I just recently finished playing Until Dawn, the PS4 exclusive horror game that released in September. If you haven’t had a chance to try it, you definitely should. It’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a video game this year and you’d do well to experience it for yourself.
If you’re unfamiliar, Until Dawn follows eight teenagers on a winter getaway at a cabin in the mountains. The player controls different characters throughout the game and makes decisions that affect the story later on. For example, looking at another character’s cell phone when you’re not supposed to will affect the conversations you have with that character later on.
The story, atmosphere, characters, and scares all hit the perfect tone and I couldn’t wait to replay stages several times to see how my choices affected the story.
While playing Until Dawn, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to another horror video game—Night Trap. The infamous game was almost singlehandedly responsible for the creation of the ESRB in the mid-90s. On paper, Until Dawn and Night Trap are the same game: a horror experience where your decisions determine whether characters live or die. However, the two games, released 20 years apart, are notable for how they were viewed and accepted at initial release.
First, a short history lesson: In 1992, Night Trap was released on Sega CD and featured live-filmed scenes with real actors and actresses that the player could interact with. The basic plot revolved around a group of teenage girls trapped in a home with vampires. It’s up to you to use the home’s security system and various traps (not sure why they have traps, but let’s just go with it) to stop the vampires and save the girl. Or not and earn a game over screen.
The game boasted 90 minutes of real video, which was unheard of at the time. Remember, CD-Roms were still relatively new and cartridges were still king in the gaming world. The ability to use FMVs in games ushered in a new level of realism that games like Wing Commander would take advantage of and, more recently, a game like Her Story.
Pioneering FMV is not what puts Night Trap in the history books, however. Instead, Night Trap, along with Mortal Kombat, Doom, and a few others, became synonymous with video game violence and the moral decline of children in America. The United States Senate held hearings on violence in the games. You can watch some of excerpts here (Please note that the poster of the video includes some annotations that show he is rather biased).
Senators called the game “sick,” “disgusting,” and “trash.” They took particular issue with the fact that the player could affect whether or not a character lives or dies. Although, typical of a Congressman, it’s blown a wee-bit of proportion to make it seem like you are in fact killing all of these women. One senator even went so far as to call the game child abuse.
What makes looking back on this time period so interesting is that, I, as a modern-day gamer, would not use any of those words to describe Night Trap. Looking through the lens of modern games, Night Trap is pretty awful. The acting and sets are laughable at best and downright idiotic at worst. It really is a game that should have been enjoyed in 1992 and then faded into obscurity. Instead, it became part of video game history.
Flash forward 20 or so years and we have Until Dawn: A B-movie tribute that uses real actors and actresses (or at least their likenesses) that you must guide through a horrifying night in a mountain cabin. Your choices directly affect who lives and who dies. And make no mistake, there are some gruesome deaths in this game: impaling, decapitation, eye gouging, etc.
Until Dawn and Night Trap attempt to do the same thing—albeit one much better than the other. But instead of burning all copies of Until Dawn, the game is being championed as an excellent story-driven experience.
So what’s changed?
Certainly we as consumers are more desensitized to violence than we were 20 years ago. Also, the leaders, currently running the government have grown up with more violence in the entertainment industry, as opposed to their counterparts in 1992. There’s also something to be said about the affect of the ESRB and the Supreme Court’s finding that video games are art protected by the First Amendment in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Assn.
I’m not sure there is one right answer, but I like to think that society as a whole understands now that video games are not simply for children. We don’t need senators censoring video games because eight-year olds aren’t always the intended audience. In 1992, you could make a case that any video game was meant for children to play. In 2015, I daresay most big-budget console and PC games aren’t meant for children. Of the Top 12 games according to Metacritic released this year, only three are not rated “M” for mature.
So maybe, we are finally turning that corner. As more of our generation enters leadership positions, hopefully the rhetoric of “video games destroying children” will dissipate and we can concentrate more on enjoying video games as an artistic medium as opposed to one that we need to be protected from.