Friday, September 29, 2017

GAMING: The Aftermath of "Until Dawn"

Note: This contains spoilers for the entirety of Until Dawn, so if you haven't played it and want to stay surprised, you might want to skip this piece for now.

Hey, I finished Until Dawn, and I managed to save three people.

Yeah, I could have done better if I'd been a little more wary of the screen's behests to not move. Those controllers are sensitive. You literally can't breathe. But all things considered? That's kind of amazing.

I've talked in the past, both with regards to this game and the new Tomb Raider installments, about how gaming is becoming a lot more personal. For one thing, it's harder to tell what's a cut scene and what's under your control, so your nerves are constantly on edge. For another, games like Until Dawn that rely less on skill and more on decision-making in the heat of the moment allow you to experience the world of the game on a personalized level, rather than having to be "good enough" to be allowed to watch the story unfold.

(I have small Cuphead gripes -- let's just say I'll be watching a lot of let's plays of that because I know my failings.)

There's a lot going on here psychologically, though -- even more than the obvious. The horror continually moves the goalposts, purporting to be about one thing, flipping the script and showing it's about another, then... oh, surprise, it actually sort of is about the first thing but Not Like That. It would have been very easy to turn a story of teenage revenge into a zombie flick with absolutely no through-line, but the world-building is deeper than that.

The Deal with Dr. Hill

Peter Stormare's Dr. Hill was -- at least for me -- almost as scary as the late-reveal wendigos that served as the game's paranormal element. And it was partly the fact that, for a long time, we had no idea what he was doing there. At first he appeared to be little more than a device, a non-diegetic element that existed solely to bridge the gap between game and player. Which, all things considered, I would have accepted. His performance was eerily off-putting, and he was used just enough to get the job done while still retaining an air of mystery for most of the game.

Discovering that he is an in-game element -- that he's a doctor from the long line of doctors who treated prankster Josh's mental illness, and now a hallucination -- makes his usage in the game frankly even better. The breakdown happens slowly from a visual standpoint, with the color palette shifting slightly every time we see him and elements from the world of the mountain creeping into his office.

All that said, though, his presence does end up being primarily to bridge the gap between game and player -- not between a "heroic" character like Sam or Mike, but between us and Josh. One of Dr. Hill's early comments to us (in Josh's shoes) is a dissatisfaction with the "game we're playing." Double meaning, we discover later when we learn of Josh's plan, but enough to make us feel watched. Because even though we know consciously that someone scripted that line, an in-game character acknowledging the person beyond the screen rocks our sensibilities. It breaks the fourth wall without breaking the immersion, and effectively dictates that, despite the controller in our hands, the game is reality. Add that to having to think as fast and hold as still as the characters onscreen to avoid death by wendigo, and you really are all in.

Granted, Until Dawn isn't a self-aware game -- this isn't like Chara in Undertale winking out at you. But it feels that way for a moment. That, combined with the fact that your fears (should you answer Dr. Hill honestly, which you really should for peak fear factor) begin to manifest more and more as the game goes on, puts you in the shoes of the one character in the game whose shoes you'd probably least like to be in.

Despite that being his prime directive, Dr. Hill does serve another purpose: he reminds us, rather annoyingly at times, that we don't always necessarily stick to our guns in panic situations. We're asked regularly to choose between two fears or two characters. A few sessions later he may come back and note that, despite what you said, that's not what you did. A prime example of this is the fact that I actually made active decisions to save Emily, my least favorite character, even in positions where I had the chance to get her killed.

Stressful situations bring out different sides of us. And this game is no exception.

The Past Eats Us Alive

The first easy descriptor of Until Dawn seems to be "We thought it was about a vengeful ghost, but surprise, it's actually about monsters down a mine shaft and the vengeance stuff was incidental." To which, well... not really. In any respect. Either literal or symbolic.

Let's take it point by point. The curse of the wendigo reawakens whenever someone resorts to cannibalism. When Hannah survived her fall down the mine after the twins ran from the lodge, she chose (albeit unhappily) to resort to eating her sister to avoid starving to death. No prank, no cannibalism, no wendigo.

