The interactive drama, a relatively unexplored area of multimedia music discourse, combines elements of film and video game to provide its audience and participants an evolving experience. Because contemporary works of the medium incorporate further innovations that expand the plethora of branching options, the viability of each narrative path and its potential ending necessitates a flexible analytical model for narrative discourse. Music, if it shares the ability to participate in the narrative, must likewise possess this sense of malleability for the work, as its presence or absence in the presented (selected) pathway is not predetermined but remains in a state of potential at all times. This sense of narrative potential for music is a special quality inherent in the interactive drama, allowing for the filmic and ludic qualities of form and function to remain simultaneously “present” and “absent” in a given narrative and provide critical commentary on the events at hand as well as the overall prospective paths that exist in the web of options. Using the interactive drama Until Dawn, this article will explore the concept of narrative potential through three different musical elements that range in their comparative functions to traditionally filmic or ludic roles and their articulation to the underlying narrative. Regardless of supposed function, the music of Until Dawn reveals that narrative form and function of film and video game cannot be differentiated or simply synthesized, but fully appreciated as a unique form of the interactive drama on the multimedia continuum.
CONTENT WARNING: The video game discussed in the following article contains graphic and violent content, including physical violence, blood, gore, profane language, and psychosis. Video examples that include scenes of violence or gore are labeled.
Interactive dramas offer a fertile terrain of unexplored territory in many areas of scholarly discourse. Moving away from the page and toward a screen during the late 1980s/early 1990s, the ability to “choose your own adventure”—a concept that even served as the title of a popular book series—has captivated audiences in its ability to grant authorial control over a complex web of potential scenarios. The increased capabilities of seventh- and eighth-generation consoles (let alone developments of the PC) grant the contemporary player a multitude of experiences well beyond the intricacy of numerous bifurcated options along a singular plot path. Multiple character control, multiple viewpoint presentation, alternative ending scenarios, and multiple starting/entry points are just some of the innovative means for the player to experience a unique adventure with every playthrough.
The emergence of the console as a primary means of disseminating the interactive drama has expanded literature while simultaneously obfuscating the line between film and video game. David Cage’s 2013 video game Beyond: Two Souls for the PlayStation 3 notably received its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, becoming only the second video game to receive the honor after L.A. Noire (2010).
Perhaps the goal is not—or should not be—the identification of the dividing line between film and video game, but rather the point(s) of intersection between the two media, finding where influences interlink to create the composite. The location that seems most appropriate for discourse is the underlying narrative, a shared component for both forms (at least, for any ludic source with a narrative component) and the fundamental building block of the experience. Music likewise serves a critical role in both media, and its participation cannot be ignored in the interactive drama. Music’s narrativity also cannot be separated from this exploration, despite the complications arising from the multiple possible strands that exist within a single, interlaced thread.1
For such a foray into the interactive drama, a premier example would be Supermassive Games’ 2015 title Until Dawn, written with the explicit intent of facilitating multiple playthroughs to explore its rich, diverse options of possible story combinations. Authored by Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden, the game is largely designed as an evolving cinematic experience following its original 2012 conception as a PlayStation Move feature. Its basic premise outlined in the title is stereotypical of both the 1980s slasher-horror film genre as well as the 1990s and contemporary survival horror video game genre: survive through the night literally “until dawn.” The events of the game unfold through ten hours on the evening of February 2, 2014, in ten chapters each spanning one hour, with an introductory prologue set one year earlier. A television-style recap with a brief video clip montage at the start of each chapter summarizes the critical events, creating an aesthetic akin to a television miniseries.
Undoubtedly the game embraces archetypal horror tropes in its narrative design and relies upon the player’s knowledge of such stereotypes both to build suspense and subvert expectation. The eight primary protagonists under player control fit neatly into the well-established molds of the stereotypical late-teenager models commonly found in the aforementioned slasher genre:
Samantha (“Sam”), the quintessential “Final Girl” whose compassion and level-headedness gradually emerge from an original position of passivity
Josh, the rich son of a movie producer and owner of Blackwood Mountain and the lodge, where the events of the game take place
Chris, Josh’s best friend, the nerd who uses sarcasm to obscure his true feelings
Ashley, the observant and imaginative bookworm and object of Chris’s long-unspoken affection
Mike, the immature, alpha-male class president whose thoughts and actions are largely driven by his insatiable libido
Jessica (“Jess”), Mike’s new girlfriend, the promiscuous and provocative “mean girl”
Emily, Mike’s recent ex-girlfriend, a highly intelligent but insecure and narcissistic fashionista who still harbors feelings for Mike
Matt, Emily’s new boyfriend, the kindhearted jock known more for his brawn than his brain.
The eight friends have reunited for their annual winter get-together, but a dark cloud hangs over this year’s festivity: Josh’s twin sisters, Hannah and Beth, had tragically disappeared on the mountain the previous year following a prank gone wrong and have been presumed dead.
Beyond the player-controlled teenagers, antagonists (both apparent and genuine) embody typical horror archetypes. The first such character introduced is the Stranger, a nomadic hermit living in the abandoned sanatorium, who is often seen observing the group from a distance, wielding a large flamethrower. Numerous in-game clues attempt to portray the Stranger as characteristic of the killer (stalker/slasher) filmic trope, diligently hunting the teenagers à la such films as Halloween (1979) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The second menace is the masked Psycho, drawing heavily from psychological and gore/torture-porn genres of contemporary films such as Saw (2004) while simultaneously evoking strains of Michael Myers. Both characters, however, are red herrings to deceive the in-game characters and the player. The Stranger is in fact a benevolent local resident who serves to protect the mountain and its people, as well as the principal expositor of the central mythos of the game. The Psycho is in fact Josh suffering from a psychotic breakdown, desperately seeking retribution for his sisters. It is the final set of antagonists to be shown and identified that present the only genuine threat: the Wendigos, humanoid creatures born of Native American spirits, with insatiable hunger for human flesh, encapsulating both the paranormal and monster genres of horror tropes. Of the Wendigos assaulting the group, the most powerful and feared is known as the Makkapitew, and as will be revealed later in the game, its presence is driven by ulterior motives.
