Warning: This article contains some Until Dawn spoilers
I played Until Dawn in a marathon leapfrog session at my Christmas party last year. My roommates and our friends piled into our living room, and we handed off the controller whenever one of us needed a break from the tension or we needed a fill-up on beer. Bulldozing through is probably the best way to play Until Dawn, which can be completed in eight or nine hours if you’re determined. If you’re a trophy hound or committed to getting a perfect ending, it could take much longer, and maybe even multiple playthroughs.
Until Dawn is an extremely cinematic game. It evokes, purposefully, the feeling of your average teen-protagonist horror movie. As a result, even if you’re not holding the controller, you’re pretty riveted. Its inherent immersiveness, with the fate of the characters literally in the player’s hands, meant that when it was over, the group felt like we’d gone through the trials of the game alongside the characters and lived to tell the tale.
The plot is pretty cliché: eight teenagers (uncannily modeled after very obviously adult actors) vacation at the same remote mountain cabin where that their friends, Hannah and Beth, disappeared a year earlier, in part due to a cruel prank the group played on them (the girls ran into the wilderness, fell off a cliff, and were presumed dead). It’s only a surprise to the characters that they end up under attack from a mysterious force. Their only hope is to survive until morning when rescue will arrive.
Many of the tropes typically found in horror movies are present here: an abandoned hospital, Chekhov’s (flare) gun, lots of body horror, people running around in the woods and in abandoned mines, and of course its teenage cast. Considering the hackneyed premise, and the opening scenes, my group didn’t expect much in terms of the game’s treatment of women. Initially, it seemed to play into stereotypes we all knew, but we were ultimately pleasantly surprised by how those stereotypes turned into archetypes—and how Until Dawn embraced or subverted them.
Depending on what choices you make (and how quickly you react to QTE cues), you can end the game with four women alive. What’s even more remarkable is that more than half the cast is female, and each character is distinct from the others. While my group failed utterly at saving most of them, it is possible, and it’s something I’ll strive for if I ever replay the game—maybe at this year’s Christmas party.
Voiced—and modeled after, in the game’s Uncanny Valley way—Hayden Panettiere, Sam is arguably the game’s most prominent female character. She’s petite and blonde and spends a good majority of the game running around in a towel, so it’s both gratifying and subversive that she’s only really killable at the end of the game.
In terms of archetype, she’s the Final Girl. She’s also the kindest character, and one of the bravest. Sam’s the only character who tried to talk the others out of the prank on Hannah and Beth—the one that led to their disappearance. The juxtaposition of sweet, cute blonde girl in a towel and clever, resourceful girl who makes it to the end is really gratifying.
And the player is never given an excuse or reason to kill her, which isn’t the case for Emily.
Voiced by and modeled off of Nichole Bloom, Emily is so firmly entrenched as the Bitchy Hot Girl that people have literally written articles on why she deserves to die. Most of my party’s kneejerk reaction to her was negative as well. But the more we played, the more we realized how deliberate this was. What does it say about you, the player, if you’re far more willing to let someone die, or even to orchestrate her peril yourself, because you think she’s got a bad attitude? Does being hot and mean—and she is: she’s spiteful after being dumped, gets into multiple fights with her boyfriend, and unleashes a bevy of catty comments—somehow make it okay to kill her?
The biggest subversion with regards to Emily is that she’s portrayed as extremely smart (with a 4.0 GPA) and very resourceful. I found myself fiercely protective of her as she determinedly finds solutions to problems, puzzles out what happened to Hannah and Beth, attempts to get help, and is the one to find crucial information, all of this despite endless peril—and opportunities for the player to let her die.
Why wouldn’t you want Emily, who is both the Bitchy Hot Girl and the Accidental Hero, on your side?
Modeled after actress Meaghan Martin, Jessica is in many ways relegated to Love Interest status; she’d be the Bitchy Hot Girl if Emily hadn’t already claimed that mantle. She’s also somewhat infamously the hardest to keep alive. She and her boyfriend, Mike, spend most of the game making out or trying to get it on, and then she’s kidnapped, completely absent from the game—if she’s even alive—until close to the end. If she’s killed early, it happens right after she’s interrupted in the course of getting intimate with Mike, and depending on how you play, she can be murdered in her underwear.
We do see some shades of characterization and vulnerability under her predictable facade (she’s flirty and an aspiring model, but she also loves animals and admits to using her sex appeal as a shield). She’s also, it’s worth noting, the instigator of the prank against Hannah and Beth.
Jessica’s expendability and lack of screen time is an issue. She’s far too disposable as a token Love Interest (and Dumb Blonde to boot), and it’s only a minor comfort to know that there are three other major female characters to pick up the slack.
Ashley, based on Galadriel Stineman, is the Geek of the group. She’s nursing a crush on Chris, the other geek in the group, is an extremely curious person, and spends most of the game visibly terrified. Despite her inquisitiveness (which leads to the discovery of clues), she’s probably the most cowardly of the lot and is not particularly quick on her feet.
When playing as Chris, you’re faced with killing Ashley multiple times: first you choose between saving her and another character, Josh, when there’s a threat of death by sawblade, and then later you decide whether or not to shoot her. Notably, no matter what’s decided in either encounter, Ashley lives.
Ashley’s terrified but generally nice nature is undercut with something far less harmless. She’s ready to throw another character to the metaphorical wolves to save herself, she participated in the prank against Hannah and Beth, and depending on the player’s choices, she can even let another character die.
She’s certainly multi-dimensional as a curious, pining, and vulnerable girl, and it’s understandable that at least one character would be actively, continually terrified by the events of the night. Not every character needed to be as nice as Sam or as proactive as Emily, and I’m glad Ashley exists to fill that space.
Horror and survival games have long been a place to find dynamic female characters and protagonists. From Heather Mason in Silent Hill 3 to Claire Redfield in the Resident Evil series (not to mention Jill Valentine and Ada Wong), all the way to Ellie in The Last of Us, the women in horror-survival games frequently outlast and outlive their male counterparts.
While the prevalence of great female leads in the horror-survival genre is great, I also don’t want to ignore the reality that women are still cannon fodder or outright fridged all the time. You can slaughter many of the women in Until Dawn, too. But while the game hit a lot of the same tired tropes we’re used to—Bitchy Hot Girls, nice girls allowed to live until the end—they turned those tropes on their head by giving their female characters depth and competency. At least for the most part.
I love horror, and lots of women love horror. For me, it’s because we’re allowed to be frightened and competent in the same breath. We’re allowed to be victorious. Female characters are so frequently imperiled in media—threatened with sexual violence, domestic violence, and general menace—that engaging with them in situations where they’re inherently under duress takes some of the pressure off. We know we’re supposed to be tense and afraid. The threat is immediate and obvious, not casual or insidious as it might be in another genre. I’m far more willing to overlook torture porn and other violence if it’s out in the open and explicitly meant to terrify or move the audience.
Plus with such a solid roster of female characters, in Until Dawn and beyond, I don’t always have to settle for just being sidelined, tormented, or killed.
In horror, women can frequently save the day, or at least survive by the skin of their teeth.