5 Surprisingly Bleak Video Games

I’ve always enjoyed the deep and uncomfortable. But enough about my ex-girlfriends.

Sigh.  Let’s try that again:

Theatre, fiction and film have all tackled dark and dreary material, and with the accelerated strides toward video games becoming a fully accepted art form, the same can be said for our favorite digitized pastime.  Even more surprising than a dark, morbid tone to a game is when that bleak and frightening moment comes right the hell out of nowhere.

Of course we expect our Walking Deads and horror games in general to be grim and moody. Some, like Dead Island, even took the bold route of creating one of the most kick-your-heart-in-the-meaty-testicles sad trailers for a game that would deliver absolutely none of the hard questions and moments of pathos that were promised.

Truly, those designers were trailblazers.

But what I mean to examine in this list refers specifically to games that displayed themes and major moments of a dark, desperate quality that seemed to take the audience off guard.  Games that had settled on a specific form of attack that you were ready for, and then–BAM! A left hook of existentialism and grief that leaves your eyes bleary and running with sap!

Here are a few of my favorite examples of these raw-fisted feelies.  Bear in mind that while I won’t go out of my way to ruin the nature of these games, the very theme of this list involves the unveiling of unexpected results, so you’ve been warned.

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1. Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons

One of my favorite games of 2013, I’ve made a point to speak about Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons on more than one occasion. It is bright and gorgeous, with a true classic fairy tale feel. It’s a unique platformer that gives you control of two characters at once. The process of learning to use both of them to their fullest strengths is part of what makes the game great, but the Alpine setting that surrounds you is something truly memorable.

Of course, that all eventually goes to hell.

The title really says it all. In the general sense, Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons is about a pair of brothers and the grand adventure that they go on.  In a more specific way, the story is about two sons, and their responsibilities and fears. Their loss of one parent only pours thorns on the fear that they might lose the other, and so they set out into a world that they are not ready for. As they delve deeper, they face war on a literally massive scale, cultists, suicide, betrayal, and the cruelest irony of dying to save someone you love. This bright, beautiful tale ends in tears, and it took many of us completely off guard.

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2. Far Cry 3

Skyrim with guns. That was the way everyone described Far Cry 3 during its release in 2012. And it sure as hell delivered. Thrilling action–an immense, beautiful world–a series of complex and engaging skill trees. Toss in a virtual arsenal of guns to play with, and you’ve got a game that Pope Benedict XVI infamously referred to as “the tits“.

Everything was there: everything and more.  So what was so disturbing and bleak about Far Cry 3?  Well, that would be the “more” part.

Far Cry 3 has you taking the role of one of a bunch of trust fund white kids in the tropics–spending Daddy’s money and living out your own personal Carnival Cruise commercial.  Then you and your charming suburbanite companions are thrust headlong into a bizarre civil war that is taking place. Your brother is killed, and your friends are kidnapped by an army of mercenaries and sociopaths. Not the most original plotline to start with, but a good enough excuse to start turning a bunch of criminals into freshly smashed tomatoes. You join the good guys, you kill the bad guys, and one by one you save your friends. Sound familiar?

Well, as they say: it’s the journey, not the destination.

What takes place while you’re saving your friends is a tale of blood, revenge, family, drug use, rape, and shrieking mental instability. Also, tattoos. Far Cry 3 is engaging, gorgeous, and fun as hell. But by the end of it, I didn’t feel very good. Every rescue is filled with uncertainty, and by the time the game is over, and you’ve “won”, you can’t help but wonder about the costs. Take the following clip, for example…

By the end of this scene–you’ve rescued Keith.  He’s safe. But look into his eyes. Keith is not going to be okay. Not at the end of the game, and not for years to come. He’s been tortured, and it’s pretty clear he’s also been sexually assaulted by Buck there. So you kill Buck. But that won’t repair the broken doll that your friend has become. And it won’t repair you.

