We Need More Pessimistic Games


#1

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/gynd8y/pessimistic-games-melancholy-silent-hill

#2

Reading this, I immediately thought of This War of Mine, a survival/management sim set in the Siege of Sarajevo. The player spends their time scavenging for supplies and tending to the needs of the handful of characters who are hunkered down in a building while the city around them is at war. The bleakness and despair are palpable in that game, especially when confronted with the tough choices about the survival of your characters.

With the world in the state it’s in, I have definitely been turning to games for delight, whimsy, and escape, but it wasn’t too long ago I was seeking out anything that inspired feelings of desperation and pessimism. (Oddly I don’t need to an artificial source for that… can’t put my finger on why…) I think games are a particularly good medium for this, because they put the player in dilemma to progress. That can lead to long, long periods of moving the cursor between two options, finger hovering over the button, agonizing over what to do and hoping you made the right choice.


#3

No one remembers I Get This Call Every Day.


#4

This is a very interesting perspective that I’ve too felt with recent games. The only games I’ve played that have somewhat matched what you’re hitting on is The Last of Us and Dishonored (if you play a revenge path). Although, they also suffer from the same build up dilemma I’ll speak to.

Most games you spend hours building yourself to accomplish the ultimate objective of saving or preventing the world from a certain evil or villain. You know after the time is well spent that you’ll be prepared with the best gear and stats to accomplish this. I’m near completeing Zelda the Breath of the Wild and am experiencing this first hand. From the start I was powerless and clueless as to what todo in order to accomplish this main quest that was put in front of me. Completely different vibe now given I’ve played almost everything except for the final boss. I now ask myself, did I even play this game? It felt like I was just driven to bulk up the entire time and knew I had to grind / do a few side quests to get there. With the game almost done I feel unstatisfied and am using my new found skills to just roam around aimlessly because I know the power I have. The game doesn’t give you the option to fail like it’s predecessor Majoras Mask. While this is one personal example I see this trend in a lot of modern games and I agree that there is room for pessimism to shine. Making games, actually more realistic and giving people perspective on what’s possible.


#5

I respect the perspective and I like Cameron’s writing, but I feel like way too many videogames are deeply pessimistic, just with a shiny veneer of action that amounts to nothing. So many games think that maturity is derived from every inhabitant of the world being either utterly without a redeeming quality, or a decent person ruthlessly torn down by the world. Take Dishonored 2, a game which generally has a truly impressive attention to detail and what the design of the world means. You walk around with Jessamine’s heart and learn secrets of the people around you, and there is practically never a good thing to say about any of them. Beggars bite women who then die from infection, upper class people murder with impunity, almost all of them are cruel to a fault. Most of the rest suffer from tragedy, a man whose only possession is a portrait of his daughter, a woman who sends what she can to the orphanage. The number of even remotely positive things without a twinge of misery attached to them can be counted on one hand.

Yes, Corvo and Emily can go through their quest and achieve their own personal goals, but to what end? Practically everyone in Dunwall is either a monster or suffering. What’s the possible purpose of working to save a world like this anyway? Well done, you once again sit on the throne of a nation decaying from its center with violence, hatred, and cruelty. You have accomplished nothing other than ensuring you are in charge of the human wasteland as opposed to someone else. What could possibly be more pessimistic than that?

I would argue that in a time where more and more games are being groomed for franchise possibilities, that the medium is the most pessimistic it’s ever been and more pessimistic by far than films, books, and TV. Both in overarching story and mechanics, games present their ongoing world as Sisyphean tasks, where your past triumphs make no difference and are wiped away the moment a new chapter begins. Every achievement and skill, no matter how well earned and fought for, is wiped away immediately at the beginning of a new chapter. Samus will lose all of her suit upgrades, Nathan Drake apparently squandered an entire chest full of priceless treasure in months, Kratos will have another pantheon to slaughter, Leon Kennedy will have more shambling corpses to perforate, the list goes on. Any success is fleeting and will be flushed away the moment their next saga starts.


#6

Okay, here’s my pitch for the next Pokemon game. Your pokemon die when their HP hits zero. Instead, you have a “retire” option that prevents you from switching back to a pokemon once you use it. If you keep giving commands to your Pikachu when its health is low instead of retiring it from the battle, you build up its “resentment” meter.

You have to pay rent and other living expenses and are unlikely to afford pokeballs without resorting to shoplifting, which usually gets you badly beaten up and out of commission for two weeks (there’s a time limit until you’re too old to qualify for the pokemon championships, and the clock is constantly looming down on you). Legendary pokemon are acts of god; Moltres will burn your apartment building down and any attempt to catch it will result in all six of your Pokemon dying for your hubris. Sound good?


#7

Games, and media in general, is more pessimistic, cynical, and miserable than ever. It’s a big problem and it means that there’s a lot of media I can’t consume because it would be bad for my emotional health.


#8

I have neither played any of the games mentioned in the article nor read the book, so I hope I’m not misunderstanding what’s being said.

