The Beauty of the Bleak

From 'The Americans' to 'The Banner Saga', find the joy in utter despair.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

“But they fundamentally can’t ask you to hate what you’re going through alongside the characters.”

Papers, Please does. You can either become a tool of the authoritarian regime or a terrorist, but usually you’ll end somewhere in between. Inside is pretty bleak too.

But, yeah, I love bleak stuff. And I am not the only one. Michael Haneke is the master of bleakness and he’s one of the world’s most famous movie directors. The Coen Brothers are pretty great at it too, if they want to, e.g. in A Serious Man.

I adore the Cold War as a set piece for media, and that’s why I really wanted to like The Americans, but was thrown off by the inordinate amount of cable channel sex in the first few episodes. I’m not a puritan or anything, but I just get tired of it after a certain point, and it’s held me back from getting into more current TV. Does the show ever move past this?

Other bleak stuff that I love:
Kino’s Journey: A great anime series that follows an androgynous woman who travels from town-to-town in a unique dystopian world where different countries have different dark secrets that they hide. It’s super affecting and I adore how it explores the darker elements of human nature.

The Third Man: A late 40s film noir, starring Orson Welles, but set in post-WWII Vienna, separated into fragmented districts under control of different Allied nations. The story itself is amazing, but the thing I always find super affecting about it is the city it takes place in. There are scenes where they’re walking through a bombed out apartment building, walk into a door and then the characters are surrounded by lavish 19th century architecture. It’s fucking gorgeous.

Planescape: Torment: I’ve been playing the enhanced edition of this lately and love the world it takes place in. It’s super bleak and trying to understand the logic of this world is so addicting.

@ChronoPunk I shared that feeling when seeing the first few episodes of The Americans. A bit too bleak for me at first coupled with plenty of cable drama brand edge. But it’s honestly the best thing on at the moment for me now that The Leftovers has ended. The sex in the series never goes away since, as spies, Honeypot operations (using sex for leverage and manipulation of a target) are an essential part of espionage. It does do a lot more with it than many shows though and the amount on screen does go down as the show goes on since it’s not just there to titillate. As Phillip and Elizabeth’s fake marriage transitions into a real one over the course of the series these operations become increasingly problematic for them and lead to a lot of juicy character stuff honing in on what makes the show great: the constant weighing of ideals against morality and the strain that causes for them. It’s for a mission, and often effective, but unlike a Hollywood spy this stuff eats them up inside in different ways. It’s really great stuff, and totally worth the rough start in my eyes.

Yes yes yes, a million times yes.

True Detective. The first season I think does a great job depicting Rustin Cohle as someone with depression and certainly other mental health problems trying to find meaning in their life again. One of the many problems I had with the second season was the show’s inability to create that same level of empathy with it’s characters.

Also Spec Ops: The Line. Whenever I replay this game or watch other people play through it I find more little things locked away that are critiquing you as the player playing this game. “Why are you doing these things? Put down the controller. Just walk away.”

I think one of the things I enjoy about this kind of bleakness in stories is that it lets me see someone living with the same kind of depression or anxiety about the world that I experience. Like listening to sad music or watching a depressing film, being able to empathize with characters who are hopeless and seeing that tone set in the world reminds me that it is okay to feel this way. We don’t see a lot of that.


Happy to see Waypoint mention The Americans. Also one of my all time favorite shows. I can understand why some critics would feel the last season was too much; I know I did at times. But I agree that it feels earned with that show.

Another show that I believe doesn’t shy away from bleakness is Bojack Horseman. Maybe it tries to subvert it a little bit with its cast of animal characters, but many episodes are just downright self destructive in nature. It’s not always an easy show to watch, either. I remember some of the final words from the past season sticking with me for a while: “It’s not the drinking, or your family, or anyone else. It’s just you, man. It’s just you.” Then a long pause, and the most appropriate usage of the word “Fuck” I’ve ever heard in any medium.

