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So Why Make Games Gritty?


Iíve got a question that needs answering.† Badly.

Iíd like to think that Iím not much in the way of biases or prejudices, but lately I feel like thatís no longer the case.† It seems like more and more, Iím starting to develop an extreme distaste for anything ďgrittyĒ -- gritty, or dark, or post-apocalyptic, or grimdark, or what have you.† You know what Iím getting at, I hope: the types of stories where the worldís in shoddy state, or the characters are just a smidge above being villains, or thereís nastiness, violence, and adult situations abound.† Speaking as a gamer, Iím completely burnt out by them.† Iíve seen them enough in this lifetime.

And yet they keep. On.† Appearing.† And frankly, I want to figure out why.

Let me give you a bit of context.† Iím not going to say that just because a story is gritty means that I automatically hate it; in fact, I appreciate the good gritty stories whenever and wherever they appear.† Itís just that Iíve seen certain characteristics and aesthetics so many times recently that theyíve started to leave me exhausted and even annoyed, even if the product is good (see: The Last of Us).† And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there have been times -- several times more than I care to admit -- where the grit has detracted from the productís quality, rather than add to it (see: DmC).

I think that itís all started to come to a head -- for me, and for others, Iíd assume.† And remarkably, itís not from my beloved video games, but from movies.† This post is coming semi-fresh off of seeing Man of Steel on opening day, and to say that I was disappointed by it would not only be an understatement, but an outright misnomer.† I wouldnít say itís an absolutely awful movie, and certainly not the worst Iíve ever seen (that ďhonorĒ goes to Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief), but itís still one of the worst movie-going experiences Iíve had in a while.† I could -- and have, in ludicrous detail -- gone on about just why I feel the way I do, but for brevityís sake Iíll just say that the root of my issues stem from the most common complaint: the movie is dark and dreary when it doesnít need to be, and suffers as a result.† And I just canít help but think to myself, ďWhy did the movie have to be dark? †Why did they have to do things this way with this character?Ē†

Man of Steel or otherwise, Iíve put a lot of thought into why people put out gritty stories -- gritty movies, gritty games, grittyÖgrit, and more.† For me, the grit is becoming a central problem; itís a package that, in my eyes, is more repulsive than a box full of piranhas.† And I think I can pinpoint why.

Iím of the opinion that people consume stories -- wherever they may appear -- to have a good time.† To be entertained.† Why cry when you can laugh, after all?† I know thatís not always the case (the concept of ďcatharsisĒ goes a long way), but I would think that itís a general idea.† Weíre hardwired to seek out happiness.† Thatís why we have things like The Simpsons, The Avengers, and even My Little Pony.† Or in terms of games, Super Mario Bros., LittleBigPlanet, andÖer, My Little Pony.

But things are different with -- to use a blanket term -- gritty stories.† Considering that they can (and regularly do) feature less-than-ideal environments with less-than-ideal-heroes in less-than-ideal situations, one would think that the aesthetics and goings-on would be an immediate turn-off.† But I know thatís not the case.† In fact, I can see the appeal.† If gritty stories are going to refuse to offer us immediate good times, then the expectation is that theyíll offer up something in exchange.† In other words, they need to offer up merit -- intellectual merit, ideally.†

The expectation is that the characters, world, events, and themes can come together to explore ideas that a brighter story canít.† The grit should be in place to surpass limits.† Leave no stone unturned.† Demand and reward deeper thought instead of guttural, instinctual delight.† A story shouldnít be boxed in by its nature, gritty or otherwise, and ideally a gritty story should be the FIRST to try and break the mold. It should NOT just be a chance to revel in pessimism porn and have everyone become assholes while they bathe in blood, sweat, grime, and bad decisions.†

Thatís my expectation, at least.† Now, Iíll acknowledge that there are not only gritty stories Iíve enjoyed, but gritty stories that are made stronger because of their grit (Spec Ops: The Line and Telltaleís The Walking Dead, and on a similar axis, Fallout 3 and Advance Wars: Days of Ruin).† Hell, a buddy of mine just put forth ideas for a gritty reboot of Captain Planet, and it sounds awesome.† So no, Iím not immediately opposed to something just because itís gritty.

