On the Grim and the Dark in Video Gaming by Richard Writhen

The past twenty years or so have seen the increased fusion of horror and dark material with electronic gaming, it having been pretty much the artistic forte of literature and movies up to that point; notwithstanding that moment in a Super Mario title when a koopa showed up. For example, I picked up the first Resident Evil (1996) for PS1 the week it came out, based pretty much on the cover and font and other considerations; I had never played its DOS spiritual predecessor Alone In The Dark (1992). Unlike MK3 (1995), which I had purchased the console to play, or something like Super Mario 64, which had prompted me to buy the Nintendo 64, I didn’t have an opportunity to play it before purchasing, but I was drawn to it on instinct. Imagine my surprise when I found the game to be not only highly cinematic, in a manner that video games hadn’t been up to that point, put surprisingly deep as more and more areas of the mansion that it takes place in were revealed. About the time I was playing that at home, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 (1995) hit the arcades, during what was pretty much the last hurrah for such establishments. More characters, more backgrounds, including a sort of Shao Kahn version of Hell, made it night-and-day more exciting than the original version of the game. This was followed a couple of years later by the first 3D MK game Mortal Kombat 4 (1997), which even has a delightful fatality involving ripping off your opponent’s leg at the hip and then beating them to death with it; I was quite impressed with that one. The console-only Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance (2002), which I played on Gamecube, was even better, involving a collusion of the franchise’s two greatest villains against the rest of the characters, with a sick story mode and a brand new demon character named Drahmin which was my new favorite. And the most recent iteration of Mortal Kombat now has Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface, some of the best-known horror movie villains, as playable characters; if that isn’t a testament to the franchise’s darkness, then I just don’t know what is. But the best game that I played on Gamecube, and probably my favorite of all time, was Eternal Darkness (2002), which virtually dripped Lovecraftian themes and used Mythos Fiction tropes to create a huge tapestry of a plot featuring humans being used as puppets by a pantheon of gods to fight their petty battles on earth.

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Later, along came Resident Evil 4 (2005), and everyone was expecting pretty much the standard formula; so when I began to hear rumors of how awesome the game was, I was unconvinced at first. Yet, I bought a second GC to play it anyway, and found it to be so different from the others, so deeply immersive with its more authentic weapons and roving third person viewpoint. Add to that the grueling Mercenaries minigame, which was literally worth the cost of the game by itself in terms of replay value, and you had one of the grimmest games out there; decapitations by chainsaw, impalements on razor-sharp sword claws, it treated the player to hundreds of gruesome ways to die. It also made you responsible for rescuing the US president’s annoying teenage daughter from her doomsday virus cult kidnappers; if she was subsequently killed by any of a plethora of enemies, your game would be over too, and protagonist Leon S. Kennedy would sink to his knees, muttering, “OH … NO …” and doing a facepalm before collapsing in utter despair. Eventually, I purchased an Xbox, but as I was unimpressed with Halo, I wound up trading it and sought out something with a little more dark flavor to it. Rockstar Games’ Manhunt (2004) was the first game for that system that really spoke to me; a third person, weapon based game with quick fatalities induced when the player came up behind an enemy through the use of stealth, though there were also some firing weapons such as a shotgun for the head-on fighting.

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Looking for that same fix, I later picked up The Suffering (2004), which had a Session 9 -esque vibe but rather than take place in an abandoned lunatic asylum, it took place in an old prison that was haunted by the twisted ghosts of former inmates. While an excellent premise, the execution was a bit buggy and I later moved on to the remake of Ninja Gaiden (2004), which had originally been an 8-Bit NES game, legendary for its unforgiving difficulty level. The X-Box game was no different, as I was smacked down again and again and had to learn elaborate combos and fight god-like bosses to make progress in the game. Tecmo later released an even more heartless remix, Ninja Gaiden: Black (2005); it was far superior, adding a master ninja mode, a staff-based weapon called the Lunar and more side trials which players could post online. The X-Box 360 also had a few notably dark games on it, probably the best of which were Resident Evil 5 (2009), Ninja Gaiden 2 (2008), Dead Rising (2006), Bioshock (2007), Bioshock 2 (2010), Gears of War (2006), Condemned: Criminal Origins (2005), and Dead Space (2008). These games extrapolated on both first and third person viewpoints, storefront functionality, player upgrades and interactive environments to provide even more immersive electronic gaming than ever before. Add to that the X-Box 360’s immense graphical power and players were soon lost for months at a time in the dark worlds of their choice. I have yet to purchase a console this generation, but I often find myself in my local department store looking enviously at them and the many new day one editions, special editions and the like which are now available for them, often at a discounted price once the initial demand dies down for that particular title. One day, I hope to get back to it …

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