Finding an Intermediary Ground between Film and Video Game
With interactive drama’s intentional design firmly rooted in filmic antecedents, its narratological concepts might best begin with discourse from such perspectives. David Bordwell’s discussion of film futures and “forking plots” offers a suitable analogy from which to compare possible studies for interactive dramas on the whole.2 Such “forking plot” films present alternative realities or narrative constructs from specific points in the narrative, positing different outcomes should there be any change in the filmworld’s sequence of events. Emerging with more regularity in cinema post-1980, such films as Sliding Doors (1998) or Run Lola Run (1998) tend to be limited in the amount of different narrative paths posited in their exposition, with branches generally extending from a set juncture in the narrative that leads to alternative futures. Additionally these narratives are typically built more upon folk psychology and the use of stereotypes, both of which operate for and against expectations in Until Dawn’s gameplay. Bordwell further introduces seven typical conventions of narratives that incorporate forking paths: linearity, signposting, intersection, unification, parallelism, inequality, and finality.3
Undoubtedly the parallels with the interactive drama are strong with at least the first five of Bordwell’s conventions: Temporal requirements of narrative events that generate cause-effect relationships compel an overarching linear story structure to preserve the outcomes of diverging options as well as the potential intersection of future events affected by rippling consequences. Likewise ludic actions that necessitate player involvement will inherently require a moment of articulation or demarcation in some capacity, thus differentiating between strict observation and gameplay. Interactive dramas similarly tend to employ identical devices of narrative splitting: object interaction, social interaction, environment interaction/path navigation, moral dilemma, and so on.
The principles of inequality and finality, however, begin to push the contemporary interactive drama away from purely filmic structures. For Bordwell, the final path of a multiple-track narrative assumes superiority over any other potential alternatives, with the final approach tending to be the most expeditious of any method traversed. Moreover, such final paths show a propensity for gathering information from previous narrative worlds, regarding events as background details or suggesting that worlds are not closed off from each other.4 As Bordwell summarizes, “These plots suggest that the last future is the final draft, the one that ‘really’ happened; or at least it reduces the others to fainter possibilities.…By weighting certain futures through all the resources of order, delay, point-of-view switches, and the like, the plot’s design makes some options more significant than others, both structurally and morally.”5
By placing primacy of a singular event over any other decision in the context of a multiple-path narrative, the significance of causality becomes not simply diminished but rather removed entirely—a quality that undergirds the entire premise of the interactive drama itself. If cause-effect relationships form the core of the gameplay experience, then the need for equality across decisions, and thus threads of narratives themselves, becomes an absolute necessity. For an interactive drama that creates a multitude of plausible endings, every possibility must be considered equally valid in terms of its narrative integrity. Similarly an interactive drama that permits the player to control multiple characters throughout the course of gameplay presents another problematic scenario. Both individual characters and the audience may learn from the branching options, but Bordwell’s notion of “cross-contamination”—the ability of a secondary character to learn from the choices or events tailored to one individual’s path—is greatly restricted. Additionally the player may learn through repetition via multiple playthroughs, applying this information to influence actions and outcomes well beyond Bordwell's theory. Bordwell’s redefinition of filmic “multiple draft” narratives for the cyclical nature of restarting seems more apropos, and the sense of a forking path with dendritic branches reaching multiple (read: equal) conclusions becomes more suitable for the malleable nature of the interactive drama.
Bordwell’s restrictive cognitive approach, a trait suitable for primacy and finality, is inherently problematic in terms of both purely narrative design and audience capability. Kay Young is quick to note, “We know we have the capacity to imagine many alternative ‘what if’ scenarios—life demands it—which is similar cognitive work to generating alternative futures in film. And yet Bordwell’s analysis of what forking-path films have actually done, in their telling of just a few alternatives, would seem to deny that possibility.”6 Young is apt to identify that the medium itself is restrictive, acclimating to its audience’s expectations and selecting but one path of a potential of many futures. More importantly such films are strictly limited to visualizations of future events but do not hypothesize simultaneous presents—a feature that is instantly mitigated through multiple gameplays in the interactive drama. Edward Branigan further notes that films, through the production process, are fundamentally “multiple-draft” narratives at the barest level, controlled by an external force during their construction process.7 He summarizes, “All films thus have ghosts. In an important way, it is we who may choose to deceive ourselves through the failure to see ghostly ‘alternative plots,’ since the final author of a film is the spectator, and the final arbiter is the spectator’s encounter with a world that he or she calls real.”8 The interactive drama affords an opportunity to extend and expand this premise, as the player is not simply in an observational role but an active participant in construction. An initial paring of pathways has been provided by an external source, but a multitude of options remains in the narrative space; it is a distinct shift in spectator/player role that necessitates a reconceptualization of internal narratological functions for the genre.
This focus on internal action, rather than the overarching structure, leans more toward ludic elements on the overall design gamut. Henriette Heidbrink’s identification of prevailing game-logics that are triggered within forking-path films offers this paradigm shift, bringing the unification of these two genres closer.9 Building from a dichotomy of coincidence, an element accepted as intrinsic to ludic forms, and determination, which is more characteristic of film, Heidbrink introduces her own range of characteristic qualities that can be found along the “Game–Narration Continuum.” Heidbrink summarizes the essential differences between the acts of play versus the acts of narration:
While stories are regulated by dramaturgy, games are determined by rules. Additionally stories are generally dedicated to morals, normative structures, and the changing motives of their characters, while games are geared towards challenges and goals in which the motives of the players remain fairly stable.…While narrative constructions tolerate a certain amount of inconsistency, games, in contrast, are bound to the total consistency of the rules. And while stories are determined by plot and thereby driven by subject-actions and events, games are often driven by time-lines and spatial regulations. In stories, the plot construction exists in its own right, while in games it mainly serves the ludic purpose.10
This continuum also brings into question the importance of authorial choice, further suggesting that coincidence is an impossibility of narratives. For the interactive drama, this presents a rather interesting conundrum: to what degree is the player the “author” of the tale, and to what degree does the original writer of the narrative lose authorial ownership?
