Well, I went and did it–after years of unshakable love-hate fascination with Life is Strange and Until Dawn, I’ve taken the leap into the fire and brought discussion of them into my work life. This video is a recorded version of the conference paper I presented last week in Perth, preserved for the ages and intended to be accessible to those who couldn’t be there to see it in person (which includes folks outside the academic field). I explore how branching, interactive stories give us the opportunity to mess around with tropes and genre conventions, and the weird Schrodinger’s Cat conundrum that these games can both play into historically harmful cliches and subvert them, and neither result is more “canon” than the other. Check it out if you’re interested!
In this horror game, a group of teenagers who kind of hate each other travel to a secluded environment with no mobile reception and only one safe passage in or out (because that’s always a foolproof plan for fun). Tension is high because they’re mourning the loss of the sibling(s) of one member of the group, and people are blaming each other for their death. Two characters kind of have a thing going on and the player has the opportunity to get them together or keep them apart. Spooky things start happening, the group gets split up, and what began as a sweet fun high school romp becomes a quest to survive the night and get safely home. Is it indie ghost story Oxenfree I’m describing, or my Problematic Fave Until Dawn?
These are actually two wildly different pieces of media, but on reflection they had enough similarities that I felt a compare-and-contrast could be interesting, if only because of the first thing they have in common: supposedly I don’t even like spooky fiction, weak soul that I am, yet I loved both of these games and find myself still thinking about them enough to write another thousand-or-so words months and even years after first picking them up. The second thing these two have in common is that it feels kind of incorrect to call either of them “horror games”: Until Dawn is more of an interactive horror movie, complete with a fully-loaded arsenal of stock characters and predictable tropes from horror cinema around which it builds its existence; and Oxenfree is more of a ghost story in the traditional sense. It’s this atmospheric shift that makes comparing them so interesting, since they both manage to be fantastically engaging and frightening despite the very different ways they build their worlds and attempt to scare the pants off you. Continue reading
A while back, WB 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.
Read the full post on Lady Geek Girl and Friends!
Until Dawn is one of the most aggressively straight pieces of media I’ve come across. All but two of its eight main characters are set up as romantic/sexual pairs, and defined as this in the quick flash of character introduction we get at the start of the game. It’s equally important for the player to know that Ashley is “academic” as it is to know that she has a crush on Chris, and given how wafty the characterisation in the game can be, their relationship status becomes one of the few concrete things we do know about them. The only two characters who aren’t either dating someone of the opposite gender or mutually crushing on someone of the opposite gender are Josh and Sam, and Josh spends half the game making lewd jokes like “I just want to push her down and make some snow angels you know?” about the girls.
Sam is a strange outlier in that her relationship identifier is “Hannah’s best friend” rather than “Emily’s boyfriend” or “Mike’s ex” or “has a crush on Ashley”. Josh is noted as Hannah and Beth’s older brother (for clarity, mostly, so in case you missed the brief mention of it in the prologue you know this important bit of information and the story will make sense), but this still leaves Sam as the only one defined by a platonic relationship. Which really, really sticks out like a sore and lonely thumb when everyone else is paired off for their respective storylines into romantic couples rife with sexual tension, some… more believable than others.
You spend enough time with Jess and Mike to see their chemistry, but Emily and Matt seem to just fight and belittle each other the entire time save for occasionally announcing that they really, really want to sleep together. Which is not what a healthy, normal, or well-written relationship looks like. Frankly, it feels forced, like the writers jammed them together into a couple because that’s just what teenagers do, right? Are horny for each other? Continue reading
Say what you will about the dodgy character work of Until Dawn, but the game has succeeded in one thing: it gave us a genuinely unsympathetic, unlikeable female character. Emily is almost universally disliked from the reactions I’ve seen outside my own friend group, with bloggers confessing they made certain decisions to deliberately put her at a disadvantage, playthrough-makers announcing they don’t really care if she dies and that they’d rather focus on saving her trodden-down boyfriend Matt, whom she’s horrible to, and everyone—including me, I regret to say—calling her a bitch at least once.
Listen, though: Emily is a bitch. She is basically packaged to be what society defines that as: she’s angry, petty, domineering, manipulative and self-serving, and is a vain young woman to top it off. Compared to other female characters in the game like the heroic Sam and the emotive, submissive (comparatively, anyway) Ashley, there’s very little incentive for the player to warm up to her. It’s Until Dawn’s lack of character depth and development, obviously, which leaves her only as the archetypal Bitch™ with no more layers to her (aside from a cryptic mention from Dr Hill that “an abundance in confidence can often mask a lack in confidence”) and contributes to so much hate and name-calling. But it could also be that nothing about Emily’s stubbornness, assertive attitude or anger is packaged in a way that’s appealing. There’s nothing cute about her anger, nothing about it that’s moulded into an attractive archetype… she’s just a terrible person. And I love that about her. Continue reading
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? Continue reading
[This is a collaboration post based on lengthy discussion with WB, who has a lot of very smart things to say. It also contains Until Dawn spoilers]
One thing that tends to pop up again and again in Until Dawn discourse is the injustice that befell Josh Washington: everyone in the group of playable characters can be saved from ruin except for him, and he deserved a better ending. Well, I’m not here to argue that point, because he did deserve a better ending, and a better beginning and middle too, because good God this man is a terribly written character. Continue reading