[This article contains spoilers for the end of Until Dawn.]
In the world of Until Dawn, nearly all of the characters are introduced or otherwise initially framed in terms of their presumed straightness. Chris has a crush on Ashley, while Emily used to be dating Mike but is now dating Matt, and Mike is dating Jess instead, although Ashley’s decisions can lead Matt to think Emily is still interested in Mike, while Josh is apparently interested in making sure everyone has a good time and hooks up, but especially his friends Ashley and Chris, and is instrumental in making sure Jess and Mike head off to a distant cabin for some private time.
Curiously, the one living exception to this connect-the-dots love octagram is Sam. Described as “Hannah’s diligent, considerate, and adventurous best friend” in her opening shot, Sam occupies a curious place in the sex-obsessed gaggle of college students. She’s the focus of a painfully long sequence where she wanders around the house in a towel after her clothes get stolen and Josh makes more than a few references to her attractiveness, but she expresses no memorable interest in any of the men in her group and has no boyfriend.
She’s Hannah’s best friend, the game wants you to know. Hannah—the girl who went missing a year ago with her twin sister Beth, and who’s absent from the relationship ranking bars present in every pause screen—is who the game wants you to connect Sam with.
For Sam, it’s always been about Hannah.
As a horror/mystery game, Until Dawn introduces more than a few groupings of items to discover to alter a playthrough’s storyline based on what characters know or don’t know. One of these groupings is titled “The Twins,” and it tells the story of Beth and Hannah’s life in small details discoverable in a cave, in the Washington house, and scattered elsewhere around the mountainside.
The Twins is commonly noted for its contribution to the overall “success rate” of any one playthrough—discovering details from it allows both the players and survivors to learn where Beth and Hannah fell, that Beth died instantly, that Hannah ate Beth to survive and thus became one of the same Wendigos tormenting your central cast.
Two of the characters that discover most of these Twins’ artifacts are Emily, who clearly and regularly expresses remorse for her role in the same prank that lead to Beth and Hannah’s disappearances/deaths, and Sam, who is the first to identify Hannah as one of the Wendigos when enough clues are assembled for her to recognize her best friend’s butterfly tattoo. But the strength of Sam’s connection with Hannah rests on a thousand other smaller things than that one plot-driven discovery.
“Could this be any more about Mike?” Sam scoffs, examining a poorly-ranked love compatibility test with Hannah and Mike’s initials written in a heart on the back. She picks up the evidence of Hannah’s attempts to win Mike over without a word, barely commenting on her friend’s efforts to be more daring and attractive to Mike, and puts them down just as silently.
“It’s not her fault,” Sam argues, when a cruel group prank exploits Hannah’s crush on (at the time, Emily’s boyfriend) Mike, one of the few survivors coming to her defense without attempting to make light of everyone else’s actions. She rebuffs Mike’s attempts to talk to her after Hannah runs off, and—while able to cooperate with him successfully for the good of everyone around them when circumstances deem it crucial—goes through much of the game with Mike as one of her lower-ranked relationships, clearly highlighting that she hasn’t forgotten, or perhaps that she never liked her best friend’s crush quite as much as she could have.
Because Hannah is Sam’s best friend, the game wants you to remember.
It’s worth mentioning that any relationship between Hannah and Sam after the prologue exists only in its subtext or Sam’s audible grief. But the characteristically limited timespan of the game means all those details of how every one of the survivors feels can only be gained through careful thought and by paying attention, and often, that can involve multiple playthroughs. Not every player will find Hannah’s love compatibility quiz, or notice that Sam isn’t quite fond of Mike despite working with him reasonably well, or understand that the Wendigo who leaps to Sam’s defense when another is attacking her during the endgame is Hannah.
But it’s in this unsaid, predetermined space that most of Until Dawn thrives by building a base for players to create their unique game upon. You learn what happened by discovering these small clues rather than direct and regular exposition, because the Wendigos and Josh Washington and the Stranger and even the survivors you aren’t currently playing all work largely outside of any semblance of player agency.
So I point to Sam as a potentially queer character not for any choices that could be made to that extent, but for the material that exists to be found and considered and talked about from the established facts of the narrative, the artifacts and conversations and relationship rankings that remain thematically consistent, and yet can be read so uniquely across vastly disparate gaming experiences.
In a game as focused on romance and character relationships as Until Dawn is, its elements of heteronormativity slam into a player like me so aggressively that it feels like shopping the day after Thanksgiving. Its underlying homophobia of Mike’s unavoidable gay joke and equally ingrained disgust at the thought of having a threesome with Jess and Josh exists across every player’s version of this story in the same measure, but those actions will always be read and considered with different scales.
Similarly, its preorder-locked character development for its Asian and Black characters Emily and Matt, out-and-out bastardization of Native cultures with totems and Wendigos, and overt sexism and ableism among its cast of characters will be felt in a variety of ways by every person who encounters Until Dawn. Our games are all different, the introduction sequence always tells us, and we’ll always think different things about the same scraps of paper.
I chose to read my scraps of paper as telling me that Sam is a lesbian who had loved her best friend because of what it adds to her interactions with Mike, what it tells us about why she and Josh would be as close as they were, and for the simple fact that I don’t believe wanting to pay homage to older tropes is an excuse for constrained representation anymore.
And that—that’s the real crux of my argument here: I can give you textual evidence to support my stance, I can talk about all the ways Until Dawn (or Life Is Strange, or The Walking Dead, or even Animal Crossing) present certain readings as a possibility, and I can tell you about things the developers have said that have swayed my opinion a certain way. But at the end of the day, I choose to say Sam is a lesbian because I consider sexuality as one of the spaces that Until Dawn had so much potential to do better in. The horror genre often demonizes being gay (or Native, or trans, or mentally ill) to a degree that its stifling history echoes loud enough for me to hear it in every scene of Until Dawn, and I refuse to believe the developers couldn’t create a more original story that stepped a little farther away from that.
We are not confined to writing duplicates of the stories that preceded ours, as much as we admire or want to emulate pieces of them. We are always, always working in a space where we can do better, taking the pieces of older lore that are archaic and outdated and replacing them with things that are more true to our now-known ways of life. People know more about each other and our shared world than ever before, as Shonda Rhimes says about a very similar medium:
Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL. The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because, perhaps then, they will learn from them.
In my playthroughs, Sam is a lesbian, heartbroken and brave and real and always being given the chance to say a first and final goodbye to Hannah by letting her rest in peace.
That will always be what I see.