Heidbrink’s analytical tool strikes at the crux of the issue of narrative analysis for interactive drama: its structure is explicitly filmic in nature, but its execution is exclusively ludic. Yet the designs of these influences, regardless of a sense of linearity, can be conceived as “closed” in nature: they lead to a definitive, “predetermined” goal that has been fixed by an external source. Even video games that are largely driven by narrative are predominantly closed, leading a player through a goal-based sequence of events—flexible in duration and depth through the addition of side quests, additional content, and so on—to a distinct ending, either completion of the game (and, thus, completion of the narrative) or defeat, restarting from a fixed point. Contemporary interactive dramas, by their nature, necessitate open narrative boundaries, inherently malleable to permit not only the internal flexibility of player choice but also the open-ended nature of viable conclusions that may be achieved when traversing the multitude of paths throughout the game.
Any foray into the interactive drama as an isolated genre must address an unavoidable discussion, especially with regards to the contemporary examples cited at the outset: precisely where—or if—there are dividing lines between interactive drama, film, and video game, let alone the rather loosely defined terms of “interactive film”/“movie game.” A plausible starting point for the current trends of the medium is the highly instrumental work of David Cage, including Fahrenheit (2005) and Heavy Rain (2010). Popular episodic adventures drawn from television and other graphic inspirations, such as The Walking Dead series (2012, 2013, 2016) and Batman: The Telltale Series (2016), bring both clarity and disorder to the definition. This hybrid nature of the genre can be clearly seen in topical discussion threads centered on the episodic adventure game Life Is Strange (2015), which have such titles and vitriolic discussions as “Interactive Movies Are Not Videogames,”11 “Game? Movie? Interactive Movie? Walking Simulator?,”12 and “Does Anyone Actually Like Life Is Strange?”13 To define the medium simply along “filmic” boundaries, denies the essential role of the audience (“player”) in manipulating the events through ludic activity in some capacity, but focusing solely on ludic events neglects both the historical and narratological influences of pre-rendered scenes and the emphasis on narrative construction. The interactive drama as a genre is a moving target, freely sliding along Heidbrink’s continuum of filmic and ludic form/function, that integrates multiple media, just as video games and films may combine multiple genres within a single title. It may best be described as containing the some or all of the following qualities:
An emphasis on a “scripted” story or narrative-centric gameplay
A preponderance of pre-rendered sequences and cutscenes (e.g., live action, animated, full-motion video [FMV])
Gameplay objectives, as well as their “successes” and “failures,” with narrative consequences—primary methods include quick-time event (QTE) and puzzle
Individual as both audience and player, with a role of choice in unfolding narrative
Branching story options resulting through gameplay action, ludic elements (e.g., collectibles, side quests, discovery/exploration), dialogue, and/or character choices
Multiple possible endings, all of which are considered viable and plausible.
Music, if possessing any capacity for narrativity in this genre, must likewise share this dualistic filmic/ludic quality, and it must maintain the freedom necessary for a story that does not simply contain multiple drafts but also multiple endings, each with equal validity. Likewise, thematic cues that contain narrative connotations, if they are enacted and function in this dual capacity, must preserve their meaning across multiple playthroughs and regardless of their presence and absence in any given “performance.” Thus, specific musical events can be described as having narrative potential: the ability to express narrative function when present, yet does not alter or change the individual or overall grand form when absent. This echoes the notion of narrative texts that are defined as ergodic in nature, drawing from Espen Aarseth’s definition of the term in his discussion of cybertexts.14 The genre creates a unique amalgamation between text and player/performer, as the “creator” of the final product not only shapes the (nonlinear) narrative but also gains critical information from past and present playthroughs. As described by Aarseth, “You are constantly reminded of inaccessible strategies and paths not taken, voices not heard. Each decision will make some parts of the text more, and others less, accessible, and you may never know the exact results of your choices; that is, exactly what you missed.…And inaccessibility, it must be noted, does not imply ambiguity but, rather, an absence of possibility—an aporia.”15 Music in the interactive drama that expresses this sense of narrative potential can be described as possessing the following qualities:
Appearances of a cue share the same narratological implication throughout recurrences, even though they may or may not be present during the course of a single playthrough.
Appearances of a cue may be during ludic events and functions, or during filmic events and functions.
Appearances of a cue are the result of player performance and choice, activated by the player’s construction of the story.
Cues may be indicative of events past, present, or future with respect to the narrative itself, not gameplay; a cue may provide information for the current playthrough or subsequent playthroughs.
All cues may be considered to exist in potentia in the diegetic universe of the game, whether or not a given musical event is activated in a single playthrough.
To explore this concept of cues with narrative potential, three different musical examples with different functions and frequencies will be explored in their use throughout Until Dawn. Each cue appears within the context of one or multiple sources (e.g., cutscene, QTE sequence, choice, discoverable item) and may appear within the context of the fundamental events of the game or diverging options obtainable through successive playthroughs. In paralleling Heidbrink’s model, the analysis will slide across the spectrum from traditionally filmic function of associative cues, identifying a motivic intermediary that blends form and function, towards a seemingly explicit ludic stinger in a solitary chord for indicating character death.
Musical Games, Butterflies, and Psychosis
(CONTENT WARNING: Descriptions of in-game events in the following sections will include depictions of violent or graphic imagery.)
Just as one must bear in mind the influences of both film and video games on the interactive drama when considering the role of music, so too must one account for historical antecedents of nonlinearity and external influences upon the creation and interaction of the performer/player and music. Such an epistemological shift to an external locus of construction and meaning aligns nicely with Roland Barthes’s criticism of classical models that had placed a preference on the distillation of meaning through the original creator. In his critique of authorial limitations, Barthes notes, “It is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality…to reach that point that point where only language acts, ‘performs,’ and not ‘me.’”16 The text at hand is not a single, strictly-defined object with a “final signified” meaning, but instead a “tissue of signs” that is to be freed by the reader’s own interpretations.17 Barthes concludes, “A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”18 The interactive drama literally liberates the fixed form (and, thus, the fixed author) and creates malleability in the musical medium, providing its own inherent musical play through the very act of creation.
