Until Dawn: On Representation, the Horror Genre, and the Illusion of Choice
As I mentioned during our latest episode of the NYMG podcast, I’ve been playing Until Dawn, and the game has got me thinking about a few different things that I’d like to spend some time parsing through, like the game’s representation of things like gender and race, how it is that the idea of choice seems to influence the way we think about these representations, and the manner in which our engagement with representation and choice in Until Dawn is situated within the lineage of the horror genre as a whole.
(Spoilers, it may go without saying, to follow.)
I don’t want to spend too much time summarizing the premise of the game, since Sarah’s power hour review (which I highly recommend anyone interested in the game read) does a great job of that. What I will say, though, is that Until Dawn, as a text that seems to occupy an almost hybridized space as an interactive slasher film in which the narrative relies heavily on a multitude of horror genre tropes, allows us to consider how it is that the introduction of choice as a narrative and gameplay device affects the way we might think about how such tropes can be manipulated, challenged, and even perpetuated.
It seems to me that a lot of people talking about the game applaud it for being “genre-changing across the board… in terms of narrative and design innovation” or for allowing “you, the player, [to] finally make all those decisions you’ve been shouting at the screen for so long, every time an idiot does something wrong in a horror film and gets themselves killed as a result.” But do we really get to make all those decisions? Or is what we’re dealing with here, in part, the illusion of choice?
I ask this thinking about one particular interaction between the characters Jess and Emily, a scene in which these two women begin fighting over Mike, Emily’s ex- and Jess’s current boyfriend. In a scene just prior to this, a scene in which we play the character Matt (Emily’s current boyfriend), I was able to navigate a conversation about Matt and Mike’s current and former relationships with Emily so that their interaction ended up being resolved in a “let bygones be bygones” sort of way. The choices I was able to make while playing Matt allowed me to diffuse the situation and avoid confrontation. Not so in the altercation that occurs between Jess and Emily. There doesn’t really seem to be a way to make choices that would result in a more amicable interaction between these two women—because we don’t really get to make choices as either of them during this particular scene. In fact, we witness this confrontation while still playing through Matt, and the only choices we can make during their argument are to choose sides by telling one of the two women to, in essence, knock it off. Thus, instead of “let bygones be bygones,” here, we get “bitches be crazy.”
So what I’m wondering in this case (and many others) is, if Until Dawn is really all about letting us make “all those decisions [we’ve] been shouting at the screen for so long,” why can’t I make the decision to not have Jess and Emily engage in a stereotypical catfight? If the game is all about giving us the opportunity to play all these characters at different points throughout its narrative, why don’t I get to play through this altercation as one of the people engaged in it like I was able to do in the tête-à-tête between Matt and Mike?
I think these are important questions to ask because such scenes reveal, as Sarah also points out in her review, that there are some fairly problematic representations of gender and race in the game. And interrogating these representations is important, especially since I’ve seen, in other discussions of the game, the justification of the use of such tropes as the manner in which the game “pays homage” to the horror genre. And that’s the kind of problematic line of rationalization that I think we’ve seen a lot lately (such as the justification for The Witcher 3’s lack of diversity by saying it’s based on Slavic lore). But why can’t a game pay homage to a genre without having women run around darkened hallways in a towel in order to highlight her vulnerability and without reappropriating Native American iconography in order to establish a “spooky” mood?
What worries me most is that Will Byles, Until Dawn’s creative director, seems to think that the game does work to transcend such stereotypes. Indeed, according to the Los Angeles Times, Byles argues that Until Dawn “doesn’t play into” the horror genre’s sexism:
That old-fashioned misogynistic attitude feels very dated now. This is a balance between four guys and four girls. It’s not like the girls all die and they all die horribly. We’ve avoided the traditional phallic stabbing. It just doesn’t feel contemporary.
That logic scares me. The idea that diversity and representation can be addressed simply through a “balance between four guys and four girls” or through the removal of “traditional phallic stabbing” troubles me. These things feel formulaic, quantitative, mathematic—balancing equations and subtraction. Maybe I’m just not a math person. Or maybe I’m just the kind of person who think that representation and diversity need to be addressed not just through the numbers in the group or through the method of death-dealing but also through the manner in which the characters are developed or the manner in which the setting and tone of the narrative are rendered (among a host of other considerations).
Problematic representations don’t disappear just because players can make a series of choices that saves everyone in the group. They don’t disappear just because everyone can, just maybe, survive until the dawn. Living and dying aren’t the benchmarks for such considerations. It’s the stuff that happens in between—it’s the narrative—that matters. And when that narrative stuff features spooky natives and catty women, then maybe those “old-fashioned” attitudes aren’t as dated as they should be.