In his article, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” Henry Jenkins offers “a middle ground position between the ludologists and the narratologists…examining games less as stories than as spaces ripe with narrative possibility.” 1 Given my identity as a Gothic scholar as well as our close proximity to Halloween, it seems most appropriate for me to explore Jenkins’s “middle ground” through two (fairly) recent horror video games: Until Dawn (2015) and Friday the 13th (2017). Both games use generic images and characters to create a horrifying experience for their players, however, their narrative structures are considerably different. The resulting challenges and benefits from these differences are helpful when considering the storytelling potential of video games 2.
Looking closely at the horror genre to understand how narratives work within video games is particularly useful given the genre’s singular commitment to scare its readers regardless of the medium. Horror video games work to achieve this affective and generic goal through their own particular structures. While some strategies employed in horror films certainly are successfully utilized by horror game designers, other considerations, such as the spatial organization of the game-world and the player’s involvement, must be made.
There exists a sub-genre of the horror film known as “game horror” in which a group of people (often strangers) suddenly find themselves brought together by an unknown entity and are forced to play a terrifying game. 3 Fictions within this genre include Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, And Then There Were None, as well as films like the Saw franchise (2004-17), Cube (1997), and The Belko Experiment (2016). All fictions within the game horror sub-genre include a moment (or moments) in which the characters begin to reveal their true natures via dark secrets and traumatic back-stories in an attempt to understand why they were chosen to play this game. Multiple ethical questions are presented, and the decisions made by the fictive characters as they try to survive the game and solve the puzzle(s) often work to further unveil their true moral natures. Horror video games seem to universally make use of this sub-genre’s features, even when the video game itself may be more appropriately labeled as belonging to other sub-genres, such as the “teen slasher.” 4
Until Dawn (2015)
Until Dawn was released in 2015 and developed by Supermassive Games for PS4. It features eight friends trapped in an isolated cabin stalked by a deadly killer (horror fans should already feel at home). Among these eight friends include familiar characters of the genre, including the ditzy blonde girl (Jess), the jock guy (Matt), the nerd guy (Chris), and the “final girl” (Sam, played by Hayden Panettiere). 5 The game was marketed as an interactive survival horror game in which the player drives the narrative through choices that will determine who lives and who dies. 6 I find this game so interesting because it feels as though the game designers and marketers aimed to produce something that was as close to an immersive horror film as possible. Indie horror auteurs (Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick) helped to write the dynamically complex branching narrative and to design the game’s “realistically terrifying environments.” 7 Hollywood actors, including the aforementioned Panettiere, as well as Rami Malek and Peter Stormare lent both their voices and their likenesses to Until Dawn, causing the game’s avatars to tend towards “uncanny valley” territory. Needless to say, Until Dawn ‘s considerable similarities to the films it claims to pay homage have led many reviewers, critics,
and fans to consider the game as an “interactive horror film” that allows viewers to stop the characters from making bad decisions (rather than simply yell “Don’t open that door!” or “Don’t drop the knife!” to your television screen). 8
Despite the fact that the debate between ludology and narratology is a relatively old one, the proliferation of narratively complex video games like Until Dawn has spawned increased interest in the role of narratives within games 9 Despite Until Dawn‘s overwhelmingly filmic qualities, its structure can only be constructed using the distinct forms of video games. For example, although the game features a cast of characters almost nauseatingly similar to the groups of teenagers that exist within any slasher film, there are major differences. While a slasher film might focus solely on the experience of the final girl, Until Dawn forces its players to play as different avatars throughout the course of the 12-hour game. By playing as these other characters, I identified with them a lot more than I would have if this story was presented as a traditional horror film. While playing as these various characters, the player is often made to make split-second decisions, similar to those which confront characters within the “game horror” tradition. As Jess (the ditzy blonde), I was in the midst of a snowball fight with Mike when the screen suddenly aimed its target at a bird. A timer started to tick. Despite the earlier warning I received from the game’s textual instructions that it is sometimes best not to do anything, I threw a snowball at the bird,
killing it. This decision (like the many others I found myself making throughout the game), had a direct consequence both on my character and the narrative. The other characters who saw what Jess did behaved differently towards her, her personality changed (reflected by her character profile), and the plot changed. The decisions that the player must make for the character include choosing how to respond to dialogue and which actions to perform in a given situation. These decisions are often met with a graphic of a spectral butterfly flying across the screen, referencing the “Butterfly Effect” and informing the player that their decision just changed the narrative course of the game. This means that you can finish the game with all of the characters surviving until dawn, or with none of the characters surviving (simply being the “final girl” archetype does not save Sam as it normally would!).
