"Blondes make the best victims," said filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock to CBS in 1977. "They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints."
Blondes are hardly the only character-specific trope in horror, of course. There's the the black guy who always dies, the mean jock who is murdered horribly, the character who wanders off on his or her own, the teenagers who die after having sex or doing drugs, and so on.
But to get a better understanding of what makes the PS4 adventure game/horror movie simulator Until Dawn work so well, I want to carefully look at two horror tropes — the Dumb Blonde and the Final Girl — and how the game subverts them.
Horror movies offer many variations on the Dumb Blonde trope, but they're pulling from the same bucket. In one form — the ones Hitchcock was alluding to — horror movie blondes represent purity to be spoiled. Often, they're depicted as less intelligent or even outright stupid, a woman making it through life on her irresistibly good looks. Their physical attractiveness usually plays a part in their inevitable death sequence. (In many horror movies, the blonde almost always gets killed.)
The dumb blonde trope extends far beyond scary films (Clueless, anyone?) and has been around for decades. It's not exclusive to women, either — Hansel from Zoolander, Jason Stackhouse from True Blood, etc. — but these are rare exceptions to the rule, a way of subverting the fact that it's usually attributed to women. This is where awful memes like this come from:
Then there's the Final Girl. The general arc of a horror film is to introduce a main character and several supporting cast members, usually a mix of family and friends. Those people are killed off during the story, allowing the main character — often a woman — to narrowly escape and come up with a way to kill the bad guy/monster/thing by the end. She almost never, ever participates in the sins of the others — sex, drugs, etc. — and The Final Girl is commonly played by the biggest-name star in the cast: Think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, Alice in Friday the 13th, or Jennifer Love Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer.
Until Dawn loves riffing on these horror tropes. You can enjoy the game without being aware of the meta commentary, but it's fun to see how the game's writers play around with the genre's most hoary clichés, and equally fun to realise how our own knowledge of horror tropes informs how we play the game.
In Until Dawn, the Final Girl and the Dumb Blonde are embodied by two characters, Sam and Jessica, but depending on how you play, both characters can wind up subverting their assigned roles in interesting ways. You know Sam because she's played by Hayden Panettiere from Heroes (or are we saying Nashville these days?), and her face has been plastered all over the game's advertising. That makes her seem like the story's main character, which invokes the Final Girl trope. Jessica, on the other hand, is introduced as the game's ditzy sexpot — at first glance, she's every bit the Dumb Blonde.
There are some big Until Dawn spoilers ahead, including some stuff from the end of the game.
Sam seems to be cast as the Final Girl early on, anchoring the story and giving the player time to breathe. If you're playing as Sam, it feels like your decisions will not be fatal ones. Sam's equipped with what's commonly called Final Girl Armour. While everyone else around her dies, she lives on, and no matter what poor choices she makes along the way — like, say, spending so much time exploring while wearing nothing but a towel — she always seems to stick around.
Jessica is Sam's opposite. She's the girl that makes you and your friends mumble "oh, she's a goner" the moment she appears on-screen. And that's true, to an extent — she's one of the first characters to be in real danger, and making even a slight mistake during an early chapter can be enough to get her killed.
When you first meet Jessica, she looks and acts how'd you'd expect, if you've seen many horror movies. The game describes her as "confident, trusting, irreverent" but, most importantly, as "Mike's new girlfriend."
The relationship between Mike and Jessica is quickly defined in carnal terms, with the two openly making out with one another and dropping sexual innuendo like it's going out of style:
Mike: You're going down! Gotcha! Done, done. Done city. Jessica: So, did I go down? Mike: Um, I don't think so. Jessica: I think you'd know so if I did. Mike: Alright, alright. Jessica: My, my, are we calling it MY favour, then? Mike: You're a worthy opponent, Ms. Snowball Queen. Jessica: OK, that sounds vaguely dirty. Mike: My lady.
Would you be surprised to learn Jessica wanted to be a cheerleader, was the prom queen, and can't get along with Mike's ex-girlfriend?
Then, because this is basically a horror movie, Jessica and Mike head to a separate cabin. They have violated one of the primary rules of a horror movie (never leave the group) and they keep talking about violating another one (never have sex). You control Mike during all of this.
The trip to the cabin is an unusually harrowing one, involving a side-trip through a spooky mine and, in the end, a breathless chase through the woods as the couple escapes some unknown pursuer. Once they're finally in the cabin and left alone, Mike tries to cash in on all their dirty talk...but Jessica isn't feeling it. She's a little shaken up.
Mike: Am I doing something wrong? Jessica: No...no, no no, I mean...I thought you were one way, but you're kinda another way. Does that make sense? It's not your fault. Mike: Jess. I really like you. Whoever you think I am, well, just give me a chance, and I will show you what you need. Jessica: Well, I'm liking your confidence.