Such acts of nonlinear musical creation have analogs that can be traced to various sources of the past few centuries. Popular compositional “games” that integrated ludic elements with musical activity became a form of home entertainment during the second half of the eighteenth century through the Musikalisches Würfelspiel, or “musical dice game.”19 Musical card games appeared with some frequency during the nineteenth century, such as the Kaleidacousticon System released around Boston in 1822 and the 1865 parlor game The Quadrille Melodist.20
Beyond the eighteenth-century parlor games, though, contributions from a wide array of twentieth-century composers display a significant shift toward nonlinearity and aleatoric musical processes, bringing the role of the performer into the realm of literal player and creator. Works such as Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question (1908) use three autonomous groups, each performing in separate locations and at independent tempos. John Cage’s 1951 composition Music of Changes focuses on indeterminacy, using the text I Ching as a means of selection for such compositional elements as density, duration, dynamic, sound, and tempo. Other works, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI (1956) and Earle Brown’s Available Forms II (1962), rely on chance as the primary means of player input, necessitating choice of orientation of precomposed elements to create the final structure.
Just as the evolving narrative and music in the interactive drama has precedents in earlier nonlinear music, the thematic content in Until Dawn’s score builds from historical antecedents. Central to visual imagery and iconography of the game is a butterfly, a creature born through metamorphosis.21 In addition to the in-game visual depictions of the insect, the structure and gameplay experience is oriented around the significance of Butterfly Effect mechanics, its in-game significance explicated to the player in an opening cinematic. Ensuring permanency of characters’ actions and decisions is a strict auto-save feature, providing a unique playthrough for each game that preserves its narrative thread and creates a “base” model of the entire story upon completion. A custom game engine embracing the Butterfly Effect concept was developed before the script itself, employing a series of nodes to identify these critical divergence points within the narrative that contain different branches that reflect potential choices, actions, or discoveries of the character(s) involved. Each node and/or branch subsequently connects to a different node with similar options, creating an intricate network of pathways that map out such features as character development, emotional status, relationship status, and physical damage. Should the player wish to go back and change or retry any events, they may select any new starting point and preserve all previous decisions and actions that came before; for the new consequences to become permanent, however, the game must be completed again from this new divergence, following the path from this specific point of entry. On the surface, there are 256 permutations of possible “final” outcomes of survival or fatality, but the genuine diversity of narrative constructs that a player may generate to reach the inevitable conclusion—the destruction of the lodge and the defeat of the Makkapitew—is voluminous.
While lepidopterological representation throughout music history is most certainly not unique, a direct parallel to the score of Until Dawn with respect to the visual and psychological iconography is readily identifiable in Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (1912).22 The opening of the eighth movement of the piece, “Nacht,” begins with a three-note motive that outlines the  trichord, consistently stated as an ascending minor third followed by a descending major third (see Example 1). The middle pitch generally serves as the genesis of a new statement of the  trichord: for example, the opening statement of the motive consists of the pitches E-G-E♭, and the pitch G instigates the second motive (G-B♭-G♭), and so on.23
A byproduct of this segmented motivic construction is the creation of a second motive: a descending chromatic line. Though greatly restricted in this initial setting to two notes (or a maximum of three in the second voice), the resulting descending motive (hereafter labeled ) enhances the dissonant atmosphere created from this opening. An analysis from Kathryn Puffett posits that these two figures become emblematic of the external imagery that dominates the movement, drawing upon the poem to utilize contour and interval as a means of word painting and imagery. Puffett suggests, “In the poem swarms of monstrous black butterflies are used as a metaphor for the falling of darkness. The creatures descend threateningly from heaven, sinking ‘with heavy wings upon the hearts of men’ and ‘killing the light of the sun.’ Every aspect and detail of the music is directed towards the expression of this metaphor; everything in it derives from a single butterfly.”24 She reflects on her original interpretation of the setting of the poem and the musical organicism of these three measures that unravels from this opening gesture:
There are only two motives in the song, and one of these is already inherent in the other: the second is the inescapable outcome of multiple statements of the first.…The first, and seminal motive of the song…is a musical manifestation of the shape which has been used by artists and children alike over the ages to represent flying birds or insects. Schoenberg’s butterfly is not symmetrical, however; its second wing hangs slightly lower than its first, and it thus contains within itself the seed of chromatic descent. When one of these butterflies is followed by another a whole tone lower this descent becomes a significant element, a second motive resulting from the proliferation of the first.25
Undoubtedly the salient similarities between “Nacht” and Until Dawn’s score are strikingly evident from the opening of the prologue. A characteristic horn solo, encompassing many of the central elements of the principal thematic material, begins with a full statement of the  Butterfly trichord in its characteristic wing-like shape while the camera pans over Beth staring out into the snowy blackness (see Video 1).26 Earlier versions of Jason Graves’s original score also reveal an accompanying counter line that can be connected to “Nacht”: an oscillating  chromatic gesture.27 Graves’s second version of the “Mountain Theme,” presented in reduction in Example 2 below, incorporates the simultaneous statement of these two themes with another characteristic horror music trope: a tritone leap in the bass.
While this draft of the Mountain theme is slightly different in the game’s prologue, as the  figure is absent, its early conception nevertheless interlinks the significance of these two gestures both musically and narratively. The temporal location of the first appearance of the Butterfly trichord—not only at the outset of the prologue but also immediately following the introductory Butterfly Effect video—brings a more direct relationship to music and image. By combining the theme with Beth, a character whose imminent death is tied to both the antagonist (in this case, the unknown Makkapitew) and, indirectly, her identical twin sister Hannah, the music subtly insinuates the narrative connotations that will unite the three characters.
