By Jeremy Szal and Layla Cummins – originally published in GdM#3
Video games are nothing short of a controversial topic within the entertainment industry. From fuming politicians on the morning news to bloggers with an axe to grind, they always have been and always will be a point of contention. You may not be an avid enthusiast, but their contribution to social issues and their aesthetically expressive visuals, storytelling, characters, and worlds are undeniable. To consider them anything less than works of art would be ignorant. And a fair share of these games have a horse of their own running in the world of grimdark. Far more than you might think.
In our favorite grimdark novels the main characters make morally ambiguous decisions that affect the outcome of their stories, for better or worse. For example, Abercrombie’s Inquisitor Glokta attempts to save Dagoska in Before They Are Hanged by getting into bed with the banking house Valint and Balk. Glokta knows Valint and Balk will expect favours of him that will corrupt his role as an Inquisitor, but does it anyway to save the city. It is this same sense of moral ambiguity and self-determination that is becoming central to so many popular video games. Acclaimed books and series like The Witcher (Andrzej Sapkowski), Metro 2033 and 2034 (Dmitry Glukhovsky), A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin), The Walking Dead (Robert Kirkman), and even Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) have shown how grimdark novels and gaming can blend seamlessly into one. Perhaps the smooth transition from paperback to controller says a lot about what video game audiences are eager to digest.
In video games it is usually some kind of built-in morality system that allows players to perform actions and make decisions that ultimately determine their character’s future in the game world. Many of these choices are difficult, influencing… These allow the player to perform actions and make decisions that manipulate the system one way or another. Many of these choices are difficult, influencing the world around the player and the way NPCs (non-playable characters) react to the protagonist. In the cases of RPGs like Mass Effect 2 (2010) certain choices can even change the game’s ending. These choices are clearly defined, even highlighted in red or blue, corresponding to the key morality of the decision. The choices are grey at times, and both have an impact in different areas, but it’s clear which path a certain action will take you.
But what if those moral guideposts are stripped away all together?
In The Witcher 2 (2011) you are Geralt of Rivia, a hunter of monsters and wild beasts. But more often than not real monsters come in the form of human beings. Of ordinary people and raw violence. The opening scenes set the stage for the morally grey world that you live in. Do you accept a bribe from a corrupt warden and use that money to better your chances of survival? Do you accuse a powerful archer of murder on the eve of battle, or do you betray the lusty succubus who accuses him? There is no pre-defined good or bad, no blue and red bar indicating your morality. There are only choices and consequences, for better and for worse. Like in other RPGs these choices impact the game’s world, diverging your paths and showing your point of view from opposing sides. Different playthroughs could even have you fighting for the other team. Geralt himself is a rogue in the greatest sense. He’ll do his duty and search for his kidnapped partner, yet sleep with every prostitute that comes his way. And he’s not above getting blood on his hands when he needs to, innocent or otherwise.
Metro: Last Light (2013) has a similar feature. The game does not let you know that a morality system exists. Your actions alone dictate how the overarching story ends. Likewise, in Dishonored (2012) the entire game world will shift depending on your actions. Should you choose to perform lethal assassinations on your targets, sprinting through the alarm system at full blast and slaughtering the guards who get in your way, your teammates will soon turn on you. Leading them to political ruin and even staying your hand affects the physical state of the city of Dunwall. The more bodies you pile up, the faster the plague spreads. Your own discernment is needed to decide if a certain character truly deserves to die.
Fallout 3 (2008) is yet another title that perfectly encapsulates the grimdark genre. Set in post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., it combines dark humour with a quantifiable Karma scale. Every decision, from stealing items to killing another character, affects the player’s Karma. Choices that can alter gameplay come from main and side quests and include deciding whether to obliterate an entire town or participate in an assisted suicide. Before jumping into the Fallout series’ revival, lead writer and designer Emil Pagliarulo had previously worked on the “Dark Brotherhood” sequence in Bethesda Game Studio’s multi-award-winning The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006). In an interview with Gamasutra, Pagliarulo claimed the Dark Brotherhood story was “for those players who have jumped over [the] moral fence and never want to look back […] [Fallout 3] is all about giving players a choice and giving the player the voice they want to use.”
