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Until Dawn: a Modern Gothic Horror Game By Kevin Swijghuizen

Disclaimer: this article features plot spoilers.

Until Dawn is a horror game recently released for Playstation 4. The game leans heavily on a variety of gothic elements in order to give its story the necessary tension and scary atmosphere that a modern  horror game needs.[1] Naturally, Until Dawn isn’t the first medium to be using gothic elements in order to create a horror story. The gothic genre was used by authors as far back as the mid-1700s and elements of it have been used ever since. For instance, Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto in 1764 and is considered to have supplied the foundation for other gothic narratives. This article will take a closer look at the various elements that are part of the gothic in order to analyse which elements are used and how they are used in Until Dawn to create an effective horror story.

The Gothic
First of all, it is important to establish what elements are part of the gothic trope in order to be able to accurately identify which elements of Until Dawn can be considered gothic. The setting of a gothic story is key for setting the tone of the narrative. For this reason gothic narratives tend to feature a large, isolated  mansion of some sort. Originally the authors would have used castles in their narratives, like in The Castle of Otranto, but that shifted relatively quickly, in for instance Wuthering Heights, to also include manor houses and the like.[2]

Untitled

Furthermore, a mysterious and suspenseful atmosphere is also a key aspect of the gothic genre. During the entire narrative the reader, or player in the case of a video game, has the idea that something is not quite right. This usually manifests itself into elements of the supernatural and inexplicable events being interwoven into the narrative. This results in a suspenseful  atmosphere in which the reader is kept on edge because they are unable to anticipate what is going to happen next.[3] Another aspect of the gothic genre is that it usually features, in one form or another, a woman in distress. Unfortunately, this form of stereotyping the female characters as being weaker compared to the male ones is an aspect that is often used in gothic narratives. Said female will find herself in a precarious position and it is up to the, usually male, character to help her out of her predicament.[4]

Overwrought emotions are another trope that is a big part of the gothic genre. The characters go through great paroxysms of, amongst others, fear and terror throughout the narrative. This naturally works in conjunction with the frightening and tense atmosphere to really set the tone of the narrative and cement it as a gothic work. [5]

Terror vs Horror
Furthermore there is a division that can be made in the gothic genre, namely that of Terror and Horror. Both words conjure up terrifying images but in the context of the gothic both terms relate to different aspect of the gothic narrative. Horror in a gothic narrative refers to the very overt ways in which narrative tries to scare or unsettle its audience. Terror on the other hand is, in a way, far more sinister because it refers to the way in which the atmosphere of a gothic narrative tries to scare the audience without really showing anything that is out of the ordinary. As D. P. Varma explains: “The difference between Terror and Horror is in the difference between awful apprehensions and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling upon a corpse.”[6] In other words Horror is, usually, the natural progression from Terror as the unsettling atmosphere abruptly switching to some form of horrific discovery or event.

Finally, as mentioned before, the supernatural also plays a very large role in the gothic genre. The inclusion of something that is beyond the scope of human comprehension really lends itself well to enhancing the frightening atmosphere that is already established by all the other elements. [7] The addition of the supernatural helps intensify the emotions that the gothic narrative conjures up in its audience because of the fact that it is so far removed from the average normal human experience.[8] Naturally, the gothic genre isn’t constrained to just these elements. However, the aforementioned elements are part of the key gothic tropes that define Until Dawn as a modern day horror game and solidly cement it in the gothic tradition. Moreover, as Keech points out: “The term ‘Gothic,’ as I see it, consequently means a response, or effect, of fear characterized by foreboding and intensity rather than a set of traditional stock devices.”[9] Thus, whilst all these aforementioned elements are very much part of the gothic genre, at its core the gothic genre is more about the feelings of fear and dread that it evokes in its audience than it is about these literary tropes.

