I wouldn’t dare call myself a horror expert. I wouldn’t even say I’m a connoisseur.
Horror is one of those things that I didn’t really experience until I got a little older, from which I ran away screaming when it found its way onto my radar. I would be watching my cartoons and fall would come and all of a sudden there would be a shift. New episodes became Halloween themed and the tone of them, for an instant, was shifted. Most were Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network fare, some were scary, but all of them took this notion of happy, sometimes problematic, lives going on in a sort of safety net and turned it on its head, putting it all instead into a non-canonical bubble within which the world was set in chaos, even if for a moment.
Granted, I may be speaking a bit too generally, but this was the case more often than not: the crew, whether it be that of Hey Arnold, Spongebob Squarepants, CatDog, or Invader Zim, all found themselves a part of some sort of out of left field horror scenario that required them face fears and probable death to overcome. Much the same way a horror movie is presented.
That being said, the majority were silly, Halloween sugar, giving you, as a kid, a warm, fall feel, while ramping you up for the candy haul to come, but some were kind of horrifying (I cite CatDog and Invader Zim in that camp)–I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe someone creating it flew off the deep end and went as far as they could with what they were given, but I imagine, if not entirely for that reason, that there was a little of this too: horror, like it or hate it, is a strange and visceral feeling, genre and concept. Nothing written comes off quite as raw and animalistic as horror’s need for self-preservation and as tame as a cartoon is and can be, the initial facing of that feeling is a jarring one and is, for the first time in some instances, a foray into adulthood.
As a storyteller, the desire to bring about genuine emotions in someone is about as real as anything can be in relation to storytelling, and when given the opportunity to tear down a wall and expose someone new to stories, in a somewhat innocuous way, to life, to fear, to being a little older, it’s hard not to take it.
Until Dawn I imagine exists for that reason, to tear down our walls, to make us feel something raw, and I believe in that way it succeeds.
One year after a tragic event befalls a group of friends at their annual winter mountain getaway (due in large part to the group of friends present), eight of them return for another vacation in the snow, only to be hunted by something that may not be entirely human.
It’s cold, it’s dark, the night is spread open, sprawling down the mountainside and rolling through the woods. All the while the wintry winds creep, cradling everything and everyone–the trees, the mountain, the cabins, the kids–close with fingers like tendrils, caging them, trapping them–while the moon sits still and high. They run, they scream, they brave the darkness, but only a few make it through until morning. Or all of them do.
Or none of them.
Until Dawn upends the horror linearity and allows you the freedom to choose how this night will play out. By the end of it all, when the sun rises, everyone could have made it out, nobody could have, or some combination of them all in-between could have fumbled out together, and that fact, by itself is amazing. Gone here are the horror tropes of the “blonde, ditzy, sexed-up cheerleader,” the “jock,” the “nerd,” the “black guy who dies first,” and replacing them are characters who feel real in their own way with traits of those tropes mixed in. Characters you think will die first (or that should die first) may survive well past your expectations, while the champs may croak even sooner, much to our dismay.
That, on its own, causes fear.
Until Dawn feeds upon that raw fearful emotion that encompasses so many different things: the dark, the cold, the unknown, mistrust, and takes it all, twists it around and spits it back toward you again and again until you can’t take it anymore. Having these fragile lives in your hands almost feels like too much sometimes. Coming out of a situation knowing you could have done something to prevent a certain outcome is heartrending, to say the least, and watching the credits roll at the end, watching only two of the eight (that’s how it happened for me) make it back to civilization…well, that can be too much to bear.
It sounds a little melodramatic relating these situations this way, but Until Dawn is only sometimes a video game–the majority of the time it’s a movie, a story, a glimpse into the lives of seemingly simple, but complex individuals who represent a portion of ourselves. And because of that, the emotions we feel–the raw, gut, knee-jerk emotions–sit with us more deeply and make it feel real.
Until Dawn is a game that has made me want something I’ve never wanted from another horror game: it’s made me want to play it again. Watching as the number of kids dwindles from the stout and full eight to a measly two makes me want to go back and figure out how I can save the other six next time, and for someone who is not a fan, typically, of horror games or movies or the content in general, this is an achievement in and of itself.
The gameplay is simple, the story is too, but the people, these relationships feel much more than simple, much more real, much more authentic–and it’s in that that the game draws you in. And I’m glad it did.
Brb. It’s almost Halloween. I’m going to start up again.