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Video games and psychology: the butterfly effect of Until Dawn

Over time, video games and psychology have met and have given birth to particular playful experiences that have rewritten the canons of the medium to bring it to a real consecration: the video game is no longer intended only as an entertainment experience, but as a tool for investigation of human behavior. By psychology in video games we do not mean the consequences of a possible obsession with video games or talk about the damage and benefits that hours of play can bring (also because specific skills are needed), but to involve an incontrovertible fact: there are video games in which the psychological factor influences the choices made and the player’s approach to what is happening on the screen.

In a previous study, we addressed the issue of the change of course of video games that has “forced” users to mature. However, it is not a question of a maturation in the field of skills, in fact today’s video games are considered by many to be easier than those of the past, but it is an evolution of thought caused by the approach of the video game to more adult themes and from the expansion of the possibilities offered by developers to those who use the vehicle. Many titles today force you to make expensive choices from a human point of view because they are often inconsistent with the psychology and character of the player who is facing the game at that moment.

There are titles that manage to exploit this feature better than others and the genre that offers the best ideas is survival horror. In fact, when you are in danger or under stress, the survival instinct occurs that can lead to choices that we would never have imagined making under normal conditions. One of the titles that best addresses this issue is Until Dawn.

Video games and psychology: psychological horror

Until Dawn is a horror video game developed in 2015 by Supermassive Games that bases its gameplay on a system of choices that influence the course of events. This process is called the “butterfly effect”, an expression that can be summarized with the following sentence: “The flapping of a butterfly’s wings can trigger a hurricane thousands of kilometers away”. The butterfly effect indicates that even an insignificant detail at first sight can radically change the course of an event. The term is part of Edward Lorenz’s Theory of Chaos and represents a leading concept in both cinema and video games.

The butterfly effect was made famous by Richard Kelly’s film Donnie Darko and has had great success in the gaming industry in recent years. Life Is Strange is one of the titles that most makes use of the butterfly effect, but it was Quantic Dream, a French software house, to exploit its potential more frequently, inserting it in practically all its games: Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Due anime.

Until Dawn has managed to improve the rendering of the butterfly effect in video games by transforming the definition of psychological horror. By psychological horror we usually mean a horror title that relies on the feelings of those who play, putting the atmosphere and tension first, thus trying to use as little as possible gore and splatter. With Until Dawn this definition must be taken and thrown in the trash, because the Supermassive Games game is psychological for other reasons. Whoever starts a game of Until Dawn is studied, undergoes a real analysis and his behaviors are put under the magnifying glass.

The player thinks he is in control of the protagonists, in reality it is he who is maneuvered and is punished or saved based on clearly visible variables in some cases, hidden in others. To understand this concept well, we need to explain the context of Until Dawn.

Until Dawn: common good or personal gain

A group of guys, of those we have seen dozens of times in slasher movies like Friday the 13th and I Know What You Did, meet in a mountain cabin in a cold and inaccessible place. Here a tragic event occurs which will see the death of two girls from the party. Some time later, the boys decide to gather again in that same place to exorcise the sad memory of those events. It will be the beginning of a nightmare. A psychopath seems to have targeted them, but there is an even scarier secret in Blackwood Pines. The player’s goal? Survive until dawn. From this moment on, video games and psychology will work together to checkmate the player.

The peculiarity of Until Dawn is that the player will take the reins of all the characters – eight – engaged in this struggle for survival. Each character has a well-defined psychological profile that can be consulted at any time by entering the appropriate menu. Having a certain type of behavior towards a member of the group could change the opinion and attitude of a single friend, part of the party or the whole group towards the character being impersonated. The character of the eight friends is variable and depends on dialogue choices, on any favors or wrongs that are done. This is where Until Dawn starts studying us.

The player must behave in such a way as to lead the protagonists of the game to safety, but the death of one does not lead to game over, on the contrary, even the death of all is not synonymous with the end of the game. Of course, if they all died or a few were saved, the unlocked ending would be negative, but the game would still be completed. At this point the player’s psychological wanderings begin: think of the common good or bring to safety only those we like or who have never tried to cheat us? A practical example: Emily is a hateful character (which we still have to maneuver) and when she is controlled by the AI ​​it will not be uncommon to hear her say nasty or try to make someone else fall into a trap to save herself.

In real life what would we do? Faced with impending danger, such as that of a mad psychopath armed with a knife, would we try not to leave her behind or would we give her back? And if we had to act positively towards her, would we do it out of pure solidarity or not to annoy the others in the group who could then act accordingly with us? To all these questions it is not the video game that answers, but the player who can make any decision, even the most aberrant, to be able to save the skin. Video games and psychology are so united in a personal and intimate tale that it tells us who we really are, or who we want to appear to be.

Videogame as a story of ourselves

While playing Until Dawn, you are practically forced to reveal yourself because, in dangerous situations and when the pressure gets too high, man is led to make decisions that are closer to his natural nature. The video game, therefore, becomes a story of oneself. In every single sequence of Until Dawn the survival instinct that man has innate comes into play. It must be said that a situation of virtual danger has a lower emotional impact, as it obviously is, but it does not completely cancel the most primitive and natural form of human instinct: self-preservation.

By self-preservation we mean the instinctual tendency to preserve oneself and one’s own integrity (Treccani). Horror video games have always exploited the feeling of danger, but our behavior has never been questioned. It is in Until Dawn that we have the encounter between video games and psychology, a meeting that allows us to put our conduct under observation in situations in which we would hardly find ourselves in reality.

The peculiarity of the title lies precisely in the fact that any – and inevitable – changes in attitude in the face of such situations will be compared by the player with what he believed he knew about himself and which, instead, was disregarded. The experiment of mixing video games and psychology was a perfect success, because Until Dawn is truly a pearl of the genre and unique in the gaming landscape.

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