Along with its branching narrative, Until Dawn creates a uniquely video-game experience through its sound design, which consists of no background music, but instead uses eerie, realistic sounds. The characters’ footsteps on the snowy ground is crunchy, the wind pushing against the wooden cabin and radio tower is deafeningly loud, and doors sometimes slam suddenly, breaking the relative silence. This is an excellent method of achieving the affective goal of frightening its players, as sound is “spatially indeterminate” and can therefore “move into our own space.” 10 The virtual world is familiar to horror fans, featuring creepy basements, ominous forests, and furniture covered in white linen. However, within this familiar world, Until Dawn employs a directed model of spatial navigation, in which players must move through the maze-like levels before exploring other parts of the environment. According to Diane Carr, this sort of navigation is common among horror video games as it helps to build “intensity, tension,
and fright.” 11 Despite my god-like ability to create and destroy relationships and to decide who will and will not survive based upon my choices within the game, I felt a considerable amount of dread moving through the dark passages of the game’s world. I often felt (correctly) that I was being led by the game’s creator directly towards danger.
Friday the 13th (2017)
Unlike Until Dawn, the recent Friday the 13th game is based on a film of the same title. It was developed by IllFonic, and published by Gun Media for PS4, Xbox One and Microsoft Windows. What makes Friday the 13th even more different from Until Dawn is that it is an asymmetrical multiplayer game featuring a semi-open world. This means that up to seven players can play as the teenaged counselors who must survive the vengeful murderous rampage of Jason Voorhees, controlled by an eighth player. Despite being a horror game, it does not employ directed navigational direction and instead allows characters to roam freely throughout the virtual Camp Crystal Lake. Although the players can move when and where they’d like, there are certain tasks that each player must fulfill to win the game. While Jason’s objective is to kill all of the teenagers, the counselors must avoid Jason to survive or escape the camp grounds all while locking doors, finding weapons, and using a radio to call for help. Friday the 13th has a soundtrack similar to one that might be used in a horror film and when Jason comes close to a counselor, loud aggressive music plays, serving both the warn the players and to heighten the players’ fear.
Described as “a gory game of hide-and-go-seek,” there seems to not be much narrative within this game. 12 However, Friday the 13th uses its filmic original to its advantage by infusing the story of Jason Voorhees into the virtual space of the game and evoking the atmosphere of the original narrative. Players bring their own memories of the film with them into the game’s space and the game’s designers “play on those memories and expectations.” 13 As a fan of the film, I knew exactly why I should fear Jason and that Camp Crystal Lake was not a safe location for me, a teenaged camp counselor.
One challenge of Friday the 13th resulted from the game’s lack of depth and the fact that the game allowed players too much freedom in their movements and choices. Soon after the game’s release, legions of self-proclaimed “teamkillers” complained about the repetitiveness of the game and, instead of focusing on escaping or killing Jason, began to purposefully kill the other counselors. 14 This not only destroyed the narrative, but it also drastically altered the affective power of Friday the 13th as a horror game. The sense of control players have over their character can create a sense of empathy for that character and his or her other teammates in the game. This allows the player to identify with their character, creating a deeper sense of dread or fear when their character is in danger. 15 Clearly, this was not the experience of the many “teamkillers” who stalked the virtual campgrounds of Friday the 13th for their unsuspecting prey. Rather than feeling fear, players began to experience frustration. 16
When analyzing video games for their storytelling capacity, it is vital that humanists do not ignore the features that are particular to video games as opposed to other media forms. Their interactive nature allows users to not only enter the game’s narrative architecture, but players can also change characters, alter the story, or ruin others’ affective experiences. The decisions made by game developers regarding the player’s movement through the game’s space, whether it be open or directed, is vital to understanding the narrative. Jenkin’s concept of the “middle ground” between ludology and narratology can be a helpful tool for the humanist who wants to analyze games.
- Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” 2005; Ludologists are video game scholars who insist that their studies should focus on the rules and design of games, while narratologists insist on studying games alongside other media as a storytelling form. ↩
- While I don’t completely side with the so-called narratologists that video games are just another storytelling media, I do believe that video games have the ability to tell stories in a very particular manner ↩
- Keetley, Dawn. “Game Horror, Circle (2015), and Lifeboat Ethics,” (2015). ↩
- Teen slashers feature a mysterious and (typically) supernaturally unstoppable killer who systematically kills teenagers until only the “final girl” remains. Famous teen slashers include Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996). ↩
- The term “final girl” is brilliantly described by Carol J. Clover in her seminal work, Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992). According to Clover, the final girl survives not only through her virtuousness and virginity, but also through her masculinization. ↩
- “Until Dawn” ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Bennett, Brooke. “Until Dawn: What if you could stop people from making bad decisions in slasher films? Well, know you can!” (2017). ↩
- Jagoda, Patrick. “Videogame Criticism and Games in the Twenty-First Century,” American Literary History, 29.1, 1 February 2017, p. 207 ↩
- Carr, Diane. “Play Dead: Genre and Affect in Silent Hill and Planescape Torment,” Game Studies 3.1, May 2003. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Valle, Tyler “Friday the 13th review”. PC Gamer. ↩
- Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” 2005. ↩
- Ponder, Stacie. “In Friday the 13th, the Real Killer isn’t Jason- It’s Your Teammates!” Kotako. ↩
- Madigan, Jamie. “The Psychology of Horror Games.” The Psychology of Games, October 29, 2015. ↩
- This has since been “patched,” but there are still major issues with the game. For more, see Stephen Wilds’s “Friday the 13th Team Killing Change is Welcomed, But Larger Issues Still Persist.” ↩