How dark is too dark for a game?

#1

Continuing the discussion from Best darkest COG or HG games?:

@CreepyPastaKitty Moved the convo over here :slight_smile:

Ok so starting a new topic thread for a question I was curious about. How dark is too dark for a COG? I’m not specifically talking about whether or not it’s ok to include things like death and violence, more on how it is presented to the reader.

In most books and movies, there is a disconnect between the reader and the story. You follow a character’s journey though various circumstances but you are always following them. (For example Hunger games, Saw etc). Even with shooting video games, although they’re violent, and the player is shooting at people, there’s little thought about who those NPC’s might have been.

Compare this to a choice game where you are the main character, making the difficult decisions as you go along. When people read COGs, can they disconnect enough from the MC to imagine something different to how they would necesarily behave or is it too close to home and will make people uncomfortable or upset. The killings would not have to be graphic (I think often there’s more impact if mostly left unsaid). I’m thinking more from the psychological stand point of the MC.

I"m going to use a fantasy example (because real life examples are going to get into some seriously touchy areas, and because it’s kind of easier to illustrate with a non-real example.)

Lets say the MC is almost killed by hit and run drunk driver but before they can die, they are turned into some kind of undead or vengeful spirit (for example a vampire but anything similar will do) that is driven to kill by their violent death and new nature which is difficult to resist. Worse still is your MC needs the protection of others of your kind in the area, and not all will be as hesitant as you, either thinking it is their right to do with humans as they please, becoming desensitised over time, or using a twisted sense of morality to justify what they are doing. (For example in the case of your MC, they could end up believing that by targeting drunk drivers, ultimately they are keeping “innocents” safe from harm.) How do you live amongst them (ie do you intervene and risk being kicked out or put up with it in one way or another).

So yep, not sure if this is clear, but I’m talking about games with difficult decisions from a morality standpoint, how they’re dealt with, consequences, possibility of redemption, since it is a choice story, not a stand back and watch how it plays out from a distance story. There’s also that tricky spot in that you may have NPC’s spouting beliefs that don’t equate with the writer’s and if you don’t give people more morally black options, there will be complaints, but if you do, will people decide that that is part of the author’s belief system?

That last thought occurred after taking a quick peek at the start of Monsters which has a disclaimer at the start that the views expressed by the characters are not always those of the author. How likely are people to believe that a fictional work with characters saying things like (to give the example above) it’s justified to kill off drunk drivers just in case they cause harm to someone else. (Which of course is not my (or most people’s) stance at all).

Also @CreepyPastaKitty brought up that if you make something too dark rather than comical that it begins to get hard for the player to relate because of no sympathy? I think that is also coming under my “what happens if it gets too dark”. You may end up with a disconnect from not wanting to try to understand what the situation is with your character.

Anyway, not sure if this is as clear as mud or not, but curious as to what others here think about it.

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Inappropriate Choices
Can you be too edgy?
#2

Here’s an analogy:

It’s like you’re standing in a room with one other person and the room has one light with a dimmer switch that can make it brighter or darker, and only that other person can control the lighting.

When it gets too dark to see what’s going on in that room… it’s too dark.

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#3

So I’m guessing you’re saying that as long as the MC is able to disconcern good from bad and gets to continue to make those choices between them, it hasn’t gotten too dark

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#4

There are some subjects that are taboo, of course.
Barring those…
It’s like trying to figure out the answer to this:

The answer I’ve come up with is that it depends on your target audience.

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#5

For me, a story can pretty much go to any lengths. Genocide, racism, mass murder, double parking, grave robbing, sociopathic protagonists, any of that goes. I’ll get uncomfortable when rape and sexual crimes start propping up, but even those I can push through.

However, it must, absolute must have either a happy or at least bittersweet ending. Something to say "all that crap you went through was worth it." As long as there is at least a glimmer of hope present throughout from beginning to end, I’ll be able to push through any kind of tragedy that a story throws at me.

If you’re looking for an analogy:
It’s like the pit in Dark Knight Rises. The whole idea of it is absolute hell where all sense of morality and life goes to die. However, at all times, there is a hole in the top of the pit that people can climb out of if they have the force of will. You can put anything you want between the protagonist and the top of that pit, but as long as the way out is always clear and visible, you aren’t ‘too dark’ just yet.
Or at least, that’s my darkness threshold.

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#6

Yeah, I’ll say any kind of sexual assault or abuse (domestic or sexual) will be too much for me unless the game’s written in third-person for a little extra distance. Even then, it would have to be some incredibly powerful writing by someone who’s either survived sexual assault and/or domestic abuse or done extensive research on the damage those survivors carry. If the material doesn’t respect survivors, and instead uses their pain as an angsty plot point, or in some way trivializes it or–god forbid–glamorizes it, I’m not only out, I’ll blacklist the author.