A trope in many video games is the battle against some form of inhuman enemy, be it monsters, demons, ghosts, zombies, or any other form of cannon fodder that’s churned out for the player. There are some games that subvert that, forgoing supernatural evil for a more human villain. In Heavy Rain (2010), an oppressive, intense thriller with a distinctly nihilistic art style, you are pitted against a serial killer with a genuine motive — a villain who is real, life-like, and human. Any of the mentally unstable four main protagonists could be the serial killer, leading us to conclude that they are all unreliable narrators and what we are being told may not be the truth. Morally grey characters are the quintessential core of grimdark. Constructed with flaws found in people like ourselves, they establish a genuine link to characters who would otherwise be cardboard cut-outs having a punch-up on screen. And the entire cast of Heavy Rain are as real as they are flawed.
Often in games where choice is a factor, even the morality of the hero is called into question. In The Wolf Among Us (2013), you are Bigby, the same big bad wolf from the fairy tale, moved to the city along with almost every character to ever grace mainstream folklore. It’s the very definition of a gritty revamp, taking all the traditional archetypes of characters handed down for hundreds of years and painting them with a distinct noir flavour, done up with blood, mud, swears, booze and cigarettes. The slightest decision, even if your intentions are good, could cost you dearly and create dozens of additional enemies. Soon the entirety of Fabletown is at risk and the waters of morality become so muddled that you start to question if the ultimate villain is really you. At the end of the day, everyone from Bluebeard to Snow White is human at heart, and several characters will die horribly. No matter the outcome, there’s always that little niggle in the back of your mind: Did I really do the right thing? Was he actually telling the truth? Should I have listened to her? Nothing is ever certain, least of all the moral standing of the characters. Similarly, the conclusion of The Last of Us (2013) forces you to question who exactly the villain is — something that is left up to the player’s interpretation. We cannot negate the character’s actions, but their impact is left lingering in our minds.
It’s this morally ambiguous aspect of RPGs that keeps gamers coming back for more. Bioware’s surprise hit Dragon Age: Origins (2009) avoided the familiar paragon/renegade system from the Mass Effect series, opting instead for companion approval ratings. “It’s about difficult choices,” said lead writer David Gaider in an interview with Newsarama. “I don’t like easy, happy endings […] what I like is presenting decisions where the player has to stop and maybe isn’t quite sure as to what is the right thing to do […] In a game you have a unique aspect with the element of interaction and personal investment that you can’t really get in some other passive entertainment.”
With game designers like Pagliarulo and Gaider pushing for more immersive gaming experiences, it’s no surprise that technology is quickly filling in the gaps. The creation of Oculus Rift, a ground-breaking virtual reality headset, is beginning to change the way we play videogames, and the potential for grimdark gamers is huge. Ever wondered what it would be like to step into the Game of Thrones universe and create havoc in King’s Landing? Or ride across the Broken Empire world as Jorg’s road brother? The opportunity may be closer than you think.
But how far is too far? In the 2014 documentary DRONE by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Scheiand, she focuses on the recruitment of young pilots at gaming conventions. “I came across a story of a gamer who dropped out of high school, joined the military, and very quickly became a drone pilot through the kind of skills he’d acquired gaming,” she said in an interview with VICE. “The US Army has used virtual reality and video games as a recruiting tool for a long time. They’ve been testing out different games and strategies, and they actually created their own video game, America’s Army, which is very much a recruiting tool.”
Video games were once looked down on as nothing more than time wasters for prepubescent boys squatting in dark rooms, and in some ways they still have a long way to go. But they’ve ensnared and captivated millions of people who once would never have dreamed about picking up a controller. They often provide social commentary, metaphysical scenarios, morally grey worlds filled with complexity and engaging decisions and, more importantly, show us characters just as flawed as ourselves. Characters we can connect with, regardless of if they’re the big bad wolf from fairy tales, monster hunters, assassins, or even a bitter teenage girl trying to scrape her way through a dark world. These characters feel human. They take us on journeys of dark beauty and horror, of grim realities and harrowing adventures that portray the harsh grey morals of our own world and the glimmers of hope we find in it. And thanks to the medium of interactive video games, it’s we the players who will be making the decisions. We’ve read and watched the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire make fiendishly hard decisions and face overwhelming brutality. Now we can directly engage with the world of Westoros (and countless others), make these tough choices and watch the results unfold, for better or worse. Each death will be another stain on our hands on a journey where corpses serve as steps to victory. And we must live with the decision we make.
You might not survive the journey, but that’s half the fun.
Originally published in Grimdark Magazine #3.