It’s pretty hard to escape people discussing Game of Thrones at the moment. Everybody’s talking about the big moments of the opening episodes of season six. (I promise, there will be no spoilers in this article.) There’s just something about Game of Thrones that makes it so popular; it’s one of the only true examples of grimdark fiction. The heroes are amoral assholes, and the villains have seemingly come straight out of hell.

When describing Game of Thrones to a potential new viewer, chances are the first thing people will comment on is its brutality. The programme dares to go where no one else (or at least, no one else in the mainstream) would ever dare to go. No topic is taboo. From incestuous relations to the heartless massacre of key characters in a heartbeat, the show revels in being violent and bloodthirsty. No one ever knows what’s going to happen next, and that’s what makes it fun.

dark souls 3

We don’t actually see that much grimdark storytelling in video games. The term actually has roots in gaming – the word was originally taken from the tagline to the popular tabletop strategy game Warhammer 40,000: “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.” And yet, in spite of these origins, I find it difficult to discover any examples of grimdark games that speak to me as a player.

I don’t enjoy games for their difficulty. I understand why some people would, but for me, that’s not the draw. I’m in it for the storytelling and the immersion. I want to be sucked into a world, and lead on a journey that will take me with it no matter what happens.

Why should dark games always be so inaccessible that only those players who are willing to “git gud,” should be able to play them?

For this reason I don’t enjoy Bloodborne, or any of the Dark Souls games. I’ve simply never understood the complete absence of driving narrative behind the game. I’m just a bloke with a weapon being sent out into a gloomy wilderness in search of things to kill.  If I aimlessly wander enough, eventually I’ll find a boss. To derive any kind of plot from the game, I’d have to go out of my way to dig into the deeper lore of the game. It’s just unnecessary. Enjoying a game shouldn’t feel like work.

Recently Hyper Light Drifter has been a huge success, seamlessly fusing a brutal difficulty curve with a vivid, gritty sci-fi setting featuring plenty of demonic and bloody imagery. I’ve noticed lots of similarities between the game and Berserk, an anime/manga I love, that’s noted for regular use of both graphic violence and sexual content.

Hyper Light Drifter   Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 00.35.10

It’s a common theme. Most games that embrace grimdark imagery have to be difficult. We seem to automatically associate grimdark with “hardcore challenge” games. I don’t see the sense in this. Why should dark games always be so inaccessible that only those players who are willing to “git gud,” should be able to play them?

Why can’t there be games with accessible narratives that also feature the dark, gritty realism that audiences are craving? The success of Game of Thrones shows that people want to be exposed to grimdark fantasy. In fact, if you look into any entertainment medium, darker, more adult themes are succeeding across the board.

Even kid friendly franchises are now embracing the more ominous, darker tone. Compare the poster for the new The Jungle Book movie with the original from 1967. The original is a quintessential “Disney” movie. It features the full assembly of happy, smiling animal characters, dancing their way through a jungle that’s dense with bright colours.

Jungle-Book original Jungle Book 2016

By contrast, the 2016 reboot shows the lone figure of Mowgli, with the dark silhouette of a jungle cat bearing down on him. The jungle itself isn’t brightly coloured. In fact, it’s overgrown with vines, and shrouded in a mist of faded, poisonous green. The Disney logo actually looks out of place on the poster, when you consider the family friendly image the company has built for itself over the years.

Of course, The Jungle Book isn’t a grimdark film. The two posters simply highlight how the tone of popular culture has changed over time. As everything gets darker and darker, the media that represents the blackest of the black has to get darker to stay ahead of the curve. Challenge is used as an easy crutch for making the player feel that they’re getting access to something not many other players ever will. It’s an arms race, that’s leaving players like me with nothing that truly speaks to them.

