28 December 2016

2016: Until Dawn

Until Dawn was something I hadn't paid a lot of attention to when it was released -- my initial impressions were of a bloated, big-budget, QTE-laden rip-off of B-horror films intended to check a few marketing boxes for a PS4 launch exclusive, and then like so many other launch exclusives, sink beneath the waves of successive and more polished games.

But after the death of a friend, I found myself anxious and jittery, unable to focus for long on anything that might have once been relaxing; things that I used to take pleasure in felt flat and colorless, without point. I didn't want to invest in grinding loot collection or building complicated skill-sets or engaging with an emotionally resonant indie title. I just wanted to stare into space. And so a mindless horror game where I simply had to twitch the joystick or punch a button on occasion seemed like a way to fill up the time.

When I booted the game up, a couple things caught my attention. The first was the haunting cover of "O, Death" by singer Amy van Roekel. And because grief is an odd beast that takes refuge where it can, I began to play this song on a loop and found it helped in some way that I still can't articulate.

The other was the involvement of Larry Fessenden, a prolific actor/writer/director of off-kilter indie horror films (The Last Winter and I Sell The Dead are good starting places for his work). Fessenden is well-known in horror circles having produced movies like The Innkeepers, Stake Land, and The House of the Devil, as well showing up in countless others as a character actor, but not the kind of person I'd expect to see involved with a AAA videogame.

Then once the fourth-wall breaking began it quickly became apparent that there were meta-games being played in both the game and narrative structure. I've long been a fan of games where choices have ramifications that can drastically alter the narrative -- as well as a professional interest in seeing how they can be implemented in a dramatically satisfying manner -- so I kept playing, wondering exactly how subtle the game was going to be in playing out these decisions.

My initial reaction to the rest of the game seems to mirror that of many people. Stock characters who are little better than walking, talking tropes of teen horror films. Rote slasher setups and cat in the closet (or wolverine in the closet) scares. A mish-mash of horror cliches that didn't seem to offer much hope for a payoff.

But over time the game grew more layered and interesting. As my decisions stacked on top of each other my headcanon also developed. The meta-games grew more involved and I suspected there was a larger design -- or designs -- at work. The story began to reconfigure itself in interesting ways that made it clear the opening shenanigans were an intentional and fairly sophisticated bit of misdirection.

By the time the game reached its final acts I found myself genuinely invested in the characters and appreciating the unexpected levels of irony and pathos that lay beneath the cabin flooring of QTEs. It was one of the best game experiences I've had this year, and for a time it allowed me to sink my grief into a story of monsters and choices that still resonates deeply with me.