Construction and variations of the principal theme are centered around modifications of the Butterfly trichord, producing a multitude of potential iterations, many of which are provided in Example 3 below. Common recurrences and deviations of this Butterfly motif include such alterations:
An initial main theme (“The Shadow of the Mountain”), which features one of the more common statements;
Modification of the second motive via augmentation of the opening interval to a major third;
Fragmentation of a singular statement of the Butterfly motive into two, two-note elements, yet retaining its  content;
Expanding the opening interval from a minor third to a minor sixth, using the wing-like descending gesture to close on the implied supertonic;
Expansion of the opening gesture (from a minor third to minor sixth) as well as inversion of the closing figure, ending on the implied leading tone.
The modifications of the Butterfly trichord parallels central topics of the game’s diegesis, providing further insight to the narrative world should the player complete certain goals or discover specific clues. The use of the (B) variation is generally tied to the physical space of the Makkapitew, especially when the player/character crosses a significant boundary to enter this territory. One notable example occurs in the final chapter, as Sam and Mike are exploring the mines and come across a large metal door. Exploring further into this corridor triggers the (B) variation as Sam and Mike see the hanging remains of the Makkapitew’s victims on the metal hooks above, and the two friends recoil in horror and disgust as they realize the creature’s role in the demise of all the individuals throughout the evening.
Beyond physical spaces within the gameworld, the variations of the central theme provide a potential window into the mental spaces of certain characters. If Sam successfully escapes and hides from the Psycho in chapter 5, she will reach the workshop at the outset of chapter 7, and her arrival into the Psycho’s lair is subtly announced with the primary theme sneaking through the texture. As Sam scavenges the basement, she may encounter six unique clues that can provide enough information to the player to confirm the Psycho’s actual identity. Should the player explore the area and acquire these clues, triggered cues between the discoverable clues of Josh’s medical history and his cell phone will feature the fragmented reordering of the Butterfly trichord used in variation (C), presented in Video 2.
This variation of the theme, a compression of both intervallic and rhythmic content, is a direct reflection of Josh’s mental state: a mind that has fragmented, focused on a single goal of revenge. Much like the Butterfly trichord itself, Josh has been broken by the events that are directly associated with Hannah and Beth. More significant, however, are the direct ties to the physical, temporal, and metaphorical aspects of the diegesis—the cue is only in the Psycho’s workshop (an optional event that requires a special sequence), triggered between clues confirming Josh’s psychosis, and it occurs during the unmasking of the Psycho’s true identity and the substantiation of the supposed antagonist’s lack of genuine threat throughout the narrative. The Butterfly trichord, or more explicitly stated, Hannah and Beth (as well as the events from the prior year), are intimately tied to Josh and his manifestation of this alternate identity.
This specific variation of the principal theme is not the only form directly tied to a specific narrative thread or optional ludic clue. The (E) form is directly tied to unveiling the true identity of the Makkapitew. While traversing the mines in chapter 10, Sam and Mike may discover the remains of Hannah’s makeshift journal, which reveals her untimely fate. In order to survive, Hannah had to resort to cannibalism for nourishment, consuming the remains of her deceased sister. This act of ingesting human flesh permits the spirit of the Wendigo to enter the body, according to the folklore and information provided throughout the game by the Stranger. The moment of musical confirmation occurs in the final battle sequence: the evil entity relentlessly chasing the eight protagonists is still, at its heart, a mutation of Hannah. This identification is substantiated as the (E) variation sounds over the Makkapitew’s victory over the other Wendigos in the lodge, leaving it the sole creature threatening the teenagers (see Video 3).
Thus far, examples have focused on a principal theme in a traditionally filmic role, appearing in a connotative nature and relying on thematic manipulation as a means of conveying information to the player. While this approach offers considerable insight into the narratological processes of the music, it remains relatively void of ludic functions, generally appearing and evolving in character throughout the “grand film” in a manner befitting the prototypical motion picture, albeit on a significantly larger scale. Within the score for the game, the addition of specific accompaniment layers, triggered by ludic actions, provides further narrativity, detailing information concerning present or future considerations.
Motivic Augmentation as Narration
While the Butterfly trichord has served a key thematic role into the narrative, it is the secondary motive, the  oscillating four-note chromatic gesture in the cello, that provides foreshadowing into the unfolding events of the game. This figure, hereafter referred to as the “suspense motive,” first appears during a cutscene in the prologue as Beth and the majority of the main cast run out of the cabin in pursuit of Hannah. This motive reappears later, triggered at branching player options following the initial path choice. Each appearance of this motive (dependent on the length of the cue permitted by the player’s actions) in this opening sequence is accompanied by a specific bass line: an augmented form of itself (see Example 4). Beth ultimately arrives upon her sister in the woods, and the twins are chased by the unseen creature toward the cliff’s edge, falling to their implied demise.
This specific setting of the suspense motive is but one form used in the game, as the chromatic figure may sound without this augmented self-referential form in a lower layer, typically performed in a more pizzicato style (see Example 4). This manner of presentation appears in two different scenes in chapter 3, between two different pairs of characters, yet the scenarios for the player are nearly identical. Following a shriek of terror, Mike goes in pursuit of Jessica, only for her to spring from her hiding place and startle him; Sam and Josh, attempting to restore pressure to the hot water tank, follow a series of strange noises in the basement that leads to a jump scare from a masked figure. In both situations, the characters are in no danger, and the subsequent choices or actions of the player have no effect on the overall narrative; the central premise is deceptive, emblematic of a false threat. (See Video 4 for a comparison of the two settings.)
When one traces this separation of suspense motive cues, a noteworthy design emerges when placed in the context of the three-act filmic structure. For Until Dawn, this partitioning of acts falls neatly along in-game chapter boundaries: “Act I” consists of chapters 1–3, “Act II” consists of chapters 4–7, and “Act III” consists of chapters 8–10. The “false threat” design appears approximately eight times throughout the game, with the majority (five) clustered in the second act, during the primary period of deception in the narrative (see Table 1).28 The player is not only being misled in terms of what is truly dangerous to the teenagers under their direction, but the characters are likewise being misled as to who (or what) is the true threat on the mountain during the story. There are only two appearances of the “false threat” setting of the suspense motive after the second act, or more specifically, the reveal of the Makkapitew as the genuine antagonist.
