I spend a lot of time on this site lamenting the loss of the horror standards of old. Being someone in his late 20’s, this is entirely expected as I enter my “rosy tinted nostalgia glasses/everything was better when I was younger and had no responsibilities” part of life. But every now and again, there is a glimmer, ever so faint, of something that “gets it”, and my shriveled black heart begins to do the closest thing it can to going “pitter-patter” (more of a subdued squishing noise, really). The second most recent time this happened was when I saw the excellent The Cabin in the Woods back in 2012. Even though, on a meta-textual level, it served as an analysis of what makes a good creature feature or slasher work, it was still a wonderful horror experience. Tropes were adapted to fit the modern age, and even subverted for dramatic effect so that the audience is forced to see why that type of character wouldn’t let us get our traumatic jollies (see: Chris Hemsworth’s jock who has a deep understanding on the efficacy of college economics classes). It’s probably my favorite horror movie of the last decade and a half, and until now, nothing has come close to getting that fantastic blend of old tropes in a modern setting.
A couple of weekends ago, however, I had the great pleasure of finishing out my first playthrough of Until Dawn, an interactive horror adventure from Supermassive Games. Now, I’m fully aware that this isn’t a gaming site, but I’m making a declarative override, as Until Dawn is more of a “choose your own adventure” book with occasional button pressing. If you ever played Indigo Prophecy or Heavy Rain, it’s a lot like those games, but less mind-bogglingly dumb. It is also my favorite ~8 hour horror movie of 2015.
The premise of Until Dawn is simple enough. Eight teenagers go back to the spooky and isolated cabin where two of their friends mysteriously disappeared one year prior. There is a possible maniac on the loose, a nearby abandoned sanitorium, a mine that was the place of a horrible accident several decades prior, a goddamn indian burial ground… I mean, if you can picture a spooky thing or location, it is probably somewhere on this highly improbable and practically abandoned mountain. I get the feeling that someone at Supermassive threw every horror script they could get their hands on into a blender, fished out a handful of random scraps, and stapled them to the wall, but weirdly, it works pretty well.
The characters are just as much walking archetypes as the setting is. There’s the nerd, the ladies’ man, the slut, the bitch, the shy girl, the no-nonsense “clearly the protagonist” girl, the jock, and the jokester. But the developers know that what we’re looking for is a return to form. We want to relive the magical combination of scares and camp that has fallen by the wayside. So they took those elements, presented them to us in neat little ordered boxes, and then told us to go nuts.
See, the draw of this game is its (sometimes insultingly obtuse) reliance on the concept of “The Butterfly Effect”. We’ve all heard some iteration of this before, right? A butterfly flaps its wings in China and, through the chain of events that follows, a hurricane happens in Brazil. So the crux of the game is controlling the interactions and decisions of your 8 little pawns. Ideally, you try to make them all make choices that will help them all survive until help arrives at, well, dawn. Each choice has consequences that affect the narrative trajectory of the story, some in small “a character is less of a dick to you down the line” ways, some in large “character gets his head caved in because you forgot to mention one tiny damned thing from about 20 cutscenes ago” ways.
I mean, that’s one way to play. There’s also the (I suspect) far more common method of “letting characters you don’t like die because you are their god and they, your simple playthings”, and hot diggety is it cathartic. I even deliberately kept one of the characters I hated alive as long as possible, because I figured they’d get a more gruesome death if I had some patience (and I was right!). The story’s overall trajectory doesn’t really change, but you get the choice of positioning your pawns just right for when the shit goes down, meaning you get to create your ideal pace for the slaughter. I haven’t gotten this much of an omnipotent rush since the first time I starved a Sim to death because he wouldn’t get busy with the girl next door.
See, what Until Dawn gets incredibly right is that in a good slasher, there is as much an equal chance that you are rooting for the killer as you are for the heroes. I mean, you can’t tell me that when you watch Scream, you wanted Matthew Lillard to make it out of there alive. This creates some great cognitive dissonance between the gamer inside that wants to do everything “right”, and the psycho who lives right next door to that gamer who just wants to watch the world burn. And cognitive dissonance is what good horror is based on. It forces you to examine yourself as you react with glee or terror to the events on screen, and sometimes makes you feel vindicated, or sometimes like an asshole. But it gets you thinking about the primal force driving you, as your higher reasoning desperately tries to maintain some semblance of control and keep you from becoming, you know, a complete sociopath.
This is an experience that breaks very few molds, but what it accomplishes by staying within its established boundaries is an utter delight to experience. If you want a slasher good time, have a PS4 and a few bucks burning a hole in your pocket, I highly recommend getting this title. It’s a must-play for anyone who wants to live out a strange amalgam of And Then There Were None and Halloween. And if you aren’t the kind of person that appeals to, then I don’t even know what you’re doing on this site. Like, go to a trendy cold-brew cafe and argue about Proust or some shit. This isn’t for you. Now, who wants to take bets on when Hollywood completely misses the point and turns this experience into an actual movie? I call October 25, 2019!