Until Dawn: When female video game characters turn into horror movie tropes


Tegan Jones

"Defenders of the game will argue that the developer, Supermassive Games, has created a homage, thus explaining why such ...

"Defenders of the game will argue that the developer, Supermassive Games, has created a homage, thus explaining why such stereotypes are showcased."

The act of paying homage can be a truly great form of artistic expression. It can also be used to excuse a whole manner of misbehaviour, particularly when it comes to the horror genre.

The latest game to be born out of adulation of classic survival horror films tropes is the Sony exclusive Until Dawn. Erring heavily on the side of a playable narrative, the defining feature of this title is the use of the 'Butterfly Effect'. The choices that players make throughout the game can significantly change how the story plays, as well as who lives and dies. Although this mechanic isn't particularly unique and has been over utilised in recent history, it is executed incredibly well and promotes discussion and replayability. Two players may have completely different experiences due to the choices they make or their failure to hit a button in a timely fashion, and that's fascinating.

Unfortunately, this is where the innovation and thought provocation ends. Critics have been praising Until Dawn despite its obvious flaws. However, one in particular seems to be markedly absent from the vast majority of mainstream reviews – the representation of women. In a game where the narrative in constantly evolving, it's a shame that female characters aren't afforded the same consideration. In a move that is reminiscent of iconic movies of the past three decades, the ladies of Until Dawn are relegated to either barely existent or trope-driven roles that are pathetic or irritating at best and downright offensive at worst.

There are arguably three categories that the female characters of Until Dawn fall into. Firstly, those whose raison d'êtres are to advance the plot or be catalysts for the actions of a man. In this case, Hannah, Beth and Ashley. Secondly, the nasty popular girls who often pervade teen horror films, Emily and Jessica. Naturally, these two characters hate each other and spend a significant portion of their screen time in a perpetual bitch fight over a guy. Emily is a particular disappointment in this case as her bio describes her as being highly intelligently, although this trait is noticeably absent in the gameplay. Both of these characters have incessantly whiney voices that seemed to be designed purely to fuel hatred for the characters.

Lastly there is Sam, who is played and voiced acted by Hayden Panettiere. Perhaps the only truly admirable female characters, her over abundance of positive traits are unsurprisingly balanced out by having her spend a large part of the game running and hiding in a towel.

Comparatively, the male characters of Until Dawn are utilised in a far more interesting way, despite also adhering the traditional horror movie stereotypes - the jocks, the sensitive geek and the wild card. However, cinematic history shows that these archetypes are already treated with more reverence than female characters. Therefore, it's all the more irritating when Until Dawn indulges in subversion, particularly through Mike.  Despite being relegated to the alpha male of the group, Mike's character development is paramount throughout the game. In addition to straight up taking care of business when his survival instinct kicks in, he proves himself to be incredibly resourceful and compassionate. Similarly, the overly sensitive tech geek, Chris, may initially appear to be a somewhat bland character, but his humour, methodical approach to a crisis and the moral grey areas he faces makes for fascinating gameplay.

Defenders of the game will argue that the developer, Supermassive Games, has created a homage, thus explaining why such stereotypes are showcased. But does that mean that indulgence in such casual misogyny should be acceptable? Cult classics such as Scream and Cabin in the Woods have already proven that you can celebrate horror without succumbing to its history of mistreating women. Both the recently deceased Wes Craven and Joss Whedon commented on the teen slasher sub-genre in a way that was subversive, humorous and exceptionally self-aware.

The sad truth is that this isn't even the first time this year that Sony has let down the industry with its perspective on female characters. During E3, one of the biggest game reveal events of the year, the head of Sony's worldwide studios, Shuhei Yoshida, admitted that he was nervous about announcing Horizon Zero Dawn; a post-apocalyptic RPG. Was he expecting backlash because it would be the developer's, Guerilla Games, first AAA RPG title? No. It was because the protagonist is a fully dressed, kick arse looking woman and asked the media, "Is it too risky to do a female character?"

His own focus groups and gamers in general have the answer to that question, and it's no. Are we forgetting that Metroid, starring the infamous Samus Aran came out in 1986? What about essentially every game released by BioWare? Even the new Assassin's Creed will feature a female protagonist and that's a series that's notoriously sexist. Gamers hailing from both sexes have been playing as women for years and besides the minority of people who spew vitriol on the internet, they don't seem to have a problem with it so long as there amazing gameplay and a mind blowing story is involved. Even Lara Croft is more modestly attired in the reboot of Tomb Raider and as of April 2015 sales were sitting at 8.5 million. Those numbers can't all be about breasts. So why must developers and publishers continue to insult women and the intelligence of their audiences through both subpar characters and unfounded fear of negative backlash? Why do they assume that we don't want to play as fully developed, interesting and appropriately dressed women?

This is exactly where Until Dawn is found wanting. Instead of reflecting on the nature of both video games and specifically horror through the medium of a narrative driven game, it simply adds to the over abundance of disappointing titles that already exist. It certainly brings nothing to the table by way of social commentary or even parody and simply exists to perpetuate previously existing stereotypes.

Until Dawn makes it abundantly clear how imperative it is that the representation of female characters in games change.  Sure, great characters already exist but the ratio is still far from acceptable. We need to stop condoning phrases such as "iconic" and "paying homage" as an excuse to indulge in laziness.  The eight protagonists in this game only have to wait until dawn to be rescued, whereas gamers will evidently have to wait longer to escape the negative female stereotypes that continue to pervade the industry on a larger scale.