a series of grueling challenges as they uncover the mystery of the mountain, try not to get murdered by a serial killer, and eventually realize that they’re not in a slasher movie but a monster movie. In an ideal scenario, a “golden” playthrough if you will, you can get all eight characters out alive at the end, but there are plenty of opportunities to lose members of the cast to various grisly deaths along the way.
As you will inevitably discover if you play it through more than once, Until Dawn follows the same linear storyline and sequence of events every time, despite its promise that the player will have control over shaping the story. This led to the Zero Punctuation review entertainingly calling it “less of a branching story, and more of a log.” Obviously it would be a huge amount of developmental work to give every player a totally different experience based on their choices, so I have no real complaint about this—this still leaves plenty of juicy possibilities and replay value, given that what the player can control is on a more character-based level, namely, who lives and who dies.
While Until Dawn runs on horror clichés, this “anyone can die” format opens up opportunities to play with death-based tropes that permeate the genre. The Black Guy Dies First, for example, can be avoided if you safely get Matt, the single African-American character, to the end of the game. The Final Girl, too, can be subverted if the pure and peppy Samantha dies in her climactic confrontation with the monster instead of escaping like she normally would. These often problematic tropes surrounding who lives and dies in horror stories are in your hands! In theory, at least—what we discovered playing Maximum Chaos was that “anyone can die” is also a bit of a false claim, alongside “you control how the story goes”.
The first thing we discovered was that Mike, the sporty and charismatic handsome white guy, is quite literally indestructible. As I said, Maximum Chaos denotes that you press nothing for the QTEs, leaving Mike smacking his head on fallen logs instead of ducking, falling into icy rivers where he would normally leap safely over them, and generally tripping and crashing his way through his action sequences. Though a few scuffs and scratches were added to his body, this really had no effect on how Mike progressed through the story. By the end Mike had been burnt, bruised, bloodied, and mauled by a wendigo, but he was still perfectly fine and, most notably given the game’s format, not dead.
On one level this makes sense: Mike is one of the more important characters in the game, in that he’s the one who explores the abandoned sanatorium (because of course one of the locations is a sanatorium) where a lot of clues and plot points are discovered and fleshed out. If Mike died early in the game, we’d lose access to this huge bit of world- and plot-building, and neither the player nor the other characters would have any idea what was going on. So Mike’s plot armor is necessary, but it also becomes a little ridiculous the further you progress in the game—at one point he gets attacked by a pair of escaped monsters, but is apparently such a badass that he fights and defeats them offscreen even if the player doesn’t hit the QTE. Mike is literally unkillable until the very final scene of the game.
Now, we do need A Hero for plot exploration, but my question is, why did the developers decide to give this crucial role and its associated immunity to a white dude? Mike’s immortality and importance starts to look a little awkward when you look at other characters in the game, who each fall into their own set of tropes, and compare his immunity to theirs: Emily, the only Asian character in the game, has five different ways she can die, three of which are based on QTEs. If Mike can survive me not pressing a button, why can’t she? Emily has the most possible deaths out of the entire cast, with Matt (the sole African-American character) coming in second with three, tied with nerdy white guy Chris. Ashley and Jess (also both white) have two possible deaths each, Mike has two right at the very end, and Sam, the aforementioned Final Girl archetype, has only one possible death in the final scene. Josh, the game’s mentally ill antagonist, has only one possible death, but if he stays alive he becomes a flesh-eating monstrosity, so I wouldn’t really call that a big win for him.
The horror/slasher genre and its well-known tropes are rife with sexism, racism, ableism, and unspoken but latent homophobia. A lot of modern works are very self-aware—Cabin in the Woods has quite a deconstructive take on it, and the Scream series breaks the fourth wall to have its characters explain the rules of their own movie universe—and Until Dawn is part of this tradition. As an interactive piece of media, however, it had a unique opportunity to play with and subvert these tropes that it builds upon, and by placing this power in the player’s hands, offer them the power to challenge these often problematic and silly prejudices that are part of the horror genre. But… the game doesn’t really do anything with this opportunity, seeing as even though the “anyone can die” rule technically applies, sexism, racism, ableism, and general attachment to clichés are still built into the very fabric of the game.
As I mentioned before, Josh, the antagonist for the first two thirds of the game, is not a stellar example of representation for mentally ill folks. This is apparent in his characterization but also his death possibilities: he can either have his head crushed by the monster, or turn into a monster himself. Even if he survives, there’s no “good end” in sight for him, adhering to the horror genre’s iffy treatment and viewing of people with mental illnesses. The game also adheres to the genre’s iffy treatment and viewing of women, especially sexual women, in the case of Jess, who fits the ditzy blonde cheerleader trope and is really keen on having sex with her boyfriend (Mike), which anyone who knows horror movies knows has marked her for death.