ÖIs what I would like to say, but I know myself pretty well.† There are a few caveats to what I just said.† First off, just because gritty stories CAN be good doesnít mean that EVERY gritty story will be good.† Gears of War was wall-to-wall grit from start to finish, and we all know how that turned out; ideas and themes and characters and the world at large went unexplored, either banished to side materials (comics and novels, from what Iíve heard) or ignored in exchange for focusing on Marcus Fenix yelling ďGo, go, go!Ē for the eight hundred fifty-sixth time that day.†

Second, even if every gritty story was a masterpiece of design and execution, the absolute glut of them does no one any favors, especially since the glut of them ensures that huge percentages of them are weak and full of problems, and end up becoming less mature in spite of (or even because of) the content therein.† Would you rather play as the no-nonsense soldier in a torn-up warzone, a snarky-but-troubled superhuman fighting against the establishment as transparently as possible, or a scowling, unsympathetic warrior/god who murders his way to and through other unsympathetic gods?† I donít mind if some characters are unlikable and some worlds are harsh, but for fuckís sake, letís not make everything dark and brutal. †We're not doing anyone any favors.

Tl;dr: grit + merit = a hit. Limit + grit = shit.†

I know I can sound a bit demanding in my posts, but Iím not all that much of a stickler for certain traits and techniques when it comes to fiction.† All I want is a good story -- a good game -- and it doesnít take that much to impress me.† I have standards, but Iím plenty forgiving.† But Iím finding it harder and harder to forgive grit when it seems to consistently fail to meet even my basic expectations.† The design philosophy behind a gritty story -- if not by its nature, then by its proliferation in the public conscious/media zeitgeist -- is a limit in and of itself.† In order to have that grit, certain elements have to be forgone in order to have tonal consistency.† Thatís fine to an extent, but after a while -- or at least, in my personal experience -- those elements end up being missed.† The tradeoff for dealing with worlds and scenarios that are unpleasant by design is being rewarded and challenged intellectually -- to say that youíve walked away with a new understanding of yourself and the world.

But Iím not getting that.† Not as often as I should.† It really says a lot about a tonal package when I can get more out of a Ratchet and Clank game -- or even LittleBigPlanet-- than I can out of games supposedly aimed at mature audiences.† And thatís really the question of the day: if more childish, more cartoonish stuff is offering depth and themes and creativity and more, and a supposedly-mature, supposedly-darker game doesn't, then whatís the point of making a gritty story?†

Iím not trying to be facetious here (well, not extensively).† Just try to understand where Iím coming from on this.† Iím not going to be so bold as to declare that every gritty story has the exact same environment and tropes, because thatís obviously not the case.† There are similarities across the board, sure -- but unless the work in question is really bad, a sense of familiarity isnít necessarily a deal-breaker.† That said, kidís stuff has the advantage in my eyes.† It also carries with it expectations, but on a different axis; success may very well come from realizing imaginative worlds, and characters, and scenarios.†

Themes and messages have their place (especially in a high-quality production), but so is giving a creatorís imagination form.† The unpredictability, the creativity, and the satisfaction therein are things that we thrive on, and things that can appeal to us no matter the age.† As long as the story is competently told and explored -- and I STRESS ďexploredĒ -- I donít think there needs to be so rigid a divide between certain classes of storytelling, or gaming by extension.† Nor should there be an assumption that mature = good -- especially if that ďmaturityĒ is as shallow as it gets. †

Thatís about where I stand -- which is exactly why I need second, third and twentieth opinions to start coming in.† I have my preferences, and in spite of good intentions and attempts at objectivity I know I have my biases.† So I need people like you to start weighing in and offering some consolation -- especially if youíre the type that loves some grit. Give me some info.† Why make a game gritty?† Whatís the end goal?† Whatís the expectation?† Whatís the vision?† What, and how, and why?† I have a lot of questions, but the sooner I can get some perspective on the central issue, the better off Iíll be.

And who knows?† Maybe when allís said and done, Iíll have a better opinion of grit.

ÖOr maybe I wonít.† But I appreciate the sentiment, everyone.

- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012

Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.

I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.

You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
My Troper profile
My Facebook page
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I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe