Until Dawn does not want you to like most of its main characters. The entire prologue—the establishing character moment for most of the cast—consists of them humiliating one of their supposed dearest friends, filming it, and sending her fleeing into the snow and her eventual death. They are, at first glimpse, a bunch of assholes, except for Josh (who turned out to be the villain, go figure), Chris, and the sole voice of sympathy and reason Sam. The centre of the prank, Mike, seems to be the worst offender, but oddly enough I ended up liking him most. What happened here?
From the get-go he’s clearly the Popular Guy archetype, tall, handsome, kind of a dick in a well-meaning but ultimately emotionally scarring way, with the Popular Girl archetype as his girlfriend. We never find out if Jess is actually a cheerleader, but something about her seems to scream it. Emily, of course, was his girlfriend the year before, but what split them up we never find out. Nor do we find out why he and Jess got together afterwards, or why Emily is now dating Matt, or indeed why anyone likes each other when they all seem to be in constant conflict.
They’re all defined by their relationships (as told to the player in their introductory flash, which also tells you their dominant personality traits, because why bother to show any of those things when you could just put it in dot points?) but there’s no indication of how any of them, save for Chris and Josh, whose Bro Origin Story gets wriggled in to draw attention to the Butterfly Effect system/overarching metaphor, actually got together or became friends. The relationships, especially Matt and Emily’s, barely even seem functional, but we’re kind of supposed to believe in their chemistry because they constantly remind us that they really, really want to have sex with each other.
And here we come to Mike, and for a short while, his girlfriend Jess. We spend enough time watching them banter and mess around together while walking them to the log cabin (where they’re totally gonna bone, because they are unfortunately unaware that they’re in the horror genre and that is setting them up for a terrible fate) to kind of understand why they like each other, but there’s still barely any sense of them as people beneath the stereotypes the writers are supposedly playing with. Again, apart from being able to save the teens from dying, thus avoiding tropes like Black Guy Dies First and the Final Girl, the game makes little attempt to subvert or even acknowledge the clichés that it had the opportunity to. Which is only heightened further when Jess is dragged off screaming by a monster and Mike has to go save her.
Whether or not Jess is dead by the time you get to her, this event sends Mike on an exploratory journey through an abandoned hospital where he uncovers the largest portion of the monster mystery, makes friends with a wolf, and ends up being one of the characters you spend the most time with. Perhaps this is the key, because compared to the rest of the cast, Mike ended up being A) one of the ones I liked the most—possibly because he revealed himself as a caring, heroic person rather than a total douche, possibly because his reactions to jump scares were entirely relatable—and B) basically the only one who gets a developmental arc.
Which, looking at it with narrowed eyes, was quite possibly an accident, because like Josh, Mike simply switches from one trope to another depending on what the story needs. In the beginning, he’s the Jerk Jock because that gives him the hotness and moral bankruptcy required to put the prank on Hannah in motion, and by the end he’s the Handsome Hero because they need a traditionally masculine, cool-headed but hot-blooded badass to do the hardcore monster killing. Somebody’s got to do it, and it obviously has to be one of the boys, and it can’t be Josh because he’s crazy (apparently), can’t be Chris because he’s a nerd (apparently??) and can’t be Matt because… well, no real reason, except that he seems to be offscreen for half the game.
In any case, if you bring stickers and glitter glue you can craft Mike’s story into one of a young man who regrets his douche-y ways and, upon realising that he loves his girlfriend and wants justice and safety for her, starts on a path of redemption where he finds his inner strength and ends up genuinely helping save the day, and his friends, instead of ruining it for them with the petty jokes he makes to fuel his low self-esteem. It’s really quite a shining tale of human perseverance in the face of adversity, and of inner goodness trumping hatred, when you look at it like that.
Mike’s a really interesting character, if you give him the chance… and the game, unlike some of the more sidelined members of the group, actually does give the player the chance to give him a chance, by letting us get to know him. Vaguely. Enough to put together that okay, Mike is popular because he’s playful and funny, even if his sense of humour is sometimes mean-spirited, but perhaps he’s mended his ways since the joke on Hannah went sour. He’s a man of action who can’t stand staying still and doing nothing. He drops lines like “Jesus hot sauce Christmas cake” and sings “eenie meenie minie mo” when he goes through traumatic and shocking events because his first line of defence against fear and pain is humour. Maybe that’s why Jess likes him and feels more confident around him.
And it’s no wonder he gets along well with Josh and Chris with all that funny banter, either. Maybe Emily joined their group because she was his other half at the time, maybe she then brought Jess by proxy because they used to be best friends pre- the Hannah Incident. Sam was Hannah’s best friend, Ashley maybe came in due to shared interests with Chris. My God. I mapped the inexplicable social framework of Until Dawn. I figured it out. Thank you Mike.
Though this is all entirely speculative, as there’s so much unsaid detail in this set of characters that it leaves most of it to the audience’s imagination. While it can be an awful lot of fun to project your own interpretations onto characters and play with “what if?”s and gap-filling-in until the cows come home, looking at Mike who actually has the most depth and detail and development to him, the other members of the group look like cardboard cut-outs in comparison. And Mike isn’t too far from a cut-out himself, he just has the benefit of some more characterisation, more screen time, and a semi-accidental character arc that means he’s the only one (aside from Josh, but I already talked about all the problems with that) who seems any different at the end of the story to what he was at the start.
And when you go through an experience like this night on the mountain—especially when the opening scene makes all your stars out to be assholes, and presents a perfect opportunity for self-reflection and redemption in the face of monster attacks—you would expect to change. Learn something about yourself. Become braver or stronger or kinder, or Hell, even more of an asshole if you want to go that way. Something! But I guess there was so little time devoted to the other characters that there wasn’t much room for that, which is a legitimate problem and I’ll go easy on them for that, and also of course there’s the fact that they barely had any character to begin with, and what was there was unlikeable and terrible.
And yet. Here I am with Mike Munroe the potty-mouthed, macho-heroic class president as my favourite character. Anyone can be lovable if you put the work into it, which is probably why the kid stands out so much.
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