Stories In Stories In Stories In Stories In…

(Spoilers ahoy for the games “The Vanishing of Ethan Carter” and “Until Dawn”)

I like weird takes on stuff.

The way that literature can take a deep and interestingly-critical look at its own self is probably one of the best aspects of reading and consuming literature. The idea of a medium within a genre using itself as a way to talk about the genre is what makes storytelling great, and really being able to dig into a story and pull it and the genre apart, see how it ticks, and mess with that is such a cool concept to me.

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is ostensibly a supernatural mystery story, a detective with some level of mystical awareness or powers that allow him to basically view elements of the past. The surface story here, that of a young boy who reaches out to supernatural investigator Paul Prospero for help against his supposedly-possessed family and an ancient evil, is only a part of the whole actual story.

The fact that somehow almost every element of Ethan’s life and “adventures” are reflective of his real and really troubled life is the first step to realizing the deep issue with the story here. Though the true ending of the game is ultimately and somewhat-purposely left ambiguous, the point here is that Ethan would somehow rather immerse himself in a world of ancient leviathans and possessed blood sacrificing-oriented predatory adults to the reality of his shitty brother, bullying uncle, nagging mother, and spineless father.

The fact that the protagonist of a world like this, a supernatural detective who functions in this incredibly dangerous world, is the desirable role model, is fairly telling. It’s pretty telling of that sort of level of wanting to escape into fiction, which is a major underlying theme here in the game. One of the revelations I came to as we ended the game was that so many of the dangerous and fantastic situations were actually just imagination-fueled viewpoints of the real world. The spaceship? It’s a treehouse that offers a level of escape up off the ground. The tentacled flood monster in the mines? A kid playing in caves and imagining what lurks in the dark.

The old sorcerer’s home and source of his black magic? An old ramshackle building where a boy dies in a horrific accident, dreaming of a better life. A haunted life full of fantastic dangers…but to him, this story is definitely a better life.

Furthermore, the fact that this life is the life that is initially presented to us as reality before we realize that it may or may not be the “real” or “correct” one is what throws the story and frays at the linear traditional story. The story continues to fall apart as we progress, not as a way to reveal a “truth” (because ultimately we get a level of uncertainty about the true nature of the story and characters at the end of the game) but rather as a way to show us just how someone can cling to stories as a way to escape and to re-form their realities, not just in the last moments of their life, but throughout their whole day-to-day existence.

It’s a really interesting testament to the love that people can have to the art and impact of storytelling.

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We had a party and played Until Dawn. We’re all horror movie fans, and this game advertised as basically being a role-playing/interactive horror movie. However, there’s a lot more to it than that specifically about what it is that man make up a horror scenario.

How do you scare the shit out of someone? In particular, how do you come up with the elements of a horror story?

So much of what makes basic horror work is that, like it or not, there are standards that need to be hit for there to be an appeal for the lowest common denominator to find appealing. There’s gotta be drama, there’s got to be some level of hyper-violent action, there needs to be suspense and play with sound and visuals (the jump scare), and there has to be a cast that we can observe going through the moral trials regarding their eventual deaths or brutal scares.

The thing is that, in this game, you determine so much of it in so many ways, it’s fascinating. The very mechanics of the horror storytelling are entirely controlled by you. Until Dawn lets you pick you amongst the group you like more or less, who you prefer, what kind of things scare you versus other things, etc. The in between-chapter breaks that are ultimately metaphorical/mental (not literally in a therapist’s office) and the setting for all of this  groundwork. You choose things that have subtle influences on the background and primary scares of the first 2/3 of the game, within the house. It also influences the tensions and the interactions between various characters, and thus, to an extent whether or not you can successfully complete some of the more obscure “trophy” mission aspects, like getting everyone in the game to work together so everyone survives (versus no one surviving, another option if you’re morbid and bored).

I don’t think that enough people are willing to look at what exactly it is about horror that makes it so effectively. Part of Until Dawn is that we look at that effectiveness being rooted in interpersonal relationships. Being able to manipulate those relationships and the roots of all interaction and all the ways those interactions get you different endings is a satisfying thing.

When it comes to genre, I think a big aspect of my taste is rooted in the critical understanding that I picked up in college when I was exposed to critical thinking, nontraditional literature, and all that jazz. It allowed me to build up my tastes and to expand my understanding of how writing works, how storytelling works, and how you can continue to create great work in great subjects but not fall prey to the blind idealism and blind noncritical fannish slavering over the lowest-common-denominator aspects of loving that genre.

My favorite horror movies are the ones that work hard to pervert and transcend the genre. The science fiction I feel has the biggest impacts on literature and genre is the stories that don’t treat the trappings as the story, but rather use them as a setting to be able to craft critical and interesting work about different issues. In a similar way, I like being able to look at interactive storytelling and story-oriented games in a way that can mess with the traditions of storytelling in the genre they focus on.

Oh, and that jumpscare in The Vanishing of Ethan Carter in the mines is total bullshit and scared the fuck out of me.

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