Dissecting Canadian Horror Games

A large portion of game development calls Canada their home but how many games actually take place there? Outside of sports games and some brief appearances in some games like Mass Effect 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Canada is basically non-existent in the world of video games. There is an increasing trend however, of horror games set in Canada, namely, Supermassive’s Until Dawn, Hinterland’s The Long Dark and Parabole’s Kona.

Even the Canadian film industry uses the Canadian landscape for American setting in horror films, Silent Hill, the IT remake and the DC horror film: The Suicide Squad were filmed in Canada. Let’s not also forget that the first slasher horror film, Black Christmas is a Canadian production.

But what makes Canada an ideal setting for these stories? Tax benefits aside, Canadian narratives have a long history of depicting ghosts, body horror and the human struggle against nature. Ghosts and the spectral are a particularly important part of Canadian literature in that they bring buried and repressed (and sometimes unknown) wounds to the forefront. What is interesting about all this is that despite the very few games fully set in Canada, they all similarly aligned with narratives of Canadian literature canon.

Canada has always shone on the world stage when it comes to it’s horror narratives because the landscape of Canada is isolating and cruel, the perfect setting for people to get lost in and to show the struggle of survival. However, there is a distinction to be made between ghosts in a settler-invader narrative as opposed to an indigenous narratives, an important and underrepresented part of Canadian literature. In settler-invader narratives such as Until Dawn there is a disconnection between the ghost and that which is haunted. It is the ghost who is appropriated to the use of the white character often to shock or horrify the reader. In indigenous tales, the ghost is not always used for harm and instead for preserving the memory and history of those who would be forgotten otherwise.

The survival horror genre in Canada is particularly famous for it’s film and now budding games industry presence. Until Dawn (along with The Long Dark and Kona) represents this stereotypical horror story made famous through the slasher film genre where an unknown figure takes out their revenge on unknowing young teens. In these narratives as stated by scholars Freitag and Louiselle, “dull Canadian peacefulness is threatened” and it is often the role of nature to enact “violent retribution” on those who have harmed the environment. Until Dawn sets up nature as an obstacle. The heavy snow storms force the teens to wait “until dawn” until help can arrive but survival of the weather is not a main objective of the gameplay itself (unlike The Long Dark). Instead, the violence of nature is embodied by an indigenous spirit, the wendigo.

Indigenous Spirits

The wendigo is an Algonquian spirit associated with cannibalism, murder and greed. It is a common figure in movies, television and games but is often times, removed from the original indigenous cultural context. Until Dawn uses the figure of the wendigo as the main villain which embodies not only the dead miners but the dead sisters Hannah and Beth. It also embodies a general curse upon the mountain for which the Washington’s have built their mansion. The intricacies of the wendigo are never really explored, other than looking through the notes the groundskeeper left behind on how to survive an attack against one. Kona also features the wendigo as a spirit of vengeance but like Until Dawn acts a figure which disrupts the peacefulness of colonized territory.

The wendigo isn’t the only aspect of indigenous culture used in the game. There are also small totems scattered across the game for the player to pick up. Looking at the totems give the player a vision to future events that may or may not occur. These experiences are completely non-diegetic and never discussed in the game itself and are simply used to represent indigenous spirituality as all- seeing all-knowing. There are also good spirits embodied through animals in the game if the player chooses to not hurt the squirrel or the bird early on. In this way the game actually measures exactly how much colonizing force the player exudes onto the environment. Being peaceful saves characters from being attacked by spectral deer (also presumed to be indigenous ghosts) and saving the wolf-like dog later on wields benefits to the player.

Alternatively, indigenous narratives often take a different perspective on the wendigo figure and other spirits. In which the true horrors are not spectral, but instead the violence and pain inflicted on indigenous groups and the land by white colonizers.

Ghosts can mean different things to different cultures and there is an important distinction to be made of who is haunting and why.

For generic texts such as Until Dawn, the wounds of others to used for shock value, adding to the canon of Canadian texts which use the crimes of Canada as surface value for entertainment purposes.Indigenous texts such Edith Robinson’s novel, Monkey Beach takes an indigenous perspective on hauntings, effetely showing the side of those who still hold the wounds for Canada. Monkey Beach shows that violent retribution is not always the way to talk about our buried past and instead shows what actually needs to be done to reconcile the crimes of colonizers. Being afraid of the unknown only others the ones who need help the most.