The use of just the suspense motive in chapter 9 emphasizes the importance of narrative correlation and in-game communication to the player. Prior to traversing the mines, Ashley may read through the Stranger’s journal and discover that the Wendigo is capable of mimicking the voice of any human it is familiar with. Ashley is thus faced with a dilemma: continue following the group, or venture on her own and rescue Jessica. Should the player choose to investigate the voice, the danger motive begins to play as Ashley travels through the tunnel and approaches a locked wooden trapdoor, but the absence of the augmented sublayer would musically suggest that she is safe from harm. This moment, however, is intentionally deceptive and emphasizes the magnitude of communication for in-game relics. The well-informed player, drawing from the journal, can identify that it is truly the Makkapitew hiding underneath the wooden door, with the nonthreatening suspense motive providing an aural smokescreen. Any action that can spring the trap—simply unlatching the pin or fully opening the door—will result in Ashley’s death.
The use of the suspense motive and its augmented sublayer, however, sees a more even distribution throughout the narrative, appearing approximately seven additional times in the main story following the opening prologue (see Table 2).29 These appearances are evenly divided between the second and third acts, with each cue in the second act serving as a direct moment of foreshadowing for the player as to the primary source of danger. One such instance potentially involves a character (Mike) completely oblivious to the Makkapitew observing him as he attempts to ignite a lighter; the burning flame illuminates the creature and provides a visual of the creature’s face for the first time, establishing a direct musico-narrative link between the suspense motive with sublayer and what will be the genuine threat to the protagonists. Additional foreshadowing identifying the Makkapitew as the source of danger is tied to the potential discovery of in-game tokens that can show Chris’s potential decapitation or Emily’s execution—a collectible that is paired with the Makkapitew’s discrete shriek as the beast engages in distant conflict.
While the events of foreshadowing real danger in Act II are tied through iconography, all three incidents of the Makkapitew sublayer within Act III are directly united through character interaction with the creature itself, leading to potentially fatal consequences. This motive is guaranteed to appear twice during gameplay regardless of player choice or performance, each leading to life-or-death confrontations with the beast. In chapter 8, Chris and the Stranger will walk to the farmhouse in an attempt to rescue Josh; the musical underscore accompanying their discussion, which focuses on the Wendigo’s hunting manner and skills, is almost exclusively attentive to the genuine danger at hand by incorporating the suspense motive. Their trek leads to the Stranger’s guaranteed death and a QTE sequence between Chris and the Makkapitew, where Chris may also perish. The other guaranteed appearance of the danger motive is found in chapter 10, during Sam’s trek back to the lodge and the final battle sequence with the Makkapitew. Its only non-guaranteed appearance is in the final chapter as well, contingent on Matt and/or Jessica remaining alive. The suspense motive will be triggered before a QTE sequence with the Makkapitew, which determines their final fate.
Mapping the total prime appearances of the suspense motive with respect to the filmic three-act structure depicts a significant structural rift between the frequency of “true” and “false” diegetic threats, and the dividing line between these states is a crucial event in the narrative. In chapter 8, Emily reaches a narrow crevice where she must carefully navigate the gap; crossing this barrier triggers the story’s peripeteia, as the Makkapitew is finally revealed in full to the player in the ensuing QTE sequence. The trigger itself, shown in Video 5, serves as the combination of the filmic scene and ludic action that requires the player to propel the story/game forward into its narrative core. Immediately following this sequence, the Stranger arrives at the lodge and explains about the creatures and folklore on the mountain, retroactively removing all sense of (false) danger from the preceding events associated with the Stranger and the Psycho.
This event has its own musical moment that appears nowhere else in the game: the suspense motive as the primary thematic material, with thematic variation (B) as its counterpoint, uniting this sense of danger/suspense with the Makkapitew at the diegesis’s most critical scene. When considering this event in comparison with Graves’s initial sketch and the first partial statement of the Butterfly trichord, the scene becomes a dividing line in the inescapable musico-narrative. Figure 1 presented below displays this reversal of fortune as the literal inversional axis between the two musical themes, pivoting around elements of range, tempo, and genuine sense of danger.
Thus far, the Butterfly trichord has served more traditional filmic roles and the suspense motive has shown more ludic function. While the suspense motive displays inherent flexibility concerning its presence or absence in a given playthrough, selecting a musical cue whose determinability is contingent solely on performance might produce the most fruitful details in this foray. The death stinger, which is most clearly tied to the game’s foundational premise, offers such an opportunity. Conversely this stinger will upend this goal and reveal the most significant information through its narrative potential in its presence and absence.
Death Stinger: Ludic and Filmic Symbiosis
While the presence or absence of specific instances of cues or variations of these figures is frequently dependent on ludic action, there are certain events, such as the trek by the Stranger and Chris (and the Stranger’s guaranteed death) and Emily’s encounter with the Makkapitew in the mines, that are guaranteed to occur during the course of gameplay. These stable pillars of narrative and music ensure that both critically augmented cues—the principal motive and the suspense motive—remain in structurally significant and unchanging points of gameplay. Player choice dictates the degree to which the rest of the narrative web is revealed throughout the course of single or multiple playthroughs. Inverting the analytical spectrum and placing the lens on an (apparently) ludic-functioning device might illuminate a peculiarity within the interactive drama, one that establishes its unique positioning among multimedia. Moreover, the methodology behind the suggested appearance or absence of the death stinger is related entirely to ludic function, rather than narratological: player performance, player choice, or “other-character choice” (decisions made by player-controlled characters that have repercussions for other protagonists).
