Beautifully Bleak, a Quasi-Defense of “Dark and Gritty” Games


(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

My hometown is a little place in Southeast England called Erith. Erith was immortalized a few years ago in a book, that I unfortunately no longer recall the name of, listing the very worst places in Britain. Erith was a top contender, noted for its prevalence of “white van man” pubs and desolate surroundings. When I was a child, Erith was a dismal place to live, full of struggling small businesses and a town center that resembled a big block of filthy concrete. The following years had not been kind to the place, as those struggling businesses shut down and the concrete block got filthier. I remember a greengrocer’s my mother would regularly visit, and the old man who ran it and would give my brother and I half an apple each. Last time I was in Erith, the building was long-since shut down, the store’s sign faded beyond recognition. The man who ran it likely died a very long time ago.

I’ve not been back to England for a while, but when I return, I feel I shall visit Erith again. Even in spite of attempts to renovate and modernize the place, it’s still always been a derelict wasteland of a town. Like Fallout, but with a McDonalds. Here’s the thing though — I love my hometown. It’s a wretched den of failure and remorse, home to grey streets and faded memories, caught in the limbo between small town and inner city. When I think of Erith, I think of empty roads with nothing to do, soulless housing blocks, and complete degradation. It feels comforting, in a strange way. It feels like home.

I think my experiences growing up in Erith are what led me to appreciate the dismal and the depressing on an artistic level. I love grey weather. I enjoy rain, especially. To me, there’s nothing I find more serene than a rainy day. I’ve often been told by family members that I am “miserable” for enjoying the rain more than the sun, but I wholly disagree. I take great comfort from the rain. It makes me feel as happy as a sunny day would make somebody else. Grey can be engaging. Overcast can be cheerful. Bleak can be beautiful.

This love of the bleak carries over into games. Two of the most beautiful looking games this generation, as far as I’m concerned, are Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. This pair of From Software games are as grey and miserable looking as anything. Skies are overcast, the environments bear the oppressive hallmarks of ruin and devastation, and nowhere feels like a warm place to settle. From Software can craft worlds that reek of utter despair, drenched in visual echoes of terrible deeds committed in a world that once may have been something better. Such an aesthetic could be considered ugly, but I find it gorgeous. A dreary, depressing world, when presented in the right way, can be thoroughly enchanting.

The idea of the “dark and gritty” game has quite rightfully earned the ire of gamers this generation. There are many games that strive to be “realistic” or “mature” by sticking to drab color schemes of grey and brown. It’s ironic because bright colors are what really stand out in high definition, and you’d think more of the “HD Generation” of videogames would exploit that. Viva Pinata? One of the best looking games on the Xbox 360, without a doubt. Sonic Generations? Utterly sublime, with colors that really pop on an HDTV. So many games, however, went for that “dark and gritty” look, to the point where the top triple-A games of any given holiday season look like a mass of grey porridge. It’s not hard to understand why there’s a rebellion against such titles. However, just because there are so many drab looking games, that doesn’t mean “dark and gritty” doesn’t work. It does, provided you have artists that aren’t using the style cynically, and are fully committed to going all the way with it.

That is the difference between a game like Demon’s Souls and your average triple-A game like Call of Duty or even the relatively drab Grand Theft Auto IV. GTA IV and COD are good looking games, but they don’t quite have enough atmosphere to back them up. In such games, the grey grittiness feels almost cynical, a quick way to look all serious and adult by painting everything in a drab color scheme. Then you get something like Dark Souls, where every care has been made to build big, awe-inspiring environments, nonetheless cloaked in misery and decay, in a way that makes the entire game feel as intimidating as it is tragic. What I am driving at is that, when we dismiss “dark and gritty” games, we’re merely dismissing the cynical ones. Games like Dark Sector, that actually used the term “dark and gritty” in its promotional material, betraying how it was just trying to look like everything else without adding the atmosphere to back it up. When you wish to make a game that’s mostly grey or brown, you need to put extra effort into the lighting, the environment design, and the sound. Perhaps a few cruel beams of sunlight escaping through cracks in the cloudy skies. Scavengers picking at the bones of the dead. Upturned carts and ransacked homes, all pointing toward a life that used to be there, but no longer is. These little details make all the difference.

One of my favorite game stages in recent memory was from Resistance 3. You’re following a companion through blasted city streets while heavy rain drenches everything. Fighting opponents in the dismal torrential downpour was an amazing experience, one that really felt ambient and engaging. The addition of rain gave it that extra detail to stop it being just a grey shooting gallery. It was that beautiful bleakness that reminded me of home, and made me feel good. Similarly, as much stick as Gears of War gets for popularizing the whole “grey shooter” stereotype, one cannot deny that Epic Games did a lot of work to justify the art style. Gears’ world is similarly home to many details that indicate the ruined memories of a pre-Locust world, with a sense of deep foreboding and sometimes horror-influenced moments that the series doesn’t get enough credit for. Gears of War isn’t cynically gritty, it’s beautifully bleak.

I love a colorful game, and one day I’ll have to present my argument that Viva Pinata is the best looking game of all time. For now, though, I want to just celebrate those truly inspiring “grey” games out there, for many exist, and they don’t perhaps get the love they deserve. As an appreciator of the miserable and the gloomy, I find a lot of wonder in many of those gritty games, so long as the grit has a good reason for being there.

They just feel like home.

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1 Comment on Beautifully Bleak, a Quasi-Defense of “Dark and Gritty” Games

Nick

On April 11, 2012 at 9:42 am

Great write up Jim. I’ve been playing/watching Mitch play through Dark/Demons Souls over the past few months, and I think you’ve accurately described the atmosphere. No game captures desolate better than the Souls series.