Games are the only entertainment medium that hides its darker, grittier content behind a skill wall. For a game to be dark, it has to be difficult, and if a game is bright and colourful, it has to be easy. Why should these arbitrary standards still exist? Games are for everyone, and if people want to play a game with the brutality of an episode of Game of Thrones, they shouldn’t have to prove that they’re a “true gamer,” before they’re able to access games.

I don’t think I should have to “git gud,” before I’m allowed to play games. I think games should be the ones who have to “git gud,” so that I want to play them.

  • PanurgeJr

    Gameplay and art design–what we experience and how we experience it–are clearly independent in theory, and this correlation in practice that you have observed would seem to indicate a market that is not developing as it could. As it should, in fact.

  • Louis

    Of all the unnecessary opinion pieces whining about the difficulty of Dark Souls, this one has to be by far the whiniest and most unnecessary. Not content with keeping your complaints focused on the Souls series, you go and expand your view to everything “grimdark”. What does that even mean? “If a game is bright and colorful, it has to be easy”? Have you never played an NES game? Super Meat Boy is intentionally super hard, is that grimdark? Is the Touhou series grimdark? Is Wings of Vi grimdark? (Well, maybe.)
    The main argument you seem to be making is that games with dark themes are too difficult. That’s an abstract, meaningless debate. and it’s just riddled with holes. On the front page of this very website there’s a discussion on the game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a game about surviving a war-torn area, a story that by nature is grimdark. And that’s a bloody adventure game. Even Game of Thrones, the story you praise for being grimdark, has a video game that’s in a point and click format.
    Let hard games be hard, let dark games be whatever they please, and learn to get good.

    • PanurgeJr

      I have rarely seen someone so completely miss the point. The author was not complaining about the difficulty of the Souls series, or that there are hard games. His point was that it is impossible to find such a setting without also finding extreme difficulty. There is no reason the two should be so closely aligned, and yet they are. That is the point.

      • Louis

        You missed the part at the end where I listed games with such settings without extreme difficulty, didn’t you.

  • To my eyes virtually every video game and piece of blockbuster fiction appears “grimdark.” Of course the usual term is “hard-boiled.”

    I find this esthetic always fundamentally immature and juvenile. I think “Dark Fantasy” is a very important genre; but to me this is not a cosmetic quality. Life is dark, it’s not candy-land, but it’s not black licorice either.

    I find Dark Souls laughable, and maudlin. My Patreon fundraiser is for Sword of Moonlight. It is software that From Software created around the turn of the century subtitled King’s Field Making Tool. From Software did interesting games originally for the PlayStation. King’s Field, Echo Night, and Armored Core. They are all dark-fantasy. But they were not profitable-enough. So now From Software doesn’t make King’s Field–it cannot, and probably doesn’t have the ability. It makes Dark Souls instead. It does what is easy, instead of attempting and potentially failing at something more literary. (Which is what dark-fantasy is. Light-fantasy is unnaturally upbeat, escapist, lighthearted fair. If you invert that, what you have is a different color scheme; not literature of any real lasting value.)

    EDITED: A little while ago Sword of Moonlight got its first patron, who is none other than Mark Barnes, who co-fathered the Collada standard (I am presently working on making Collada a real thing.) Please support Sword of Moonlight, and through-it, also Collada–the only emerging public 3D computer file format standard that is or ever was–and I guess also myself!

    • Louis

      “Dark Souls sucks! Back my Patreon, it’s a hundred times better than Dark Souls!”

      • Well, since you put it that way–Yeah.

        • Louis

          Yeah, no. Acting like a self-absorbed hipster isn’t gonna get people to listen to your philosophy. Saying a big game studio is so incompetent that it physically does not have the ability to make a certain video game won’t help either.

          • I was just trying to treat you like a fellow human-being 🙂 My first impulse was to say nothing, but when I do this I always later feel guilty: this person was basically crying for help, and I disregarded their existence.

            This website can use comments, but not your kind of scornful comments. Sorry.

  • Greg Rizzer

    Git Gud