As far as the vampire morality tale described above goes, though, I don’t have a problem with that as long as there’s an option to choose a less violent path, even if that path is more difficult (e.g. the hospital job, blood bag route). I’d even be willing to play a character who targeted those she considered to be evil. I wouldn’t be interested in Hannibal: the Video Game, though, and especially not if I’m the one playing Hannibal. I prefer the Anne Rice tragic/romantic vampires and the Vampire: the Masquerade vampires to the 30 Days of Night vampires.

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#7

Dear dudes and dudettes, go play The Baron and we’ll talk.

http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=weac28l51hiqfzxz

It’s got everything, AND it’s in first person point of view. Edit: well, I guess technically in second person point of view. The most disturbing thing I have ever played, and I will (fear and) love it forever.

That said, I think ultimately nothing is too dark. The question that a developer asks themselves should rather be, “Am I pursuing this theme in earnest?” Few of us are internally driven to touch on the darkest aspects of human existence, but if you are one of those creators who gets fueled by darkness, by all means, go for it! No-one wants to see a half-assed horror element, but everyone is fascinated by a deeply-felt, powerfully expressed horror element.

Games as a medium doesn’t change that. It’s the same for books, films, paintings, theatre, sculpture, etc.; you’ve gotta be a little horrified, a little consumed, by your own creation for it to be an earnest and humane exploration of a dark theme.

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#8

If presented well and properly, I don’t think a game like the ones on COG can get too dark. Uncomfortable, definitely, but not too dark.

The whole point of these games is to be placed into a situation where you are the MC, you choose choices and to be able to continue the story willing, you must be interested in or relate to or understand the MC in some way.

I’ll take Hannibal for example, he was the most twisted person you could find, he revelled in killing people and made a performance out of cooking them, taking pride in his handiwork by even inviting others around to have a bite. Sick, no? Yet, why do so many people like him? Why do they root for him in the film and the series? It’s a difficult realisation that you are supporting someone who brutally murders and they cooks people, but we do it because we’re fascinated and charmed.

Yet, in other films, take Saw for example, you don’t root for the killer, and rightly so as he not only murders, but he tortures, and plays with humans as though they were toys for his amusement. He was disgusting and vile and he was the not villain you loved to hate, and some people considered it ‘too much’.

So, why is there two different mindsets, despite both doing essentially the same thing; murder?

So, personally. You can never go too dark, you just must be able to portray it in a way that keeps the reader intrigued and interested and thinking.

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#9

I think it’s all about the story tellers confidence and elequince. The darker it gets the better story teller you have to be and the more knowledgeable you have to be.
It reminds me of the uncanny valley in a way if you skills don’t match small issues appear that readers have issues with. Anything can be written about if you have the skill, knowledge, and confidence if you have those three you can in theory go to darker than black with choice words keeping the readers attention dodging the rain that is the subjects issues

Edit: that being said i doubt most authors can go all the way down that road safely

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#10

Hmm, mentioning saw made me think of something. Back when I could see I watched a few saw films and although they weren’t too dark they came across as gore for the sake of gore-gore porn. Sure they had a nice few plot points, but the main film was just gore porn for me. Then take severance, or even hostel to a lesser extent. Still gory films, but they felt like they relied on the plot more. Same with comedians, I just groan at comedians who I feel are being controversial and edgy just for the sake of it, especially if they aren’t being especially funny, again Frankie Boyle usually manages to do both just the occasional joke can feel to be just for the sake of it for me, I think Jimmy Carr pulls this off less well. But anyway the point being if a game explores dark themes there has to be a good plot, if the dark themes are just there to shock and have no substance it just wont be fun to play.

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#11

If every likable character dies (gets fridged) or suffers horribly, it probably becomes so predictable that I won’t even bother getting emotionally invested in the characters. Example: almost every anime with a Battle Royale themed plot. Also the reason that I’ve heard everyone dies in The Game of Thrones is why I won’t watch it. I want likable characters who stick around long enough to have proper development.

Ignorant people believe that simply including something means approving of it. I’ve seen some religious zealots claim that Rowling approves of “real” dark magic because she wrote Voldemort, even though Voldemort is obviously the bad guy. However people who are this dense probably aren’t your audience.

If you don’t want to confuse smarter audiences too, there are some things you can do. Avoid straw man characters. Create a variety of characters with different opinions. Don’t make every character agree/disagree with one character. Don’t give anyone plot armour and don’t coddle any character. Don’t prevent the MC from having diverse reactions to every characters’ actions. Force every character to challenge their beliefs and show them the worst consequences of their belief system, no matter if it’s Good, Neutral or Evil.

