We Could Have Been Friends: The Prison of Bitterness in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’

Horror

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In theory, you shouldn’t feel under any pressure to make wise decisions during an interactive movie like The Quarry or Until Dawn. There’s not really meant to be an optimal ending that you’re aiming for, nor should there be any “right” or “wrong” paths that you can tread down.

Instead, the idea is that — no matter how badly you screw up — you just go with the flow and see where your ill-informed choices lead. Getting the whole cast butchered ought to be just as satisfying an outcome here as getting them all out in one piece.

Yet that doesn’t quite gel with the way things are presented to you in the games themselves. Death is usually insinuated to be some kind of avoidable failure, with the narrator (whether it’s Peter Stormare’s Doctor Hill, the Dark Picture Anthology’s enigmatic curator, or The Quarry’s furtive fortune teller) admonishing you for dropping the ball. A handful of charges were placed in your care and, if anything bad happened to them, it can be chalked up to negligence on your part.

The storytellers will mock you for choosing ‘X’ when you should have chosen ‘Y’. They will submit derisive commentary on how you’ve been doing so far (responding to each fatality as though you are a goalie who missed an easy save) and they will offer prophetic visions to help you steer characters away from a grim fate.

Similarly, the marketing of these interactive movies often assumes that you are trying to nail a flawless run, with the developers challenging you not to slip up. Not even once.

And to be fair, this is a task that many in the fan community seem to enjoy taking on. If you search for The Quarry on social media right now, you’re certain to see players trading tips on how to keep all the counsellors alive or lamenting the ones that they’ve already lost.

Which makes sense! It is a game after all, and that inherently comes with an element of competitiveness. Something to win. In this case, it feels like you have to earn that fairy tale ending — wherein everyone rides off into the sunset —and if you have to earn it, then logic dictates that it must also be aspirational.

But if you are consulting a strategy guide to make calculated decisions here, then you are debatably missing the entire point. The hidden genius of developer Supermassive Games is that majorly fucking up in their titles can often be more fun than doing well.

It’s not like Fortnite, where getting a victory royale supplies you with an addictive dopamine hit and bragging rights. Here, losing has its own, arguably richer, rewards.

‘Until Dawn’

On a basic level, you are obviously treated to gory and elaborate kills. Should you mistime a vital button press in Until Dawn, Emily falls through a meat grinder and is mulched into a fine paste. In House of Ashes, the xenophobic Jason can have his face pounded into an unrecognizable sludge and in Little Hope it’s possible for John to have the life squeezed out of him by his own doppelganger.

If these were all traditional slasher movies (without any interactive element whatsoever) then splattery kills are what you would fork out the ticket price to see. After all, nobody turns up to a midnight screening of the latest Final Destination or Halloween sequel just to watch everybody survive through to the end credits. That would be deeply unsatisfying, so why should you want that here? Surely, the bloodier they are the better.

In addition to this, when a member of the cast kicks the bucket, it has a knock-on effect of increasing the game’s dramatic stakes. Friends can be torn apart (both literally and figuratively), survivors get racked with guilt over the people they didn’t manage to save, and would-be lovers tragically never get a chance to express their unspoken feelings for one another.

Case in point: Alex might propose to Julia in Man of Medan, which makes it all the more impactful when he accidentally stabs her to death because he was hallucinating a two-headed ghost in her place. It’s clearly a downer ending, but it’s also a considerably more interesting one that feels thematically appropriate for the type of story being told.

While those are the big incentives for not trying to “win” a Supermassive Games title, there is something deeper that makes the experience far more special. You see, by having direct control over the body count, you get to engage with the horror genre and its moral code in a way that you simply cannot elsewhere.

It’s a unique opportunity to flaunt the established conventions that we’ve all come to take for granted. As Randy Meeks so memorably exposited in Scream over 25 years ago, there are certain rules that one must abide by in order to survive a scary movie. For instance, we’ve all internalized that celibacy is a good to way avoid the reaper’s clutches, as is abstaining from drugs and alcohol. Meanwhile, you should never (under any circumstances) condescend to the local town-crazy when he’s telling you that you’re heading towards certain doom.

It’s owing to these didactic rules that the horror genre was once thought to be innately conservative. Much like the stories of the Brothers Grimm, these cautionary tales can be instructive and used to impart lessons about what is considered acceptable behaviour and the consequences that you are sure to face if you don’t adhere to society’s laws.

Only where fairy tales were meant to put the fear of God into 18th-century European children, horror films were there to keep American teenagers in line. Jason Voorhees was effectively a sentient “Just Say No” ad, warning you to respect your elders, obey authority, be good little Christians and to keep it in your pants.

Even if you don’t agree with those particular values, we all generally accept the idea that certain transgressions warrant a death sentence in horror fiction. We may not apply these rules so strictly to people in the real world, but we do when it comes to our stories.

Whether you are a prudish catholic or a free-spirited liberal, we all assume that certain people have got it coming. It might not necessarily be because they’ve had premarital sex or because they smoked a joint once, but we still believe that characters ought to be punished for simple things like being an inconsiderate jerk, playing a juvenile prank or even just investigating a strange noise. Which is absolutely nuts when you think about it!

There’s supposed to be a perverse sense of justice at a play and that’s why everybody flipped out over Zara’s disproportionately cruel demise in the first Jurassic World. They wanted her to do something more mean-spirited, as if she would then suddenly deserve an extended period of being ripped limb from limb by dinosaurs.

‘Man of Medan’

In his essay Why We Crave Horror Movies, Stephen King likens this attitude to the modern version of a public lynching, in the sense that we take pleasure in watching fictional characters get their comeuppance. He continues to argue that these films urge us “to put away our more civilized and adult penchant for analysis and to become children again, seeing the world in pure black and whites.”

If we follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion, then obviously the victims of Michael Myers and Leatherface need to do something wrong (however trivial it may be) in order to justify killing them off. Otherwise, watching it happen wouldn’t be so fun, it would be just sad.

Yet this is not how it works in The Dark Pictures Anthology or The Quarry. In those games, people can die for the sin of merely leaving their hiding place too early, or because the player missed a button prompt.

Depending on how you characterise her, Until Dawn’s Sam (Hayden Panettiere) can meet all the criteria for an archetypal final girl. She can be smart, kind, chaste, sensible, composed and resourceful, but that won’t necessarily guarantee her survival if you’re no good at the “Don’t Move” minigame. On the contrary, she could feasibly be the only one to perish in your entire playthrough, while her more corrupt friends emerge from the night unscathed.

Likewise, the perfectly innocent Abigail can die quite early on in The Quarry, should she hesitate to shoot her crush Nick after he turns into a werewolf. Her only crime is showing empathy and compassion (which are normally virtuous traits to be rewarded), but it gets her killed all the same.

It’s as if the genre rulebook has been totally thrown out the window and that’s what makes these interactive movies so compelling. You have the power to make the bitchy mean girl usurp the goody-two-shoes virgin as the sole survivor, or to have the jock save the day while the nerdy underdog bites it in the first act. There needn’t be a logical story reason for why somebody has to die. It could just be down to the fact that you suck at QTEs or wanted to mix things up a little.

When vice is no longer punishable by death and obeying the rules isn’t an effective shield, then all bets are off, which is such an exciting way of interrogating the genre’s entrenched morality. Being unbound to the usual formula makes for a very refreshing experience here, particularly if you have seen thousands upon thousands of horror movies before.

So don’t worry about making mistakes when you are playing something like Until Dawn or The Quarry. In fact, you should be making more of them, as that’s when things get really interesting.

[Related] Ranking the 5 Interactive Movies from Supermassive Games

‘The Quarry’

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