The folks at Orbit asked me to do an interview that will hopefully be published in the back of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. After doing it, I realized I forgot to mention something in answer to the “what are your influences” question: video games.
I say this while sitting down to play Persona 4, which I bought before Christmas but wouldn’t let myself play until I finished Book 2. It’s exactly the kind of game I like: deeply immersive, long enough to feel worth the monetary investment (P3 took me about 200 hours), visually pleasing, with really engaging characters, and challenging. But it’s something else, I realize: dark and surreal. The story focuses on a group of high school students in Japan, trying to solve a weird mystery involving people getting sucked into a magical television world and murdered. Stylistically and in every other way this game is lighthearted fun, but I’ve played enough Atlus games to know by now: bad stuff is coming.
Which made me take a look at the rest of my videogame shelf:
- Shadow of the Colossus: sequel to the brilliant, beautiful Ico, this game starts off with human sacrifice and a hero deliberately cursing himself to a terrible fate. Then there’s giant stone things stomping on you. Hmm. Yeah. Dark and surreal.
- Silent Hill and sequels: Oooh, yeah. Monsters, nightmare worlds, a freaky cult, and worst of all, it may all be in your head. Dark and surreal, and scary as all get out.
- Resident Evil and sequels: Zombies! Evil corporations! Definitely dark. Not so much surreal as B-movie-esque, but gets close sometimes.
- Drakengard and Drakengard 2: Seems like a stock hack-things-with-swords medieval European fantasy game… until giant carnivorous babies start falling from the sky. Also, the hero of the first game is a mass-murdering sociopath. Hmm. Definitely surreal, and pretty dark too. The sequel isn’t as dark or weird, so I didn’t like it as much despite better gameplay.
- Final Fantasy (several up to 10): Well, the world does tend to end in these, but usually that doesn’t stop anything. They’re pretty upbeat. Dunno about surreal, either.
- Galerians & Galerians Ash: Like Scanners, but with emo teenagers. Scary!! Definitely dark and surreal.
- Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne: Starts with the apocalypse, after which you get turned into a demon and are courted by Lucifer (though this has almost nothing to do with Judeo-Christian ideology otherwise). Yeah, pretty darn dark, and surreal as all get out.
- Devil May Cry and sequels: Welllll… these are kind of dark, but I really just play them because I think the protagonist is hilarious. Because he’s a half demon who runs around pseudogothic castles killing monsters. Um. Well, it’s funny sometimes… Not very surreal, though occasionally baroque.
- Disney’s Kingdom Hearts: Surprisingly, very dark and surreal, especially when it veers away from established Disney trademark territory. Not so surprising, really; Squaresoft, the company that did the Final Fantasy series, was involved. It may be the only Disney property I own.
These aren’t the only games I’ve enjoyed, of course; back in the day my favorite game was Parappa the Rapper, and lately I’ve loved the Katamari Damacy games (which aren’t remotely dark, but are most definitely surreal). I play some American-made games too, but not many, since for reasons I don’t understand, American games tend to have shallow characterization and not enough plot to keep me engaged. They’re great for “blowing up stuff”, which is certainly valuable in its own way, but those are the kinds of games I play for a little while and then forget. I rent those, I don’t buy them.
I don’t know why I like such dark games. Some of it’s that I have a perverse hatred for anything too obvious or predictable; the standard “upright good guys strive against awful bad guys to achieve a happy ending” scenario does nothing for me. If nothing else, these kinds of games successfully subvert my expectations. I think on some level it’s also cathartic; when I’m having a bad day, it’s hard to feel sorry for myself if I’m playing a game about the end of civilization as we know it.
Fictionistically speaking, I think what I take from these games is the idea that anything goes. Killing the protagonist is OK, provided you’ve developed your other characters enough to carry the story. Failing to save the world from Certain Doom is OK too; showing how the characters recover from this makes for an interesting and more original story. Making the villain your hero (or making your hero villainous) is a great way to invert, and thus freshen, tired tropes. A story can take place in a gloomy setting, with a protagonist of questionable sanity and morality, and have a relentlessly “down” plot arc, yet all this will make the bright spots — an optimistic character, a budding romance — that much more enjoyable by contrast.
Also, dropping giant carnivorous babies out of the sky is a great way to liven up a dull story!
(OK, I don’t plan to ever do that. I have to admit, though, it was certainly effective.)