The Canadian Gothic

The Gothic texts of Canada along with forms of Canadian new media show that this struggle against the environment remains a Canadian mainstay and one of the only genres that appeals worldwide, showing that Canadian literature and new media has not only universal appeal but doesn’t need to be distinctly Canadian in the traditional sense.

The Gothic is often a misunderstood genre, popular associations of those who are “goth” do not apply. The Gothic, is of course associated with horror and terror and death but has preoccupations with Victorian Romanticism as well. Of course, Canadian narratives are often void of castles and crazy scientists but what they do offer is a unique take on the sublime, a subset of the gothic genre. In the history of Canadian literature, this often represents a combination of wonder and terror of the unknown wilderness. To put it simply: Nature is terrifying but also really pretty.

The sublime Canadian wilderness is represented In The Long Dark and Kona, two games about surviving the harsh winter weather requiring the player to live off the land to stay alive.

Whenever there is a Canadian Gothic narrative, there is mostly likely some sort of mine. It could be a miner underground (Until Dawn, Margaret’s Museum, My Bloody Valentine, The Long Dark) or an oil rig on the sea (Feburary) but what remains the same in these narratives is that mining represents as kind of revelation to the dark mysteries of life and death (Edwards), an element of the true Gothic. This is clearly exemplified in My Bloody Valentine when the miner’s girlfriends dream and fetishize of working in the mine and how cool it would be to work there for some reason. The public unawareness of the mine means that ghosts and spirits and disasters go unnoticed or unchecked creating a history that recognizes bodies and voices left out of history-making in Canada such as women, LBGTQ, Indigenous people and other POC voices.

Until Dawn includes a story with not only a mine, but other layers of ignored and neglected histories. These layers are literally represented by the landscape from the mansion on the top, to the mental asylum, the forest and finally underground in the mine itself. The first layer, which is the predominantly white, upper class teens who party at Josh’s vacation mansion in which the parents have advised to not be involved with the ongoing search for murders and disturbances around the mountain in Alberta (also connected by name to mining). This narrative is similar to My Bloody Valentine and all slasher films. The second layer is the mine and the neglect of the workers stuck down there and forced to eat each other to stay alive (also in My Bloody Valentine).

These events are conflated with a wendigo story where the spirit of the miners become indigenous spirits. This becomes problematic because the game is seemingly combining issues of indigenous land rights with those of non-indigenous mining workers. Another layer to the story is Josh’s institutionalization another site of grief over the death of Hannah and Beth leading to mental illness that is not kept in check. One of the most horrifying scenes of the game is when Josh is captured by Mike and Chris and interrogated. The disregard for Josh’s trauma in combination with Mike’s investigation of the mental asylum shows how people with mental illnesses are seen as monsters and in the game, this is literal. The interrogation scene is especially important for video games where the mental illness of the male characters are never examined even though many of these characters kill hundreds of thousands of people without effect leading to a stigma of discussion mental illness in games, . Male players and characters who are seen as “ too tough” to need to deal with mental health even though some games such as Bioshock: Infinite touch on the subject.

The events of the game begin to humble the upper class teen snobs into traditional Canadian fighters against the environment while also learning more about the history of the land and what has been exploited here. For example, Emily has to use her designer belt to make a torch in the mines. Harkening back to Hutcheon and historiographic metafiction, the game also requires the player to uncover the story through archiving the events of the mines, Josh’s sisters and the mental institution and it is up to the player to decide which pieces of the puzzle connect to the story which can eventually save the player’s life. At one point the players have to decide if the groundskeeper’s guide to the wendigo is real or fake before they decide to shoot Emily after being bitten. Or when they find the fake newspapers of the government trying to cover up the mining accidents.

Distinctly Canadian stories are extremely underrepresented in video games and when we do see games made by Canadian devs or games set in Canada, they often rely on common literary tropes. We can only hope that Canadian creators achieve success in representing other perspective in games.

Critic, writer, scholar. @Twitch streamer. @PlayWarframe partner and fashionista. Find me on @FPSweekly, @waypoint, @thefworduk.