Here’s an example of challenging the characters’ beliefs gone wrong. There’s a Lawful Good character in the anime Code Geass who often gets into trouble because he refuses to break the rules. (Keep in mind this is just my opinion.) He follows the rules of an evil empire, but wants to change it from within the system. The challenging starts good: he’s ordered to execute a friend, he’s sent to a suicide mission, he’s charged with a crime he didn’t commit and the trial is rigged… If he acts Lawful in any of these situations, the consequences will conflict with the Good part of his morality. He has to go Lawful Evil or Chaotic Good. What happens next? The author bails him out by scrapping his moral agency and sending another character or a Deus Ex Machina to forcibly save him before he can make a decision and grow as a character. If a member of the audience disagrees with the character (like I do), this is very annoying, because it seems like the author is deliberately protecting flawed beliefs and twisting logic so that a character can be always right even when he’s wrong. Don’t be like Code Geass. Don’t do Plot Armor.

Kinda OT, but I’m slightly bored with monsters. Creatures that have killer instincts or are obligate cannibals like vampires don’t often lead to fresh and interesting moral dilemmas. The way I’ve usually seen it go is that the monsters say it’s fine to kill humans because humans kill animals, or that “humans are the real monsters” for fighting back using too cruel means. That’s so formulaic. I hope to see more diverse points of view.

Also I think having a destructive nature is less interesting than making a conscious choice to do something controversial because the character believes it’s right. Making a character a natural born killer who can’t help it is more likely to sound like the author justifies the character’s actions.

As far as gory scenes are concerned, often less is more. I’ve started to describe less physical details, add more horrified reactions from the characters, and let the readers fill in the details with their imagination, because I realized that the creepiest horror stories are often those that don’t spoon-feed every detail for the reader. Being vague forces the reader to think about the scene more, trying to figure it out, and if it’s well-written, the reader’s imagination will go to the most disturbing places possible. Also vagueness creates uncertainty which creates suspense. This also helpfully reduces the age rating of the story :stuck_out_tongue:

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#12

This is not the first time I’ve heard this. In another discussion thread I read a year or so ago someone was asking “how far is too gory”? (Sound familiar no?) and I think this was mentioned there too. Basically you lay the groundworks for your plot/story, tell the player what is going on, possibly even start their imagination with a short description of something in the scenery but intentionally become more vague in your descriptions and let their imagination do the work. This allows for those who don’t want the scene to become dark and for those who want the scene to become dark to both be satisfied.

EDIT: this could be seen in a story if someone were to write “you are walking in a straight line down the right side of the road. The birds are chirping loudly as the morning breeze tries to blow you into the buildings on your right. The streets are full of people as they are all walking to work, or maybe to pick up food for the day. Your eyes begin to sting from all the dust. Then you hear it, a bullet flies into the head of the woman in front of you, killing her before she even hits the ground.” Here you can see someone who wants it to be more gory would see blood splattering and gray matter everywhere, maybe they even get splattered with blood and brains. While the person who wishes for a more clean death would see that.

I understand this most likely doesn’t work for all conditions and therefore doesn’t answer the original question fully but as a general rule; this is always my first choice, with gore or other dark themes.

Here is the topic I was talking about:

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#13

I like things with a dark story, re zero is my favourite anime and I’ve been reading the translated web novel of it. I played a visual novel called Lucid9 that has a pretty surprising ending (also a pretty dark game) and then there’s a bunch of other dark stuff that I can’t really remember. So I’d say I like dark stories if it just messes up the MC.

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#14

You guys are great. It’s interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts on topics like this. If I try to start up a convo like this in real life I tend to get the raised eyebrow/what a weird thing to think about reaction lol.

Lots of good thoughts here. I also agree with the less is more. Gore for gore’s sake is a turn off for me with either books and movies (Films like Wolf creek I’m looking at you. Couldn’t get through that movie. Yuck) and often not seeing something and imagining what could have gone on, gives it all the more impact anyway.

@Lavender you make some really good points with character development. I sounds like a bit of a tricky balance and something that would be definitely worth running past an audience to see if the plot or characters have started to do any of the things you’ve listed above.

@Lauryn yep, I’ve never completely got the Hannibal thing but I can related with other villains. I think some villains just work because they’re the audience finds them charismatic, or they have a back story that makes people at least somewhat sympathetic or fascinated.