Though the player can subvert this negative trope if they make the right decision, she’s the first, and one of the easiest, characters to lose. Whether or not she survives this first scene also entirely depends on whether or not Mike can heroically rescue her, too, so the game sticks hard and fast to the usual format of Damsel in Distress and Action Hero Man and doesn’t give Jess much agency or power in the situation. And again, Mike is functionally immortal until the end of the game, so his desire for sex doesn’t hinder him, making this an awkwardly gendered iteration of the Death (or at least, terror and injury) by Sex trope.
The most obvious problems lie with Emily, who is the character with the most opportunities to die horribly (if you read the list, you’ll note that most of them are rather gory and unpleasant). This might not be a problem in and of itself if she wasn’t also the only Asian character in the cast, and the only character to be both a racial minority and a woman. She and the other minority character, Matt, are also dating, and thus get parceled off together for their storylines, the writing of which makes them feel almost like an afterthought for the first half of the game. In fact, if you don’t have certain DLC installed that gives you a bonus scene starring them, Matt and Emily disappear from the story for several hours.
Emily is also one of the meanest, rudest and most pragmatic characters in the cast, filling the role of The Rich Bitch in the cast of token high school archetypes, which a) feeds into the nasty horror trope of the unlikable character (often an assertive or “bitchy” girl, in contrast to the delightful Final Girl type) who is designed to be so awful that the audience will actually be entertained and amused by her death, and b) isn’t a particularly favorable depiction of Asian women. If she wasn’t the only one it would be less of a problem, but given that they’re the only racial minorities in an otherwise white cast, Emily is the representative of all Asians in the Until Dawn universe and Matt is the representative of all African-Americans. Add this to the fact that Matt and Emily are two of the easiest characters to kill, and you have a very awkward situation that does very little to budge the race-based tropes in the genre.
What it all comes down to is that, even if you play a golden run and everyone, racial minorities, women, and the mentally ill Josh, survive to the end, the trope of Heroic White Guy is still embedded in the gameplay. Everyone else feels a little insignificant and disposable next to Mike (and to some extent Final Girl Sam), a feeling that’s supported by the number and types of deaths available for all the other characters. This isn’t making much of an attempt to critique, or even play around with, the horror tropes that the game runs on. Yes, we needed a hero with some degree of plot armor to progress the story, but why did that hero have to be a white man? Why couldn’t it be Matt who explores the sanatorium and gathers the clues? Why couldn’t it be Jess, who saves herself and gets the opportunity to explore? Hell, why couldn’t it be Sam? Most of her action scenes involve her fleeing from a terrifying man while wearing only a towel, which is a dose of grossness we could have done without.
Ultimately, it would have been more subversive—if the creators wanted to be subversive, that is–for Mike to be the character easiest to kill. The Until Dawn creators likely know that its audience knows the horror genre. If Mike’s presented in the recognizable role of The Hero that we’ve all grown to associate with straight white sporty guys, wouldn’t it be the most delicious twist ever if he was one of the first to die? This would not only challenge this ingrained idea, but also make the game scarier and more dramatic, and enforce the “anyone can die” rule in the most effective, Ned Stark-ish way possible. It would also lead into so many more possibilities for toying around with horror tropes in the wake of such a big subversion, as it would give sidelined characters like Emily, Matt and Jess the opportunity to take on more important roles and mix up the expected formula even further.
New media in genres like horror—especially interactive media that pride themselves on giving the player control of the story—have a responsibility to challenge and play with the tropes the genre is built on. A lot of these tropes, especially ones like The Minority Dies First and The “Slutty” Girl is Doomed, stem from gross and problematic thinking, but… they also need to be challenged just to make things more interesting.
If you want a cut-and-paste traditional teen slasher movie with all the silliness you’d normally expect from one, then sure, play Until Dawn like that and you’ll probably have a great time. But if you begin to look for the prejudice buried in the game mechanics like my friend and I did, it becomes pretty obvious that the game isn’t trying to do anything progressive by putting the power to drive the story in your hands. Sure, you can “subvert” the Final Girl cliché by letting an innocent woman get murdered by a monster at the last minute, but that hardly feels like a triumph of social justice through fiction, and certainly doesn’t erase all the casual Hollywood racism and sexism throughout the rest of the game.
Despite its potential, I think the problem here is that Until Dawn wasn’t trying very hard to subvert or even question any of the cliches it runs on. It uses these tropes as shorthand for getting the players to understand the characters, and as wink-nudges to the presumably genre-savvy audience, rather than doing anything interesting to challenge them. This makes it not only problematic writing, but writing that’s just plain lazy. For a game that pats itself on the back so much about taking its players on shocking and exciting branching stories, at its heart Until Dawn is just disappointingly predictable.
Read more from Alex at her blog, The Afictionado!