Sometimes video games aren’t meant to empower or immerse, but for something much more primal: to scare the crap out of you. Playboy’s Fear and Loading series peers down dark hallways and checks under gaming’s bed to find the games that terrify us, and delves into how and why they work.
By releasing interactive horror movie/video game Until Dawn in August, sans promotion, Sony demonstrated its lack of faith in the game. Instead of taking advantage of a month where ghastly decorations, movies, and games are anticipated, even expected, they sent it to a heat death just before the end of summer.
This is unfortunate, because if there’s even a small part of your brain that loves the horror genre, Until Dawn will give you something delicious to gnash on during a wind-chilled, pumpkin-spiced night. It also might be the best Scooby-Doo game you’ll ever play. Bear with me for a moment.
You’ll be guiding eight shitty teenagers (played by actors in their late-20s and early-30s, just like Hollywood!) through a perfectly clichéd slasher movie set-up: an isolated lodge in a frigid Canadian forest. A party prank went awry a year ago, and the group has come together once again to make amends. Before long, the Butterfly Effect mechanic (in which you make small decisions that eventually decide each character’s fate) hints that something wrong is afoot on this secluded mountain. A bit of searching leads you to totems left behind by indigenous peoples, which trigger quick, deadly glimpses into the future. Curiously, nobody mentions the fact they just had a horrible premonition about one of their friends dying. Velma would disapprove.
And then you start finding the clues: a broken glass case with a missing fire axe, a loaded rifle forgotten near a cable car station, a wanted poster mentioning death threats with just the picture torn off. Jinkies! While you’re babysitting these terribly fragile teens, you focus on this evidence, trying to decipher which of these are red herrings. Something’s off here, and you start to investigate, not unlike the Scooby gang throughout their decades of mystery-solving.
Conspicuously-placed clues, hidden bookshelf buttons leading to secret rooms, and the overall “Whodunit” atmosphere make it easy to start role-playing as Mystery, Inc. themselves. Though Until Dawn features a regrettable lack of talking dogs, all of the rest of the pieces fit. The dorky Chris can be your stand-in for Shaggy, though you won’t see him drinking laundry soup or acting like a thinly-veiled stoner at any point. Mike will be your Fred, meat-headed but determined. Jessica and her tendency to get into trouble makes her the perfect Danger-Prone Daphne. Level-headed Sam always knows exactly what to do. She’ll be our Velma.
Exploring the lodge is harrowing because we suspect that something awful is going to happen eventually. But alhough the choices you’re making early on are setting the stage for what’s to come in the latter half of the game, the only immediate repercussions are toothless jump scares. Your simulated Scooby gang will continue to unravel what’s going on. Clues that seem a tad too obvious keep popping up. The one person you’re probably suspecting at this point is looking fishier by the minute. But it doesn’t all line up. Our teens split up early on, and something’s been chasing all of them. There have even been times in the forest where the camera takes on the role of a voyeur, complete with what looks like thermal vision, eerily watching these horny kids from afar. And what about the displays of superhuman strength? Jessica was wrenched through a window, like, zoinks!
So when the Psycho is unmasked—in true Scooby Doo style, it was someone they knew all along—not all of our questions are answered. Their motive makes sense, but how was this person in so many places at once? What aren’t we being told? Where are the Scooby Snacks?
NOW WITH FREDDIE PRINZE JR.
This is where the “gamut” in the headline comes in. At this point, we need to make the distinction between Scooby-Doo episodes and Scooby-Doo movies. In the show, there was almost always a logical explanation for the spooky goings-on; a projectionist was using his talents to scare people in the dilapidated movie theatre, or the president of the bank is dressing up as The Creeper to keep people from noticing that he was robbing his own bank. Though the gang is initially afraid, logic always prevails and the supernatural is always dismissed.
Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island threw a wrench into this idea. This animated movie showed an older Mystery, Inc. that dissolved as time went on, tired of every case ending with another criminal in a monster costume. Daphne and Fred now have a successful show where they look for historical landmarks, but they miss the old gang. They decide to rustle everyone back together to find a real ghost, and end up finding more than they bargained for. Zombies and werecats turn out to be very real and very dangerous. One wonders why they didn’t call it Scooby-Doo: Shit Just Got Real. For the next few years, the films continued this trend of for-really-reals monsters.
Back to Until Dawn. Our walking stereotypes soon become privy to the fact that no, the Psycho is not the only threat in these woods. Indeed, something has been chasing them—something inhuman. Those totems suddenly make sense when you realize that this mountain is infested with…wendigos.
Yes, Wendigos, the flesh-craving creatures of Algonquian legend that were born when one human ate another. They’re pale, emaciated humanoids with limbs longer than limbs should be.
Transitioning from a human antagonist to a supernatural one deftly ramps up the tension in both narrative and gameplay mechanics. Just like those Scooby-Doo movies, any pretense of safety is thrown into a wood chipper the moment that it turns out that humans aren’t always the real monsters. Hanna-Barbera would never kill off their characters (can you imagine the outrage?), but Until Dawn has no such reservations. Once you learn about the wendigos, the potential for your characters to die increases dramatically. The wrong choice will lead to death. Prepare to see Chris get his head yanked off if you’re too slow.
Supermassive Games played the role of Doctor Frankenstein here, taking the viscera of the horror genre and stitching it into the narrative framing of a mystery that Scooby and the Gang would find themselves solving. This ghoulish concoction is enticing in a way that many (including Sony, it would seem) never expected. If you need Halloween plans, I suggest playing this on a big screen with a group of friends, taking group votes for every decision. Your own little gang of intrepid explorers can get to the bottom of this, but be prepared for the worst.
Meddling kids, indeed.
Zack Furniss can usually be found at Destructoid, where he writes primarily about horror games and geeks out about Dungeons & Dragons. When he’s not writing, he’s remodeling homes. You can call him a Zack-of-all-trades, but he’ll probably roll his eyes.
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