The rise of the supernatural threat of the game is inherently linked to the characters' decision to mock Hannah for her crush on Mike. Had they just had a nice weekend at the lodge, the story of the miners and the story of the protagonists would never have intersected. But, of course, butterfly effect. Prank Hannah, Hannah and Beth run away, Beth dies and Hannah survives... you get the idea.

Something interesting -- or perhaps a little disturbing -- that I noticed throughout my various decision-making calls was that rarely, if ever, was a character called upon to make a solid statement on Hannah's feelings after the prank. In my playthrough, Sam was the only one who devoted any real time or emotion to speculation on that. Even Josh was driven primarily by vendetta. Any commentary you were asked to make tended to be on how the rest of the group ought to feel about the situation... not on the situation itself.

I don't necessarily believe that the group had no feelings for Hannah. It was definitely demonstrated that there was remorse and sadness to a degree. But the actions of the group throughout the course of the game focus on each individual's guilt and coping mechanism. Hannah, the victim, becomes window dressing.

So it's sort of appropriate that neither of our "undead" versions of her in the game had any real agency. The ghost "Hannah" rigged up by Josh was a mannequin he operated like a puppet: not her seeking revenge, but him seeking revenge through her. And as a wendigo, she is no longer herself. Whenever she comes after the group in any form, it's not her -- it's either someone's idea of her, or lingering remains that aren't even her anymore.

Now, before anyone tries to drag me for saying a dead female character in a video game lacks agency, that's not a criticism. It is fascinating. Because it says so much about the mindset of all the other characters and the theme of this game. Hannah can't seek revenge, and we have no way of knowing if she even would. Even though she's central to the story, it isn't her story. It's the story of how her friends cope with the knowledge that they were complicit in her death, and whether or not they let that knowledge destroy them.

Or whether it could destroy them...

The Two Hannahs

The un-character of Hannah in the game's present day, as I mentioned, takes two forms: the wendigo that her body has become, and the ghostly images Josh prepares for his friends via projector and props. We see her in photo clues, but there's no real-time interaction with her as a being capable of thought.

As much of an instigator as she is for this story, it's not hers. She's an aspect of it, but in the end nothing about her truly matters. As I said above, it's a story of guilt, and of how each individual chooses to deal with her loss. Normally that would make sense -- it's how we all mourn -- but there's an edge to it: the opinions from each character on how the others should feel.

Josh is, of course, the most forward with his. But there's something notable about his threats and his Hannah: neither can really hurt anyone. Not directly. His Hannah is a prop. His threats are props. Really freaking elaborate ones, though. I mean damn, dude. Seriously.

The ghost, the initial threat, is a non-issue. It's a scare, something to bring the feelings to the surface. And once they're there... well, everything else is pretty much self-inflicted. And by "self," I mean the character as operated by the player.

No, of course we don't know that's what we're doing. And it would be extremely hard to know which choice or which bungled QTE would lead to a gruesome death. Because seriously? I thought that whole dang tower coming down on top of Matt and Emily pretty much offed them.

The point is this: the ghost of Hannah, Josh's revenge, could never have directly harmed them. But the wasting memory -- the image of guilt -- absolutely could. And it's up to each character on their own whether it does.

It's not a ghost story. It's not a monster story. It's a story of personal redemption. And when the house (an old favorite of Jung's as a symbol of oneself) goes up in flames (an old standard symbol of purification) and the rescue 'copters come in, we count the bodies and see who survived and who can go on with their lives.

There's absolutely more to be said about Until Dawn than I have. Game Theory did a great video on Josh as the game's tragic hero, and repeat plays with new scenes uncovered would likely reveal new thematic points. And that's not even touching on the deep butterfly imagery -- so important to Hannah that she tattooed it on herself, one of the few things that distinguished her from her twin.

If you've read this write-up without playing the game for some reason, I highly recommend you give it a go. You can grab it for PS4 on Amazon.

>> Official Until Dawn Website