This comes from a different line of thinking, but the one game I was thinking of reading this article was That Dragon, Cancer. It’s truest in both forms really - the story focuses on extremely real emotion in the face of an impossible situation, and the gameplay reflects that. There’s one particular section that had me with my head in my hands balling my eyes out, which has never happened to me from a game or any other piece of media (if you even have an inkling of wanting to play this, seriously do not read this spoiler):

At one point you are playing as Joel’s father (the toddler who has terminal cancer) in a hospital room with just the two of you in the room. Joel is crying in such a way that you can tell he’s in immense pain, and as the player you have to try and calm him down. It’s a hopeless situation, reflected in the breaking down of Joel’s father through his voice - the more you try, the worse Joel gets, and the more the father mentally is losing it. I’m not a parent, but that’s the closest I’ve ever been to understanding what it’s like to be in that place when you have a child who just won’t stop crying - with the added knowledge that you know this child is in maqssive pain and is terminal? Holy fuck.

Despite all this, I was completely drawn to playing it through the entire way. It was in a lot of ways a horrible experience, something I’ll never do again, but I’m so glad(?) I played it through to the end and would suggest everyone (with the right mindset) to play it. There’s nothing fun about it, but it’s definitely worth it.

Nothing compares to Blood Meridian for sheer hells nihilism. That book is so intent on alienating the reader that it took me a whole year to read. To me, that’s the benchmark for truly bleak media; when the creator(s) make no concessions to emotional uplift. The closest in recent memory to that was Sicario for me.

My preferred example if this is Dark Souls (particularly 1). A game that mechanically emphasises the role of death and, narratively, focuses on decline and decay is a strong setting to talk about the bleak. Even though you do things with great impact on the world, Dark Souls calls their importance into question and never fails to underline that you’re dealing with embers, not roaring fires.

I mean, if you want examples, I would suggest every major piece of Russian literature for the last two centuries, maybe? I’d recommend starting with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich if you really want a “good” time.

I have long had an appreciation for bleak aesthetics in entertainment, be it in serious works of film or literature or even pulpy, schlocky versions of this, like Warhammer 40k novels. I agree with Rob that there are few games that do this aesthetic well without the gameplay coming in and faffing about with perfectly good bleakness.

I think the recent early access survival game, The Long Dark, has done this fairly well. The game takes place in the Canadian north during winter and after a solar storm and subsequent geomagnetic fallout rendered every piece of electronics on the planet inoperable and put the wild life on edge, making them hyper aggressive. TLD currently has no story mode, so I can only comment on the mechanics and aesthetics of the sandbox mode, which is currently very polished. Sandbox mode, at least on higher difficulties, is bleak and lonely in the extreme. There are no other people in the game. The character’s only companion is the looming spectre of cold, inevitable death as they wander through the icy wreckage of modern civilization. The games highest difficulty, “Interloper”, suggests an actively hostile natural world in which your existence is as unwanted as the ruined civilization whose scraps you are desperately picking over. You can hold that spectre of death back for a time. You can skillfully create a buffer zone of safety and supplies, but it is always there. One wrong move, one thin patch of ice, one wolf you didn’t see in time, one bad case of food poisoning, and it is cold, cold death for you. There is no love or camaraderie between survivors, no hope for a new, simpler future. There is only fear, blood, and the terrible beauty of a world that no longer wishes you to be there.

Having said all this, and while we discuss the aesthetics and art we appreciate, I feel it necessary to say that I have increasingly become uncomfortable about my own appreciation for bleak and hopeless art, how much of it there actually is, and how frequently pieces of art that fall in this category are lauded and held up as examples of greatness. The romanticization of suffering and hopelessness is a very real thing, and it’s one that can really only exist with the privilege of distance and safety. In fact, I worry that there is something more than a little grotesque, patronizing, and exploitative in using themes of suffering for aesthetic enjoyment. In reality, there is no greater meaning in the experience of suffering and hopelessness. They are simply a sad, horrible, and idiotic reality of life that I hope all of you experience as little of as possible.

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