Until Dawn, a game about a group of unlucky teenagers staying in a cabin on a remote mountain, is actually a single-player game. It’s like a multiplayer game, though, because it successfully emulates what it feels like to watch a horror movie, which is a shared experience. It brings people together and sparks conversation. What’s more beautiful than that?
You know that moment you grab hold of a friend’s hand as the serial killer’s about to round a corner? Or the sound of a packed movie theatre, a chorus of whimpers and gasps, reacting to the homicidal maniac as they drive their giant kitchen knife into the victim’s belly over and over again? The grotesque sensationalism of the horror movie experience engages the audience, but it’s also the driving force propelling the audience to engage with one another. That’s also what Until Dawn does.
The horror movie experience invites the viewer to engage even though the character on screen won’t respond. Have you ever shouted instructions or words of caution at a clueless teenager traipsing about the screen? Have you ever thrown your hands up in frustration and vented to someone about how that same teenager, now chopped into a billion little pieces, perished because they failed to listen to your sagely advice? When a horror movie character refuses to acknowledge the viewer and makes one poor decision after the next, it’s nice to have someone to complain to. Horror movies are more interactive than almost any other kind of film, and Until Dawn understands why. As we would if we were watching a horror movie, my boyfriend and I grew closer while playing Until Dawn.
In Until Dawn, the characters aren’t gun slingers or expertly trained killers. They’re regular people just trying to survive a sticky situation and they’ve no proper way to defend themselves against incredibly lethal monsters. The characters are often forced to rely on their own wits and resourcefulness. My boyfriend and I were responsible for the well-being of those characters, but we felt vulnerable too.
My boyfriend is a burly guy who holds a black belt in karate. I’m petite and very neurotic. He’s not a naturally anxious person, but he frequently bolted at the jump scares throughout the game. I never knew he was so easily startled, which amused me to no end. In one of our play sessions, the two of us yelped at a crow whizzing across the screen. This random event resulted in a string of curse words followed by a fit of hysterical laughter. We were comfortable with being uncomfortable and expressing that discomfort around each other. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had created a safe space.
His presence was a comfort to me whenever I got too anxious. I love horror games and movies, but sometimes they’re too much and I end up panicking because of my anxiety disorder. When the ghost of Josh Washington’s sister was creeping about, I felt completely overwhelmed and had to pass the controller over to my boyfriend. He nodded and said nothing as he took the controller and finished the episode. He knew I needed a break, but didn’t judge me for it. It was nice not having to face jump scares and other spooky elements alone. He was there and we were trudging through that horror experience together.
Until Dawn became something we could conquer together as a team. During our second play-through, we tried to save every single teenager despite how annoyingly self-absorbed some of them were. We searched high and low for totems, items that revealed visions of events to come. If we had some indication as to what would happen in the near future, surely we could avoid it or come up with a workaround. My boyfriend and I even went so far as to follow online guidelines because we wanted to discover every clue the game had to offer. I usually sat hunched over his iPad as he played, scouring over the device as if it were a crystal ball. It became something of an obsession. Why did we care so much about those teenagers? Did we work ourselves to the bone because we knew we could step in and save them from an untimely death?
In working together as a team, we discovered our strengths. I was good at the quick time events because of my hand-eye coordination skills, but he had the patience to thoroughly explore each and every room for the clues needed to achieve a successful ending. We made discoveries together, a beautiful experience, and relied on each other’s skills to conquer the game. In another one of our play sessions, we discovered personal files detailing Josh’s therapist appointments. The files gave us a more complex idea of his character and his role as the antagonist. The files were missed the first time because they were in a dark and uninteresting room and I’m not a very keen explorer. It was like playing a new game.
I had low expectations of Until Dawn. I expected a cast of one dimensional characters and a recycled plot. What happened instead was a meaningful experience between two players. The game now makes me think of someone I love very much. It’s tethered to memories I’ll cherish for a long time. It’s the best multiplayer game of the year.
Ashley Barry writes for several pop culture websites. Her freelance work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gadgette, The Mary Sue, Not Your Mama’s Gamer, FemHype, Bitch Flicks, and Luna Luna Magazine. She also manages a YouTube channel called Hyrule Hyrulia. Her channel features interviews with Ashly Burch, Patrick Klepek, Nina Freeman, and more.