I’m going to be 29 this year, just under two months from the time of writing. Almost thirty. It haunts me every time I catch a glimpse of my hairline in the mirror. This may come as a surprise to the many people who seem to think I’m a lot older because I have the voice of someone shaking their fist at neighborhood boys fleeing from a broken greenhouse window. Or indeed to anyone who assumed I was about twelve because my job is to get angry at video games.
But the point is, I’ve been blaming my increasing age lately for my increased squeamishness at things that are “dark and edgy”. It’s curious how these things seem to operate in the reverse manner to the way culture and society would seem to prefer. When I was younger I loved things that were grotesque and horrible for no reason. As a child I fondly remember drawing a detailed cartoon of me and my best friend taking either side of a large two-man saw as it ploughed through the guts of a prisoner dangling from the ceiling. But now society has officially given the thumbs up to me watching whatever material I choose – I hear even the Australian R18 rating for games is finally worrying itself free of politics’ collective asshole – the thought of watching one of those Saw or Hostel movies just makes me feel a bit queasy.
Hence my lukewarm response to Twisted Metal and its unrelentingly grim pseudo-live-action cinematics that broke up the single player campaign. But I want to make myself as clear as possible here – I still love the horror genre, at least when it’s done in the way that I like. I’m fine with the darky edgy stuff when it’s consistent. Something like Condemned would pretty much be about as dark and edgy as you can get in the interactive media and I like that game a whole lot. I only went off it in the sequel when it took one too many hits on the pipe and started getting absurd. That was a game whose core gameplay involved creeping around the most horrible urban environments imaginable starting at every shadow in fear of murderous junkies and hobos armed with broken bottles and bits of bent rebar. My point with Twisted Metal is that it seems odd to employ a similar kind of atmosphere and presentation to bridge gameplay in which players drive cartoon vehicles around bumping into each other.
And this attitude struck me as hypocritical, since I remember playing a very similar game – Carmageddon, as mentioned in the video – back when I was a kid and enjoying it quite a lot. It, too, had dark and edgy trappings around wacky violent gameplay. Perhaps this is why I’m convinced my advancing age is the important factor. But then again, I’d say Carmageddon was a little more comedic, and perhaps that’s what makes Twisted Metal not sit right for me. TM makes no apparent attempt to make things overtly blackly humourous, except perhaps through audacity alone, and it’s mainly just blackly black. What comedy there is only comes from organic gameplay moments when a missile makes a vehicle do a quadruple sommersault into a hedge.
When I say “dark and edgy”, I don’t intend that to mean all violence, gore and mature content. I’m not so middle-aged that I am now siding with the conservative campaigners who think all games should be appropriate for kids. Being gorey or violent alone isn’t the same thing as being “dark and edgy”. Look at something like the new Mortal Kombat. It flings body parts around like you wouldn’t believe but it’s about as dark and edgy as a cereal bowl because the dialogue and character design is like something out of superhero comics.
I guess when I say “dark and edgy” … no, wait, I’m sick of using that phrase, I’m going to make up a word. I guess when I say “dedgyark” I mean that the violence is presented with weight and realism, the atmosphere is gloomy and none of the characters seem to be enjoying themselves at all. Believe it or not people still play games to on some level be entertained, and I find a character much more likeable if their emotions mirror mine, like John Tanner in Driver San Francisco when he starts having fun, so miseryguts types like War in Darksiders enacting fast-paced action violence just don’t appeal to me.
Damn it, I’m not even sure what point I’m trying to make, here. It’s trying to analyse the gut feeling that the dedgyark approach in Twisted Metal didn’t seem at all appropriate. I guess the lesson we’re crawling towards is that one should keep the tone of the context aspect consistent with the tone of the challenge and gratification, and make no mistake, practical gameplay has tones and themes just as much as emotional story does. When your characters are all driving around in cartoon cars that immediately self-right when they get flipped onto the roof and handbrake turn on a dime then the violence is kept at arm’s length, and a dedgyark story just doesn’t fit the same way it does Condemned with all its smashing people’s teeth out in an abandoned train tunnel.
I guess I find it a little disappointing when a game feels it has to be dedgyark for no reason at all. Because, frankly, we’re ok for dedgyark. The economy of video gaming is rather flooded with dedgyark, which is probably a consequence of nearly all of them being about murdering things, often ugly and monstrous things, true, but that doesn’t change the fact that they all had mothers. As a professional player of all the video games I’m weary of killing and it’s games like Driver San Francisco that impress me now by being gratifying without needing to hurt anyone. It’s that sort of thing that helps dredge videogaming from its ugly, violent popular image.
The indie game Warp, which I started playing on XBLA a couple of weeks back, disappointed me this way. It’s not a bad little game, all told, it’s a fun little stealthy, puzzle sort of affair in which you play an adorable little cartoon alien that one might find in a claymation short trying to escape from a laboratory. But for some god knows what reason you murder scientists and guards in the most unnecessarily violent way possible and human characters eff and blind like a sailor sitting on a discarded syringe. It was like watching some demented cross between Pingu and Akira. And yeah, it’s up to the creator to make whatever they want to make, but don’t you think it’s disappointing for a property to deliberately and unnecessarily limit its audience?
It’s easy to make games for kids, they’re dumb little shits. And it’s easy to make games for adults because (presumably) you, the developer, are an adult and know what you like. But if you want to challenge yourself, make a game that everyone can enjoy. That’s where the money is. And if you want an even bigger challenge, do it with boxing gloves on. And a bucket on your head.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.