The death stinger is defined through its harmony and orchestration, recurring in near-uniform appearance in each of its recurrences. It consists of a C-minor chord, with pitches first introduced by low strings; the latter addition of choral voices, settling upon E♭ as the highest pitch, creates an ethereal and ominous end to the character’s part in the tale. Its first potential appearance is in chapter 6, which is the first clear onscreen death of a character at the hands of the Makkapitew. It may also appear with an important clue that details what happened to the twins after their tragic fall. While exploring the mines in chapter 7, Emily may encounter the deteriorated remains of Beth’s head, and her horror and sadness are paired with the same chord and voicing before evaporating into nothingness as the Makkapitew shrieks in the distance, subtly implying some linkage between the cue and the clue. Examples of the stinger in its ludic function and this specific clue are presented in Video 6 (CONTENT WARNING: Graphic violence).
This Makkapitew death stinger distinctively appears for seven protagonists, the essential and unavoidable death of the Stranger, and the potential discovery of Beth’s severed head—all of which directly tie to Hannah’s eventual fate in her transformation and the central theme for her specific narrative thread: revenge. The stinger’s aural pairing with the Makkapitew also unites with the physical manner of fatality, providing a manifestation of character flaws and manner of death for the primary protagonists. A summary of all instances uniting the Makkapitew death stinger, the ludic method that results in death for the character, and the narrative associations between character and manner of death are provided in Table 3.
This delineation of self-inflicted doom, paired with the Makkapitew death stinger symbolic of Hannah’s revenge, differentiates situations where the protagonists perish through the character flaws and repercussions of other characters, placing the impetus for their demise not within Hannah’s central story but in the consequences outlined in the peripheral “wings” of the unfolding Butterfly Effect. Such deaths are generally paired with musical ideas directly associated between the two characters involved or silence if no discrete theme has been established. Jessica and Mike, despite having uniquely composed music for their trek to an isolated cabin, are narratively entwined through the song “Hey Hey Hey (It’s Gonna Be Ok)” by the band stephaniesid, which appears in some capacity in each scene featuring the couple within chapters 1–3. Jessica’s abduction by the Makkapitew in chapter 4 and her fate at this moment are not in the creature’s (or Jessica’s) control but rather entirely in Mike’s hands, as her survival is contingent on his selection of correct paths and accurate navigation during the QTE chase. Mike’s arrival in the mining building is greeted by the sounds of “their song” playing in the distance, regardless of Jessica’s fate; her status is ultimately determined by the presence or absence of her jaw as Mike stumbles upon her body in the elevator shaft. Throughout the remainder of the game, Mike assumes she has perished, yet the death stinger is not sounded upon discovering her in any condition, regardless of her fate.
Mike’s potential cowardice and self-preservation may similarly appear should he choose to execute Emily, fearing she may turn into a Wendigo from a bite potentially sustained from her aforementioned pursuit in chapter 8. Because no motive has been established between the two former lovers, however, the music abruptly cuts to silence after the initial horror effects of screeching strings and scraping metal.
Chris and Ashley are similarly linked through a musical theme, presented in Example 5, which may usurp Hannah’s quest for revenge. The placement of Chris and Ashley’s theme in conjunction with the Makkapitew death stinger provides intimate details into the developing relationship between the couple. In chapter 6 Chris’s fate can be predetermined and foreshadowed should he attempt to shoot Ashley during one of the Psycho’s twisted games; even if the player successfully navigates the QTE sequence in chapter 8 and avoids the Makkapitew, Ashley will stand by the locked door and coldly watch as Chris is caught and brutally killed, initializing a flashback to the aforementioned shooting. While superficially it seems that Hannah has indeed claimed another life in her quest for revenge, it is truly Ashley who has sought and achieved vengeance at this moment. Thus, the soaring, lyrical theme that once symbolized their budding romance becomes prominent, emblematic of her broken heart at the forefront of the death scene and appearing before the stinger. Likewise hints of the love theme return should Ashley open the trapdoor and release the Makkapitew, giving in to her natural inquisitiveness, and Chris discover her bloody toboggan. Chris’s realizing the loss of his love and the emphasis of Ashley’s intimate role in his impending demise—and their interwoven fate in death—brings the love theme as the first sounding object that leads into the death stinger. Once again Hannah has achieved vengeance through the actions of another, the pair interlinked musically.
The situation of this love theme after the death stinger, however, or its omission in a similar situation likewise reveals deeper layers in the relationship. Should the player as Chris fail the QTE sequence in chapter 8 and be caught by the Makkapitew, the death stinger will sound, indicating that Hannah has achieved her goal. Ashley will approach the door and find that her love did not survive his encounter. She is pulled away and becomes hysterical, and the death stinger gives way to the lyrical love theme; this placement of the love theme after the death stinger breaks the narrative bond established by the previously identified examples, because Ashley is not at fault in Chris’s demise in any capacity, and the love theme is simply acting in its traditional filmic role. All other scenarios that involve Chris’s or Ashley’s death omit the love theme entirely, disconnecting their “romantic fate.” A summary of all sequences in which the death stinger is absent, including those beyond Chris and Ashley, is provided in Table 4.
The end result is that only one character of the eight protagonists is never paired with the Makkapitew death stinger, even though it has been extended to the canonical death of the Stranger and the discovery of Beth’s head. This lone figure is Mike—the object of Hannah’s unrequited affection, and the shred of humanity that remains in her human form. In all possible death sequences, Mike can never be physically killed by the Makkapitew; his most significant trauma is in the final confrontation, where he may be severely injured by the creature but still survive. His death is only possible in the fire that will consume the Makkapitew and the lodge (as well as potentially other characters). This climactic explosion can be triggered by Sam, potentially too soon, or by Mike himself in a moment of self-sacrifice, finally uniting Hannah with her crush as the fire consumes the lodge, the locus of her loss of both her heart and her humanity—and the man to whom she could never truly seek retribution.
On the contrary, the player can experience an entire playthrough and encounter only one other guaranteed sounding of the death stinger beyond the Stranger: Josh’s encounter with the Makkapitew in the final chapter. While his fate is determined solely on the optional discovery of the journal in the prior segment, the “ludic” cue is guaranteed to sound whether or not he identifies the creature as the metamorphosed form of his sister. This complete removal of ludic function nevertheless leaves the narrative function (and the established narrative potential through all possible connotations) intact: Hannah achieves revenge on her brother and Josh’s human form is ultimately destroyed. Josh’s survival does not lead to his rescue but to the perpetuation of the curse, as his entrapment in the mines requires his resorting to the consumption of human flesh to survive until post-credit discovery. Though Hannah is burned in the fire that consumes the lodge, the spirit of the Makkapitew finds its new host, “killing” what was once human and uniting the inescapable filmic and ludic form and function through a single chord.