Mike dumped Emily, his ex-girlfriend, for Jessica. It's not ridiculous for Jessica to express some anxiety over how Mike views her.
Jessica: I'm sorry, I'm a little freaked out and it's hard for me to like, keep this up, and — Mike: What? Keep what up? Jessica: Look, I act all super confident and like a total sexy babe and everything but underneath, I gotta be honest, I'm...really kinda insecure.
This is where Until Dawn caught me off guard. Jessica opens up and express vulnerability, acting like an actual human being, not a trope. As it turns out, she's not an idiot, and is actually playing into the trope because she think that's the best way to grab attention and exert power. It's a small but nice trick, using a trope to build up expectations and then undermining those expectations in the next scene.
You're still in control of Mike, and if you choose to reassure her, the conversation goes even deeper:
Mike: Jess, you've got to be kidding me. Jessica: What? Mike: You've got nothing to be insecure about. Jessica: Oh. [nervous laughter] You have no idea… Mike: Sure I do. You're just like me and everyone else. We're all insecure. But, you know how to handle yourself. You might call it a front, but it's real. Jessica: Yeah, I guess I do. Mike: Yeah. And that's super fucking hot! Jessica: Really? Mike: Yeah. Hell yeah it is. Jessica: See if you can find a blanket and maybe we can snuggle up a bit by the fire and sort out exactly how big of a dick you are.
Based on the acting, it'd be easy to read this scene as Mike doing whatever he needs to do in order to make sure Jessica wants to continue having sex, but that's not how it came across to me. It felt like two people admitting that we all, to some extent, roleplay in front of other people. It's a defence mechanism to mask what we don't like (or don't want to own up to) about ourselves. Like Mike says, it's a front. Mike embraces a trope, too — he acts like Mr. Tough Guy because he thinks that will earn him admiration and respect, while Jessica flaunts her physical assets because people respond to it.
This leads to one of my favourite speeches in the game. Jessica decides that their friends are trying to prank them, and she marches outside with no fucks left to give:
"HEY! YEAH! PRICKS! THAT MEANS YOU! I KNOW you're OUT THERE! The FUCK are you trying to do!? You want to ruin our fun THAT BAD?! Well GUESS WHAT?! You can't! You can't ruin our good time! Because Michael and I are gonna FUCK! That's right! We are going to have SEX! And it's going to be HOT! So ENJOY IT! Because I know WE'RE GOING TO!""
And after that… well, yeah, she does get dragged off by the killer, and she may or may not die horribly. But she had her moment, damn it, and if you played your cards right, you got to know the real Jessica — she wasn't a stereotype at all, she was just playing one. It's a nice little twist.
Until Dawn saves a far more devious twist for Sam. For 99% of the game, Sam is a perfect Final Girl. According to her in-game character card, she's the mix of inquisitiveness, ambition, and fortitude that allows her to Get Shit Done when she needs to. That doesn't mean Sam isn't prone to making mistakes; in my game, she pulled a Sidney Prescott and ran up the stairs as soon as killer showed up. At times it's as though Sam has a horror-movie survival toolkit. You know, she just happens to own the right kinds of clothes for exploring a cave and also has a natural ability to scale walls at a moment's notice. It's nice to be the Final Girl.
Until… well, until it isn't. At the very end of the game, the Final Girl trope is subverted without notice. No matter how many bad decisions you made, no matter how many QTE sequences you failed, Sam will survive until the game's closing minutes. The game does not communicate that her Final Girl Armour has been removed, and if you listen closely, you can almost hear the designers cackling in the background. Players can make one idle mistake and Sam is dead meat.
Until Dawn's final moments take place in the cabin that was supposed to be Party Central. Instead of drinking and getting high, everyone is running away from the wendigo, the grotesque humans transformed by the evil Native American spirit who punishes cannibalism. (Seriously?) Sam's trying to hide, but a wendigo corners her and the game dishes out its most annoying mechanic: trying to hold the controller still. It's super easy to fail this! If you do, Sam dies, her Final Girl Armour a thing of the past.
It reminds me of the ending to Sam Raimi's (fantastic and underrated) Drag Me To Hell. Everything's calm and the danger has passed. Then, the movie's title becomes abundantly clear:
In Until Dawn, the tropes are both driven by the game and the player. Your perception of how horror tropes work may very well influence whether or not they even appear in your game. Is Mike the Sex-Starved Jerk or is he The Patient Nice Guy? Does Matt join the Black Guys Die First Club or become The Unexpected Hero? Will Ashley find a way to Forgive And Forget past cruelties or Double Down On What Feels Good? Will Emily be The Worst or...The Worst?
There's no way to see all of the branches in a single playthrough, so based on your actions, some characters may simply be one-note individuals that prompt a specific emotional reaction, while others are given layers and nuance. Depending on the choices you make, Until Dawn's cast of vapid clichés can reveal themselves to be more interesting than they first appeared — much like the game itself.
Illustration by Sam Woolley