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Dark and Gritty Themes: Do Video Games Really Need Them?
Posted on Monday, October 1 2012 @ 14:59:43 PST

This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.

Is it just me or have video game characters become dark and gritty like “realistic” graphics? Instead of throwing them in the wash with bleach and hope they shine and sparkle again, video game characters need a trip to a psychologist, a vacation, or maybe a few lap dances just to feel better. Just like how video game environments have become very dank and depressing, the characters themselves seem to have been hit with the darkness bat and now they must display as many variations of the serious and brooding mood as they can. For the love that is all of chocolate, why do they have to be this way?

Kratos showing one of the few expressions he knows best
To start off on the subject, we need to look at why our games and characters are going towards the more serious route. When video gaming was new, we had lots of colorful mascots like Mario, Sonic, all the Pokémon, Lara Croft, that guy from Doom, Carl Johnson, and many others. They mostly thrived on the exaggerations their games presented and they reveled in it. Kids growing up on video games remembered the great feats these characters did in their respective games no matter how exaggerated the actions were. After all, a big bosomed woman killing wild animals and gunmen by using her dual pistols and a super fast, blue hedgehog rammed into robots and ran up walls were things we grew fond of.

However, the general media saw these games as nothing but mere toys. Whenever a kid shot up a school or some other place, the media blamed the violent games for the kid’s actions and it made video games in general look more childish and even evil. Video game enthusiasts shook their heads in disgust knowing that their beloved hobby was not just for children and that their games can have a more serious tone to them. What were video games to do about this? They became serious business and tried to present themselves as such.

Don't you tell me you felt nothing when Areith died, you cold hearted bastard!
Wanting to be taken seriously as Hollywood movies, video games started to drift towards more realistic settings and darker stories. Even franchises that was not born with dark stories started to turn to the dark side of storytelling where everything had to be as grim as possible to the point where if you wondered if it was a crime to even smile, with death as the punishment.

Let’s take Sonic the Hedgehog for example. As stated previously, Sonic is a hedgehog that runs pretty damn fast and he thwarts the plans of a fat, evil doctor trying to take over the world. That was it. No one gave it a second thought, plus it was fun running at mach speeds destroying all the robots. By Sonic Adventure, things started to get pretty grim when the game shows Chaos destroying Station Square and leaving it in total ruins with pretty graphic details. Shadow the Hedgehog has Shadow use guns and, depending on the player, is willing to kill a bunch of people to achieve his own goals. By Sonic ’06, the world is ****ed in the future and in the present, and the world is ready to be ****ed up at a moment’s notice because the sealed evil in a princess will be freed if said princess cries (I hope she doesn’t cut onions!).

Damn it, Elise! I told you to stay away from chopping oninions and now look what happened!
For another example, the Grand Theft Auto series were pretty whacky in their own right to the point where everyone was a caricature of themselves and it was pretty awesome. You mostly ran around stealing cars, running people over, setting things on fire, shooting helicopters down with rockets, and beating up hookers for their money. By the San Andreas installment, you got CJ doing drive-bys on a freight train and shooting at the military with a jetpack of all things. It wasn’t believable, but because it was made of awesome, no one really cared how silly it looked. In fact, some could say the silliness itself is what made the game so great.

By Grand Theft Auto 4, the series was struck with the realism bat. All forms of humor and outrageous characters were heavily reduced and everyone had some sort of hardship or relationship issue that makes playing the game almost depressing. Niko is always going on about the hardships he still has to face and a good portion of his friends are depressing as hell except for Jacob and probably Roman. Despite the game having two different endings, both of them are downers and no one is happy in the end. It’s as if the game is saying “Happiness is for pussies! Real men are brooding and gritty and life must always suck for them!” Life sucks, but damn I don’t remember it ever being this dark.

Top: Flying with a jetpack and shooting at people on a moving train in a colorful desert
Bottom: Roman annoying the hell out of Niko in the gritty streets for a game of bowling because he has no friends

Switching gears, let’s focus on the not so dark aspects of video games or at least ones that don’t dwell on it like a stereotypical brooding emo. Everyone knows who Mario is and he is basically the Mickey Mouse of video games. Not once have you ever seen Mario or any of the other characters in the series act all moody or depressing for the sake of being realistic or grim. Mario himself is a pretty damn cheerful guy and the only time he ever gets upset is whenever he loses a game in the spin-off series like Mario Kart.

I am not saying that video games should be more like Mario, but what I am saying is there needs to be a better balance or presentation of the darker themes. For example, Super Mario Galaxy is pretty whimsical for the most part and it’s quite fun hopping from planet to planet with low gravity as Mario goes “weeeee” whenever he flies. However, if you decide to listen to Rosalina’s story as she tells it to the Lumas, it’s quite sad as she reads the story about how a girl (herself) never saw her mother again and she was going to be all alone forever, but she then grew happy again when she became friends with the Lumas.

Another example is the game’s ending (*spoiler alert*) where Bowser’s shenanigans causes the sun to become a super black hole that sucks up everything in the universe, including Mario and Peach, if the Lumas didn’t jump into the black hole to sacrifice themselves in order to stop the dire event. The way Super Mario Galaxy presented the darker theme in the ending was to let players know that **** just got real when you thought you were safe this whole time. A false sense of security that is taken away suddenly is a great way to draw people into the game and story.

Mario shows how accomplishing a goal makes you feel good
Video games are becoming a great way to express the artistic values of the stories they can present. Unfortunately, a good portion of video games are leaning towards the dark and gritty themes in order to be taken seriously. Real life can be depressing, but let’s not make video games depressing as well. I play video games to enjoy the joys of it, not to watch characters unable to express any mood besides despair, brooding, and threatening to rip someone’s eyes out for just looking at them. Hey, sounds like hormonal teenagers…

The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar and image inclusion (but in this case the images are all his). It has been submitted for our monthly $20 Vox Pop prize. ~Ed. Nick
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