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3. I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream

The nineties were an exceptional time for adventure games. King’s Quest, Monkey Island, Leisure Suit Larry–the list of fun, point and click games goes on and on. While the games had their share of adult themes (Leisure Suit Larry being a terrific example), all of them tended to have an amusing, self-aware sense of humor that kept even the most advanced plot lines fairly accessible and PG-rated.

And in 1995, Cyberdreams released I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream.  Based on a short story of the same name by Harlan Ellison, IHNMAIMS is absolutely the definition of bleak. Of course, that’s no surprise to anyone who’s read anything by Harlan Ellison, but I imagine this one took a lot of people off guard. I placed it on this list for that very fact: in a world of shiningly clever and irreverent adventure games, Ellison and Cyberdreams decided to ride your sense of wonder and lightheartedness ragged, leaving a crumpled ten dollar bill on its dresser in the morning.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world that is controlled by an insane computer called AM, you control one of five miserable souls who are used by this artificial intelligence as a source of cruel and evil entertainment.  You must play out various levels that amount to episodes of Twin Peaks while smoking angel dust out of a lightbulb. It’s possible to win the game in a way that will save humanity and rebuild the world.  But more likely…

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4. Fable 2

Easily the strongest of the Fable franchise, Fable 2 follows the plotline we’ve grown fairly used to:

You’re special.

Everyone else is the same but thank the star-spangled heavens above that you showed up to save us all from death and destruction and 80’s cartoon show reboots.

What the Fable franchise did a little differently, however, was the options it gave you.  Good or bad–merciful or cruel.  Your decisions shape the world around you, and effect who you ultimately become.  Despite all of that, Fable and all its sequels still manages to have a pretty light hearted feel to them most of the time. The peasants who fill the towns are hilariously stupid, and how dark can a game that allows you to literally fart on said peasants actually be?

Pretty dark, as it turns out.

The prologue of the game is spent playing as the younger brother (there’s that sibling theme again) of a pair of street urchins who gaze at the grandiose castle on the horizon and dream of a better life. You spend just enough time on the streets to learn the game mechanics and gain a healthy dose of ennui. And then you’re inexplicably invited into the castle.

Again: it’s a pretty familiar scene. A handsome member of the monarchy sees something special in you and your sister. He takes you in, clothes you, tells you that you’re special, shoots your sister dead before blasting you out a window and into the street hundreds of feet below you…

Wait, what?

Cut to 6:00 for the first steps into “holy flurking shnit” territory…

Of course, you rise from the dead in a scene completely ripped off from Batman Returns, but still–that’s pretty awful stuff.

Now, in my opinion this is a much smaller level of bleak than the other entries on this list. But, I don’t know–I remember playing Fable 2 when it first came out, and this scene was so dark that it really stuck with me. Perhaps that’s the idea–you can either use this moment as a reason to rise above the horror, or an excuse to start your own personal loot-and-pillage-fest.

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5. The Binding Of Isaac

Even at its intro, it was pretty clear that The Binding Of Isaac was going to deal with some pretty mature themes…

However, it’s a testament to the amazing design of this game that no matter how prepared you think you are, there’s always something horrifying waiting to be thrown into the mix.

Different every time that you play, Isaac starts you off as just a naked little boy, literally spitting on your enemies in order to escape them.  It’s filled with religious allusions and a sad and gloomy atmosphere.  It’s not until you start picking up items and progressing deeper into the game that the full extent of horror really rears its ugly head. As you collect items like your mother’s lipstick (smeared distressingly over Isaac’s mouth) and her high heels (the tiny naked boy trots around uncertainly in them) do you recognize the groundwork of depressing darkness that the designers have laid out for you here.

More so than any other game here, The Binding Of Isaac is the best known for its bleak atmosphere and horrifying moments. However, it manages to keep bringing an endless supply of fresh hells for you to gasp at. Victory is a very, very distant hope–and it leaves you with a blank feeling in your guts. All of which makes The Binding Of Isaac impossible not to mention.

Well, that was fun.  So, what games surprised you with moments of bleary-eyed terror that seemed to come out of nowhere?

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