Why Light and Dark in storytelling is important.

Light vs. Dark

First of all, let me start by saying that I have little to no formal education on the subject. The following will simply be a series of opinions I have developed after consuming far too much media.

Recently the message boards here on the escapist have been spotted with several posts about the ending to mass effect 3. Relax; this will not be a discussion on that topic. Rather, I would like to discuss an issue that has come up from that discussion.

A common accusation as to why people didn't like the ending is that it was too dark. For some people this is true, and for others this is false. Again, I am not going to discuss this issue rather I would like to mention the inherent problems with too much of either end of the spectrum.

William Blake (that's right I'm going there) is famous for being a generally good poet in the same way that Michael Jordan was generally good at basketball. However, most of his beloved works come from one of two sources, Songs of Experience and Songs of Innocents. I bring this up not just because I am a fancy pants (even though my pants are indeed super fancy), but because these two sets of poems are a reflection of light and dark.

What the hell does this have to do with video games? Simple, videogames tell stories, and when you don't have an appropriate amount of contrast in a story you don't get the impact. In Songs of Innocents we have a poem titled "The Lamb" and in Songs of Experience there is a poem entitled "The Tyger" (oh yeah "Y" is "I's" sexier older brother). These two poems are designed to emphasize the fact that without light there can be no darkness and vice versa. Basically, if it were not for the violence of the tiger (I am not awesome enough to use "Y") then the lamb would not seem so kind and docile.

Okay, in danger of losing my audience who is already about go back to watching a cat play the piano on Youtube, I am going to point out a story that does this well. The move "Se7en." For those of you who have not seen this film and still want too I suggest you skip this paragraph and just assume that I am right, always a good assumption, because I am going to spoil the poopsickles out of the movie. Okay, in the movie there are a lot of dark scenes (I mean it rains like everyday). People remember "Gluttony," "Sloth," and of course "What's in the Box?" However, do you remember why "What's in the box?" was so impactful? I hope not, because I am going to tell you anyway. It was impactful because of a fairly boring and very easily forgotten scene, the scene where Morgan Freeman (let's be honest you don't remember the character's name either) goes and has dinner with Brad Pitt (again character name forgotten) and his wife (I'm noticing a pattern). In this scene we learn about the couple's hopes and dreams, about whom (who? Oh hell I don't know ... leaking credibility... -1 fancy pants) they are in their down time, and we learn that they love each other very much. That is why most people had a very visceral reaction to "What's in the box?" We as the audience know how big of a deal it is because this incredibly dark movie had enough light in it to let us know what was lost in the dark.

In games, just as in any other medium, we need to keep in mind that, believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much dark. This is true for too much light. A good story has a balance of the two. The light makes the dark hurt that much more, and the dark provides the light with that much more joy. Mass Effect 3's ending are right or wrong is not the point. The point is that simply dismissing the argument as childish is wrong...and childish. Darkness without light is meaningless just as light without dark is meaningless. Videogames are a medium that starting to be held up to a higher standard in story telling, and if we are going to try and tell greater stories than this fact needs to be kept in mind.

Thank you for your time. I hope that this was somewhat interesting. However, if you found this boring and lame, then worry not. I have good news! It made me feel better and isn't that what really matters? =^)

Se7en is the best example of a story with a good balance of light and dark you have to offer? Just because it had one scene about the love between that sweet little couple amidst all the grime and violence and grotesque misery that was the rest of the movie... a single solitary ray of light which is eventually snuffed out leaving nothing but complete darkness... and that's supposed to be a "good" balance?

I get what you're saying here but is that really the best example you could think of? I mean in Blake's poems did the Tyger(I don't know if I'm awesome enough to use that spelling but screw it I'm going for it!) end up eating the bloody lamb? Really shouldn't the light exist in spite of the darkness and vise versa? Neither one should end up completely engulfed by the other.

ME3 really isn't a good example for this discussion. I honestly think the ending could have been completely nihilistic, and if it had been thematically consistent with what came before and/or made a lick of sense, people would have accepted it. Maybe not been super happy, but they would have accepted it. Look at Walking Dead. Walking Dead did NOT have a happy ending, in the slightest...or even a happy middle or beginning...but people praised it to the moon and back for its story. Why? Because it didn't pull out any 11th hour metaphysical bullshit in place of a sensible conclusion.

CrazyCajun777:
A common accusation as to why people didn't like the ending is that it was too dark.

Actually, I don't think this is true. OK, some people certainly did not enjoy this aspect of it, however I'm not sure how many are they. Heck, I've see more people putting down that notion than ones supporting it. It just seems like that one thing that "everybody" is saying and that must be opposed...although you know of it from other people opposing it.

CrazyCajun777:
In games, just as in any other medium, we need to keep in mind that, believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much dark. This is true for too much light. A good story has a balance of the two. The light makes the dark hurt that much more, and the dark provides the light with that much more joy. Mass Effect 3's ending are right or wrong is not the point. The point is that simply dismissing the argument as childish is wrong...and childish. Darkness without light is meaningless just as light without dark is meaningless. Videogames are a medium that starting to be held up to a higher standard in story telling, and if we are going to try and tell greater stories than this fact needs to be kept in mind.

I think Jim had a rather good video on this subject

But yes, the idea is that what you're saying is correct. I just don't think that either the Mass Effect 3 or the Se7en example were that appropriate.

Ah well I had not seen Jim's video. It would seem that much of my point was already made. Also, I was not using mass effect 3 as an example simply saying that it sparked my thoughts on the subject. Also yes Se7en is not a very well balanced movie in respect to light and dark. However, I think it is a grand example. It shows that in a story saturated with darkness that the creators recognized that in order to deliver something truly dark they needed to add a lighter scene. My point (at least what I was shooting for) was not that se7en was a film that did this balance perfectly but that it is a film that, for all its horror, for all its "grittiness," for all its "darkness," still conceded the necessity of having some light because it absolutely had to.

King Billi:

I mean in Blake's poems did the Tyger(I don't know if I'm awesome enough to use that spelling but screw it I'm going for it!) end up eating the bloody lamb?

I like your moxie.

I think people like stories (in games) that are appropriate to the game they are playing and the experience they anticipate seems you are going on about Yin and Yang theres a lot of philosophy on that and not going to get into it but people can enjoy stories in games that really arent much of a story at all its just sets up the scene well to allow other things to carry the rest of the game context is acquired from it and thats it dosent matter if its a real dark or light story so to speak.

As for Se7en I thought it was a pretty bad movie and to be fair I cant remember much about it now very forgettable stuff same with fight club but seems I am in the minority here.

Glad it made you feel better though OP anyway heres the video you tantalisingly brought up but never delivered

 

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