Dabble in Design: Until Dawn and Environmental Storytelling

*Mild spoilers for Until Dawn below*

I recently played through SuperMassive’s Until Dawn. It was an interesting playthrough for me, because I went into it with a research goal of investigating what it had to say about horror and videogames. Normally, I try to leave research concerns out of a first playthrough, for fear that going into it with a research question in mind will make me miss out on other perspectives. But I think the whole experience of Until Dawn has me rethinking that policy; by starting out with an analytical mood, I was able to look at my first responses in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

And one of the things that kept coming up was an appreciation of environment, and how it contributed to story. During the game’s intro sequence, “O’ Death,”it pans over what players will eventually realize are the major locations of the game: an abandoned mine, a room of monitors, a ruined asylum, a remote cabin, and, above all, the Blackwood Mountain itself, the snowy, mountainous region the entire game takes place in.

It’s a very classic horror set of locations, and the game makes the most out of them to make the player feel isolated, trapped, and, frequently, disoriented. But I want to zero in on one scene in the cabin, in terms of environmental storytelling.

The plot of the game at this point is that one year ago, three siblings–twins Hannah and Beth, and Josh–invited seven of their friends to the cabin, and some of them played a prank on Hannah that went out of control and ultimately led to Hannah and Beth being lost in the woods and presumed dead. (Quite what the kids thought the best case scenario was for humiliating the rich owners of the cabin they were staying at is never made clear, but, well, teenagers make bad decisions.) A year later, Josh invites them all back to the cabin, claiming that it’s what the twins would have wanted, and they all agree to come, albeit not without reluctance.

At the moment in the game I want to talk about, the player is aware that there is more to Beth and Hannah’s disappearance than the characters know, but there isn’t much more information than a few glimpses of menacing figures with weapons on the edges of the screen. Mostly, they’re dealing with how to treat Josh, and typical teen drama.

In a section just previous to the one I’m dancing around, the player guided Chris through their first walkthrough of the cabin where much of the game is set. It’s a very large, frequently confusing building that immediately displays the family’s wealth through its size, but there’s another point reinforced as well. Take a look:

Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.40.08 Screenshot 2016-06-06 08.35.38 Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.39.04 Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.39.44 Screenshot 2016-06-06 08.34.00 Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.41.57

The shutters are drawn, the furniture is covered in sheets, the power’s out; all in all, there’s this pervading sense that no one has been here in a while, that the whole house has, metaphorically, been put into storage. However, there’s one exception:
Screenshot 2016-06-06 08.30.47 Screenshot 2016-06-06 08.30.42 Screenshot 2016-06-06 08.31.06 Screenshot 2016-06-06 08.31.46 Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.47.22 Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.46.49

In Chapter 2, for a very brief moment when you control Sam, you can enter the room here, Hannah’s old room. (There’s actually a reasonable diegetic explanation as to why you can only enter it at that point, but it comes much later.) The difference is obvious–whereas the rest of the cabin has been has been packed up and put away, Hannah’s room has been left untouched. Sam comments on that, very briefly, when you enter the room:
Screenshot 2016-06-06 08.29.56Other than that, though, the game doesn’t hit you over the head with the difference, letting the player draw out the implications. It says a lot about how the siblings’ parents handled (or failed to handle) the tragedy, that the rest of the cabin has been moved into “storage” mode as if it will never be used again, but this room is as if Hannah could return any second. And that in turn implies a lot about Josh’s support structure (or lack thereof) after the tragedy, and his relationship to his parents, all of which serves as subtext for what follows.

That’s what I like most about the scene. It’s skippable (in fact, I never would have seen it without consulting a walkthrough), it’s nonessential, but for the player willing to put in the work, it fleshes out that which the game merely hints at elsewhere. That, to me, is good environmental storytelling.

The game scholar foundation for talking about environmental storytelling is Henry Jenkins’ “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” It argues, well, it argues a lot of things, but in particular, he argues for the value of embedded narrative in game, where “the game world becomes a kind of information space, a memory palace,” where the story is implied to the player by being embedded in the environment they explore. On the basic level, that’s what this area does; Hannah’s room implies connections that get enlarged on in the general game, in addition to hosting specific clues (a magazine compatibility quiz that hints at why she got a tattoo; more evidence of the full extent of her crush on Mike).

In their GDC Talk, “What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling,” Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch extend that consideration to the player’s perspective, arguing (again, among other things) that the environmental narrative orients the player towards how they should feel about that environment. In other words, this isn’t just about what Hannah’s room says about her and her family, it’s about creating how the player may respond to being in Hannah’s room. Again, the contrast between the main cabin and Hannah’s room comes into play.

If the rest of the cabin had been maintained in the same way as the room here, the player may not have thought much of going into her room (especially if we could explore the other family members’ bedrooms as well). But most of Until Dawn is about exploring spaces that have been clearly abandoned. Consequently, even though Hannah is gone, even though the player clearly saw her fall, the room inspires guilt, the thought that the player is violating someone else’s privacy; in one walkthrough I saw, the player continually remarks that he is certain that Josh, or someone, is about to walk in and discover Sam. While the rest of the cabin is sparse and personality-less, Hannah’s room is so clearly imbued with her thoughts and desires that being in it feels like an invasion. In a horror game that’s about being attacked/invaded by a monster, that’s a pretty interesting response to cultivate. (It’s pretty interesting as well that Sam is the character with the option to look into this space, as she’s generally portrayed as one of the more innocent parties in the game, but that’s a different post.)

Environmental storytelling can be thought of as the “show, don’t tell” of videogames, even though the player action of side of things makes it more complicated. And yet, even with just “show, don’t tell,” it’s so easy to give in to telling–just add a radio recording, drop a note, put in a line of dialogue, do something, anything, that tells the player how they should be responding. That storytelling has its place, and, with the aforementioned Clues, SuperMassive doesn’t entirely eschew it for this scene. But I appreciate how much is done through presence, how it literally gives the player space and time to come to their own conclusions.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” Electronic Book Review. 10 July 2004. Web. 6 June 2016.

Smith, Harvey, and Matthias Worch. “What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling.” GDC Vault. 2010. Web. 6 June 2016.

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