(END OF CONTENT WARNING)
Choosing the Next Branching Path
Thus far, the topic at hand has looked at only one contemporary interactive drama, in only one specific subgenre, survival horror. Yet this very focused study has brought forth a Pandora’s box of issues and further subjects for musical discourse that necessitate additional investigation. Music clearly plays an integral role, participating in the evolving narrative and informing the player both in real time and in subsequent playthroughs. Proactive and retroactive narrativity exists as a prospective feature through any current and subsequent experiences, and music maintains an intimate connection to the narrative, regardless of its filmic, ludic, or hybrid role. Form and function are simultaneously independent and interdependent on film and video game influences.
With the contemporary interactive drama, a symbiotic relationship between filmic and ludic form and function cannot be denied, particularly when multiple-ending narrative structures are in play. Moreover, this intertwined relationship extends through all facets of gameplay, regardless of degree of player control or appearance in particular playthroughs. In acknowledging the hybrid nature of the interactive drama, it becomes immediately apparent that exclusivity of each medium is not the desirable approach for analytical methodology. Interactive drama is indeed a unique but combinatory form, and despite the clear influences from ludic and filmic sources, it must be treated as this distinct entity along the media spectrum—unified through elements of form and function in narrative and interaction. What is most critical, however, is that every possible path and outcome exists as a plausible state of equal significance; it is only through “outside interference” of the player that a story comes into being. Music, if it is to possess a narrativizing quality, must share this potential in its simultaneous presence and absence. It is neither explicitly filmic nor ludic; it is of the interactive drama, and it is for the player to decide whether it exists in sound or silence.
Undoubtedly music’s ability to convey meaning is but a part of a much grander discussion that lies beyond the scope of the topic at hand.
See David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2008), 172–73.
Summarized from Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema, 174–83.
See Bordwell, 181–182.
Kay Young, “‘That Fabric of Times’: A Response to David Bordwell’s ‘Film Futures,’” SubStance 31, no. 1, iss. 97: The American Production of French Theory (2002), 116.
See Edward Branigan, “Nearly True: Forking Plots, Forking Interpretations: A Response to David Bordwell’s ‘Film Futures,” SubStance 31, no. 1, iss. 97: The American Production of French Theory (2002), 108.
Branigan, “Nearly True,” 111, emphasis in original.
The author would like to thank Julianne Grasso for her recommendation of incorporating Heidbrink’s essay.
Henriette Heidbrink, “1, 2, 3, 4 Futures—Ludic Forms in Narrative Films,” SubStance 42, no. 1, iss. 130, 152–53.
See Steam Community, February 2, 2015, accessed June 11, 2020, https://steamcommunity.com/app/319630/discussions/0/6116969279290 66104/.
See Steam Community, February 2, 2015, accessed June 11, 2020, https://steamcommunity.com/app/319630/discussions/0/6116969279294 66297/.
See MMO Champion, July 4, 2017, accessed June 11, 2020, https://www.mmo-champion.com/threads/2248632-Does-anyone-actually-like-Life-is-Strange.
As defined by Aarseth, “In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text.” This creates an inherent dichotomy with nonergodic literature, “where the effort to traverse the text is trivial.” See Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 1.
Aarseth, Cybertext, 3.
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 143.
Barthes, “Death of the Author,” 147.
For examples of such musical dice games, see Johann Philipp Kirnberger’s Der allezeit fertige Menuetten- und Polonaisencomponist (The Ever-Ready Minuet and Polonaise Composer), C. P. E. Bach’s “Einfall, einen doppelten Contrapunct in der Octave von 6 Tacten zu machen, ohne die Regeln savon zu wissen” (Invention by Which Six Measures of Double Counterpoint Can Be Written without a Knowledge of the Rules), and Anleitung zum Komponierum von Polonaises (Instruction for Composing Polonaises), K. 516f., typically attributed to Mozart.
See Barthes, 17.
The author would like to thank Stephen Reale for his suggestion of including Pierrot Lunaire as an area of connection with the game’s score.
Additional musical examples that depict butterflies include Amy Beach, Four Sketches, Op. 15, “Fire-flies”; Franz Schubert, Der Schmetterling, D. 633; Robert Schumann, Papillons, Op. 2; Claude Debussy, Les Papillons; and Kaija Saariaho, Sept papillons, among many.
Arnold Schoenberg, “Nacht,” in Pierrot Lunaire (1914, repr. New York: Dover, 1994), 84–86.
Kathryn Puffett, “Structural Imagery: ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ Revisited,” Tempo 60, no. 237 (July 2006), 3. Puffett does not provide examples of the descending chromatic line in the first three measures but draws upon later examples, especially composed-out versions, to identify the significance of the chromatic descent.
Puffett, “Structural Imagery,” 3–4.
Only in-game music and original written scores will be considered for analysis to avoid differences from the commercial soundtrack.
The author would like to express his sincere appreciation to Jason Graves for his cooperation and ongoing support in this project and future research, as well as his generous contributions of original scores and recording sessions.
The “number” of possible statements for the suspense motive identifies the sum total of possible mandatory, conditional, and optional encounters of scenarios in which the motive may be triggered. During a single gameplay, it is not guaranteed that a player will complete necessary preconditions, such as selecting certain decisions or entering specific areas, or allow enough time to elapse to ensure that the motive (and potentially its accompanying layer) will be fully identified.
In this total, there are two instances where two potential statements within the same chapter and scene have been counted as an individual instance because of similarities in activating location and/or narrative implications. The use of foreshadowing for Chris in chapter 4 may occur in two different locations (within the lodge and along the path), but both are within the same scene and are narratively connected to his potential death at the hands of the Makkapitew (despite the use of fake blood).