I think one of the differences in Saw is you know very little about the killer and it’s pretty twisted at the best of times. Also you’ve got a killer who is hiding behind the scenes, very calculating and premeditated, making people do his dirty work for him in a particularly nasty way, which is going to make pretty much everyone instantly dislike him despite the “tragic backstory” of him dying of a brain tumor. By contrast Hannibal is a lot more in your face and a weird combination of personality. (ie charming vs vicious etc).

@CreepyPastaKitty I watched the first Saw, haven’t been motivated to watch the rest of them. Definitely gore porn which I don’t deal with well…but they do have that “what will they do” element where people are put in terrible situations of will they play the “game” or die. And if they do co-operate, who’s life is worth more? I think they are quite dark from that psychological standpoint.

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#15

Without ruining SoI or GoI it only game series where you could end trying to justify a possible growing list of war crimes. To clarify my answer this game series put you in Ethically grey situation at best. Now in this game you’re playing a dragoon officer. And what Paul does well the writing. Is he get you into the cultural mind space of these people you’re playing. So you’re less thinking from your contemporary perspective and more into their. Specially when you start seeing some the horrors of battle. What would be considered war crimes or punishments that are cruel even act of retribution. Can get the player slowly more comfortable Least numb to doing horrible horrible acts. Now you can obviously fight going down that path. Will get to the point what is worth more your honor you’re gains or the life’s of the men under you. That Have lead to some of the darkest moments I’ve ever played.

#16

I’m personally of the rather staunch belief that there is no such thing as too dark, the only time it is to dark is when it stops being realistic, if it is no longer realistic it is too dark, if it is so dark and terrible that it is comical it is too dark, anything else is merely realism in my opinion.

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#17

Good question with a lot of great responses here. I personally enjoy a compelling, well-crafted shock or twist, but am totally put off by “torture porn.” I agree that, for me, there should to be a realistic reason/motivation, but also a chance at hope or redemption to come out of it.

Our sequel is going to some darker places than the first game, so the fact that it sounds like people will still be down for the ride is encouraging. We have always tried to ride the fine line between dark and light, or humor and despair. Guess we’ll see how good we are at practicing what we preach! :sweat_smile:

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#18

Terraria at night with no light sources is too dark. Same for mining in minecraft with no light. nodnods I think we can all agree, though at least these games have various sources of light that can be used. Oh, wait- that’s not the kind of dark you’re talking about.

Joking aside though, the joking is a real point. There’s a mutually understood concept of what ‘dark’ means in this context. The only danger in fiction is when someone does not recognize the context- when someone doesn’t understand the same definition of ‘dark’. One’s personal ability to reject a thing- any thing, moral stance, to a certain food, belief system, or proximity of a disliked individual- makes a decision like ‘too dark’ a personal choice. It’s only really socially acceptable to deny someone an action, not an opinion. Except in the most mutually understood concepts of truly ‘dark’.

There’s another side to the coin, too, after all. A story can be too light. If a story has no conflict, it won’t be exciting enough to read for many people. In theory, there’s a point where the maximum number of people would want to read a story, and gain the most from it- lessons to carry from it from a personal perspective. Where that point actually is, though, would be hard to agree on without factual figures to go by. The question of what is too dark or too light to provide a good story is an individual question- is there a gain to be found in stereotyping it?

Authors have a fascinating ability to navigate moral boundaries with grounded sanity. Inflicting conflict upon our own created characters, and crafting the reactions to those conflicts both sensible and insane, necessitates a sense of looking at the situations we write from many angles. Authors can often find an understanding and comfort zone looking at their own internal darkness with no threat of giving in to it. There is a noteable difference between acknowledging that something exists, and agreeing with it.

You play Terraria, and night falls. You can make some light for yourself in the game, or stop playing. A story or game gets dark in a moral sense- same thing. You can either gather up your own moral perspective to hold into the game, or stop playing. Games like Dark Souls exist. Is there light, in Dark Souls, other than what you carry into it with your own perspective? The presentation says a lot- there are far more twisted games out there in the nooks and crannies of teh interwebz… Perhaps no games are too dark or too light, and only game players can be these things. But a smart game still attempts to reach as wide an audience as possible.

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#19

I would mostly agree with that. Here’s an example of a darkness that needs to be studied to be understood (see below). Would you call this art? Or madness? Sometimes authors are capable of producing great works, but instead settle for something that can be universally understood, because it might sell better, or be received better by a general audience.

The Waste Land
by: T.S. Eliot

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#20

@Carlos.R I know none of the French woven in, though upon glancing through, I take the poem as an experience of living through one (or both) of the World Wars. If it were American, it could be taken as an experience of the dust bowl of the thirties. As is, it is to itself, and thus as art, reflects with the chosen medium (of words) many possible truths.