A rare case where using tropes is done right.
Six years ago, one of the most unique horror games hit the market: Until Dawn (2015). Developed by Supermassive Games, and published by Sony, the game offered a unique balance of video game controls and movie storytelling. The game even had a star studded cast that included Rami Malek, Hayden Panettiere, and Peter Stormare. And, the game was given to tropes.
The game wears its influences on its sleeve; creative director Will Bytes said, “There are literally hundreds of movies from which we drew our understanding…” Among the list he gave were horror classics (with classic tropes) like Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).
The game does a great job paying respects to its influences. According to TVTropes.com, Until Dawn contains or fits into over a hundred different tropes, horror and not. From this point on, we will be speaking about some of the tropes seen in the game; thus, we are entering spoiler territory; I highly suggest you go play the game first before reading on.
Two of the tropes featured in the game, the “Final Girl” and “Dumb Blonde” tropes have already been covered in an article published by Kotaku, so we won’t talk about them here.
The first trope is “Ax-Crazy,” which involves there being a character who is psychologically unstable to the point he or she is dangerous to him or herself or others. In Until Dawn, the character Josh fits into this mold, being so off-kilter that he harrasses his friends with a sick prank. Although, arguably, Josh isn’t a danger to others as he states he didn’t want to hurt anyone. This trope is seen in classic slasher films like Friday the 13th (1980), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and American Psycho (2000).
The second trope is “Body Horror,” being a massive subgenre in the greater horror purview. Body Horror entails gross distortions of the body in a variety of ways. We see this in the second half of the game through the now-apparent wendigos, which are human bodies transformed into terrifying beasts. The trope can be seen in the famous chest-burster scene in Alien (1979), as well as the physical appearance of Jason in the Friday the 13th franchise.
The third trope we’ll explore is the “Butterfly of Doom,” which is rooted in the gameplay of Until Dawn. In the beginning of the game, it is explained to you that your choices have consequences; relationships can change, people can die, and you can get multiple endings. This is explained through the “Butterfly Effect”. The game has over a hundred minimally different endings. This trope is seen in Donnie Darko (2001) and the non-horror Back to the Future (1985) franchise.
The fourth trope “Creepy Dolls” only has a small part to play in the game. In chapter 6, two of the characters find a dollhouse with dolls inside that have their eyes ripped out. The dolls are arranged in a way to resemble the opening of the game when the teens pranked Josh’s sister, Hannah. It was used by the Psycho to torment Ashley for the part that she took in the prank. This trope is also seen in films such as Child’s Play (1988) and Annabelle (2014).
The fifth trope is “Let’s Split Up, Gang” which was made famous by the Scooby Doo (1969) franchise. There are eight teens that are on the mountain, yet once they separate early on in the game, they never get all back together. For a majority of the game, there are pairs of characters or a solo character on the screen. This trope is seen in horror movies like The Thing (1982) and Cabin in the Woods (2011).
The final trope we’ll talk about today is “Revenge of the Nerd”. In the beginning of the game, a majority of the cast is actively part of a prank against Josh’s sister, Hannah. This prank ultimately leads to Hannah and Beth’s, Josh’s other sister, death. It is revealed later in the game that the supernatural entity, the wendigo, that is wreaking havoc on the mountain is actually Hannah, who ate her sister’s corpse to survive. Wendigo Hannah has the chance to kill every single character on the mountain, including all eight playable characters and The Stranger, a non-player character. This trope is used scantly, if at all, in the horror genre from what I could find. If done well, as in the case of Until Dawn I think it could be a great trope to explore through the eyes of horror.
All in all, I think Until Dawn was a great game. It used many tropes seen over the decades in horror, but it didn’t fall into the trap of being a cliche ridden mess. The game was genuinely scary and had a story that pulled you in. If you’ve never played the game (yet still read after the spoiler warning) I suggest you grab a copy and play it. You won’t regret it.
Take a peek at the “Until Dawn” game trailer!