Until Dawn´s Gothic Elements, the setting
Now that the relevant gothic characteristics have been established, it is time to see how these characteristics  come together to shape the narrative of Until Dawn. As mentioned before, the setting is one of the main identifying features of any gothic narrative and Until Dawn is no exception. The entire game is played out on top of a mountain. The eight protagonists, a group of friends who go on yearly excursions to a mansion built on this mountain, are effectively cut off from civilization due to the remoteness of their mountain retreat. This results in a rather large part of the game being set in a remote mansion which fits the gothic cliché of a large, spooky and isolated building. However, the narrative of the game does not merely restrict itself to the mansion. Two of the protagonists remove themselves from the greater group and hang out in an, even more, isolated log cabin. As the narrative progresses even further the protagonists also explore an old abandoned sanatorium and a defunct mining complex. All of these locations fit perfectly within the gothic: although they aren’t quite the castle setting that the original gothic narratives used, they fit well within the atmosphere that is so quintessential for the gothic experience.

until-dawn spooky location

Atmosphere
The atmosphere of the story is the single most important part of the gothic narrative. As mentioned before, the Terror part of the gothic heavily influences the atmosphere and ensures that the audience is kept on edge and scared of what might come next. Until Dawn channels this Terror in two different ways due to the way in which the narrative consists out of two different parts. The early part of the game very much revolves around the premise that there is a psychopath on the mountain together with the eight protagonists who is hell-bent on murdering them. The other half of the game revolves around wendigos that roam the mountain, preying on humans in order to still their hunger for human flesh. A wendigo is a creature that, according to Algonquian -one of the native American tribes- legends, humans turn into after they are reduced to cannibalism.

Golem's creepy brother

Until Dawn combines these two threads to weave together a truly gothic narrative. Both antagonists are gradually introduced as the narrative develops. At first it is unclear who or what is the true antagonist of Until Dawn. Near the beginning of the story, our protagonists split up and both groups are pursued by what appears to be, at first, the same antagonist. It is not until later that it becomes clear that there are both a psychopath and wendigos on top of the mountain. When the characters sense that something is amiss, they radio in for help, only to be informed that help cannot come until dawn. Thus, throughout the entire narrative the characters have to try and stay alive until help can arrive. This, combined with the eerie set pieces in which the narrative is played out and because it is very possible for all eight protagonists to die, horribly, at any point during the story the atmosphere of Until Dawn is both very tense and fearful. Thus, the Terror part of the narrative leans heavily on the feeling of the characters being pursued by something that is more than human. Be it the psycho who shrugs of a stab wound inflicted by one of the characters or the wendigos which are quite literally more than human.  Naturally this shifts towards gothic Horror whenever the wendigos, or the psycho actually appear on the screen. Furthermore, the potentially brutal deaths of the protagonists are also very much part of the Horror aspect of the gothic narrative. All these elements combined lead to an atmosphere that is very much befitting of a gothic horror story.

Damsel in distress
The damsel in distress trope is also something that comes back in Until Dawn. Several times throughout the story, one of the female characters has to rely on one of the male characters to come to their aid. Thankfully, there also moments when female characters act independently from the male ones in order to, for instance, save themselves . The clearest example of this is when two of the characters, Mike and Jessica, are separated from the group and Jessica is abducted by one of the wendigos.

jessica abducted

It is up to Mike to come to her rescue and it is even possible for Jessica to die a gruesome death if Mike is unable to come to her aid swiftly enough.

heroic mike

While the inclusion of the damsel in distress trope might be a bit antiquated for modern standards, it still has its place in the gothic genre and therefore it does help establish Until Dawn as a game that is part of the  gothic tradition.

Emotions
The inclusion of overwrought emotions is another classic sign of Until Dawn being part of the gothic genre. Due to the nature of the narrative, all the characters find themselves in a terrifying and highly stressful situation. After all, if they are not able to avoid the wendigos, they will most certainly perish before help can arrive. This leads to some, for both the characters and the player, terrifying moments when the characters come face to face with their supernatural foes. It is this overwhelming fear that the game instils in its characters that very much contributes to the gothic experience. If the characters, for instance, would take everything in stride and not show any fearful emotions what so ever that would instantly detract from the gothic atmosphere that a horror game needs to be convincing and scary. As Keech points out:

“In order for the abbey, tower, tomb, skeleton, or ghost to activate the imagination and evoke the sense of fear, an appropriate atmosphere must be created. This atmosphere is   primary to the necessary effect. With the proper atmosphere a child’s playhouse can be chillingly terrifying and a castle safe, warm, beautiful, and romantic.”[10]

Therefore the emotions that the characters portray also play a key role in establishing the atmosphere that is sorely needed for a game like this to be a proper gothic horror game.

