Until Dawn isn’t a game that deals with mental health issues particularly well. As a game that delights in playing with the old standbys of the horror movie genre, it uses a heavy hand when it comes to tired tropes around mental illness.
But for those of us whose anxiety won’t allow us to enjoy horror comfortably, it does something more interesting: it offers up a bit of control. The player chooses whether to walk alone into the basement in the dark, and the player can go as fast or as slow as she wants. And when the stomach-churning anxiety gets to be too much, the player can thrust the controller into the hands of the person who is hopefully watching the game beside her. Until Dawn is at its best with an audience, preferably one who won’t mind when you screech in fear.
Ashley Barry writes about this phenomenon for Paste Magazine, naming the solely single-player Until Dawn as the multiplayer game of 2015 (minor spoilers ahead).
My boyfriend is a burly guy who holds a black belt in karate. I’m petite and very neurotic. He’s not a naturally anxious person, but he frequently bolted at the jump scares throughout the game. I never knew he was so easily startled, which amused me to no end. In one of our play sessions, the two of us yelped at a crow whizzing across the screen. This random event resulted in a string of curse words followed by a fit of hysterical laughter. We were comfortable with being uncomfortable and expressing that discomfort around each other. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had created a safe space.
His presence was a comfort to me whenever I got too anxious. I love horror games and movies, but sometimes they’re too much and I end up panicking because of my anxiety disorder. When the ghost of Josh Washington’s sister was creeping about, I felt completely overwhelmed and had to pass the controller over to my boyfriend. He nodded and said nothing as he took the controller and finished the episode. He knew I needed a break, but didn’t judge me for it. It was nice not having to face jump scares and other spooky elements alone. He was there and we were trudging through that horror experience together.
I recognize my own experience in the one Barry describes. Until Dawn is the first horror game I’ve played to completion, mostly because my husband took the reins for the majority of it. Since it’s broken up into episodes, it also gave me a chance to quit for the night without losing face. Frankly, we both got a little overwhelmed by some of its tense scenes and gore fests.
Half the fun of watching horror movies in a sympathetic crowd is having permission to lose your cool in public – something that can be particularly cathartic when you’re used to bottling up your anxiety. Until Dawn builds that same experience into a single-player video game, as long as you set out knowing that it’s not the sort of thing you want to go through alone.