The supernatural
Finally, the inclusion of the supernatural is what firmly cements Until Dawn as a gothic horror game. The wendigos in the narrative fill the role of a supernatural adversary admirably. Not only do they function as an antagonist who is, in many ways, superhuman but their wily nature also serves to keep the player on edge as they progress through the game because he or she can never be sure when a wendigo will rear its, quite literally, ugly head. The terrifying nature of the wendigo is only enhanced when it becomes obvious that these creatures were once human themselves. As a matter of fact, one of the wendigos is the sister of one of the main characters, who was presumed dead after she and her sister fell into one of the abandoned mine shafts. Her being a wendigo also indicates that she was forced to cannibalise her own sister, which adds a whole new disturbing layer to the narrative. Because the wendigos are beyond the realm of normal human understanding, they are very effective in adding to the terrifying atmosphere that is so very crucial in a gothic narrative. Furthermore, they add much needed Horror moments to the story due to the gruesome and hideous nature of their appearance and the horrifying way in which they mutilate their victims.

Conclusion: gothic roots
Thus, via its use of these various gothic elements, it is obvious that Until Dawn is very much part of the gothic tradition. It uses classes characteristics that have been used by writers of gothic fiction for hundreds of years. The setting of Until Dawn, the isolated mountain mansion,  is properly gothic, and the supporting creepy structures might not be a proper gothic castles, but they definitely serve to provide a proper scary atmosphere for the game. Furthermore, the inclusion of women who are in dire need of rescue and the presence of a creepy psychopath and terrifying wendigos only intensify the fearful mood of the game. The atmosphere is the culmination of all these other elements combined and is crucial for setting the tone of the work and is arguably the single most important element of a work of gothic fiction. Without a sufficiently scary and tense atmosphere the entire concept would fall flat on its face. Thus, it is the Terror in a gothic narrative that is crucial in setting the right tone. Whilst horror games wouldn’t be horror games without the use of gothic Horror the Horror elements would fail to leave much of an impression if they aren’t combined with a suitable amount of Terror. Dawn manages to walk to the fine line between keeping a sufficiently scary atmosphere that is regularly spiced up by proper Horror moments like a wendigo appearing out of nowhere to maul someone or by having the psycho chase one of the characters. The feeling that death can be around any corner helps to cement the Terror aspect of the game and serves to intensify the terrifying Horror moments when they occur. It is this balance  between Until Dawn’s Terror and Horror that is instrumental in creating a convincing scary gothic horror game.

 

Works Cited

[1] Fessenden, Larry and Graham Reznick. Until Dawn. Supermassive Games. 25 August 2015.

[2] Harris, Robert. “Elements of the Gothic Novel”. VirtualSalt.com. 15 June 2015. Web. 9 November      2015

[3] Harris, Robert. “Elements of the Gothic Novel”. Idem.

[4] Harris, Robert. “Elements of the Gothic Novel”. Idem.

[5] Harris, Robert. “Elements of the Gothic Novel”. Idem.

[6] Varma, D. P.. The Gothic Flame. New York: Russel and Russel (1996): 130. Web. 9 November                2015

[7] Harris, Robert. “Elements of the Gothic Novel”. Idem.

[8] Keech, James M.. “The Survival of the Gothic Response”. Studies in the Novel 6.2 (1974): 130–             144. Web. 9 November 2015.

[9] Keech, James M.. “The Survival of the Gothic Response”. Idem.

[10] Keech, James M.. “The Survival of the Gothic Response”. Idem.