Seeing Dishonored mentioned in this thread was interesting, because it feels to me like those games have depressing themes, but mechanics that are the opposite of depressing. It’s true that the world there is completely full of awful people, but I never actually felt depressed at any point in Dishonored. Teleporting around and jumping on people was so fun that the story kind of just slid by in the background (though I think the limp voice acting so many of the main characters had might have contributed to that too). Games whose mechanics emphasize powerlessness do seem much rarer than ones with narratives where everything sucks.

Freespace 2 is a game where you’re a cog in a machine, your actions never have a huge impact on the course of the story, and you lose in the end. But it also reinforces this in gameplay by giving you a HUD element that always displays your objectives for the mission. Some objectives are impossible for story reasons, but failing them causes them to turn red the same way that normal ones do, and they stay on your screen for the whole mission. Maybe this is an example of games being depressing? I don’t completely remember.

Also, “…Spider-Man, traveling through the world and writing wrongs…”


#9

I find it difficult to believe that The Guy Who Writes About Dark Souls Nearly Every Week completely and conveniently forgot Dark Souls existed when it would weaken his thesis instead of strengthen it. Especially since a ton of developers have seen Dark Souls and the lesson they took is “Well if you have a bunch of vague depressing atmosphere and characters who cackle at you about how hopeless things are its Really Deep Lore Actually”.

Good criticism requires honesty and this doesn’t feel honest.


#10

Agreed but It’s also, speaking of pessimistic finality, the inevitable endgame of the weekly entertainment column format.


#11

I mean I feel like Yoko Taro’s games are pretty pessimistic. Like Nier: Automata? That almost destroyed my soul.


#12

I figure this whole thing should be spoiler tagged.

I feel like Nier Automata is weirdly optimistic once you go through to the final ending. The world in Nier has suffered incredibly tragedy, and awful things happen to the people in it, but of all Yoko Taro’s games this one seems the least bleak. The ultimate question at the very end is will you the player sacrifice your own time and effort in order to help someone you will never know in order to break an oppressive cycle? You are left with the final thought that we may never know if we can stop ourselves from endlessly repeating the same pattern of violence against one another, but even the chance that it might be possible is worth fighting for.


#13

They also don’t need people to play them for 15-100 hours.

I’m generally a pessimistic person by nature, but media of the last 10-15 years is overwhelmingly pessimistic, to the point that I gave up on a lot of my “favorite” shows, only to realize I was much happier. We can dismiss “grimdark” from the analysis, I guess, but the two are inextricably linked. Grimdark isn’t automatically pessimistic, as the various incarnations of Batman prove. Nor is pessimistic automatically grimdark (witness just about any of FX’s comedies). But grimdark and pessimistic go hand-in-hand in so much media - Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, etc.

Maybe a couple hours a week of surrendering to my pessimism is tolerable, but any more than that and it becomes hard to crawl back out of.


#14

A lot of people are resistant to the idea of more pessimistic games, but I think this is just a matter of people dealing with the trauma of modern life differently. My life is so hopeless and depressing and every time I put in the effort to move up it falls apart. I can’t handle depressive, realistically pessimistic media. I just can’t. But that’s how I cope. I think Kunzelman simply wants to cope in a different way. We can coexist.

I think a more accurate article title would be I Need More Pessimistic Games. That’s all.


#15

I honestly don’t see how games (narrowly construed) could be pessimistic. Pessimistic games don’t have attainable win conditions (broadly construed). They don’t let you effect change. Maybe we get games set in pessimistic worlds that tell depressing narratives, but it seems antithetical to the concept of a game (still narrowly construed) to have a pessimistic protagonist. You can’t give a player control over a character who levels up and affects the narrative without indulging in some amount of optimism.

That said, this is operating on a very limited concept of “game.” I think there are a lot of interactive media things that we might colloquially call games that don’t fit this concept (e.g. walking simulators, visual novels, choose your own adventure books). But I’m not even convinced media like this that can escape the optimistic indulgence – your PC may never get stronger, your choices may not make a difference, you may not affect the narrative, but you as a player still have power in the environment. In Gone Home, you can’t find your sister or bring her back, but you still have the power to search and find out what happened to her. I don’t know if a game (now broadly construed) could make the player themselves completely powerless in an environment without just being a movie. The core, interactive nature of games I think is essentially optimistic.


#16

Not to be too pedantic but I think Cameron is arguing for more games that address the ideas and philosophy of pessimism and carry it through to the end. But reading some of the replies it seems like a lot of people are focusing more on tone. That’s just my read, anyway.

More to the topic, the game this made me think about is Elite: Dangerous. In the game you play, essentially, a nobody. You run jobs, make money, buy a bigger ship so you can run more jobs and make more money…and that’s pretty much it. If you follow the lore and power dynamics of the universe it is a terrible place. There is conflict, political backstabbing, human trafficking and indentured servitude; and you as the player can do nothing to change it. You exist in it. No matter how big a ship you get or how many pirates you kill you feel insignificant in a vast, uncaring universe.

At least that is how I feel playing that game. It is like an anti-power fantasy and I think that is a little closer to what Cameron might have been trying to get at.


#17

The Souls games are grim in tone but not especially pessimistic. Through your escalating strength as the player character, you’ll end up doing the big thing that makes some difference in the world. That thing and that difference may only contribute to a continued repetition of a grand, careless cosmic cycle, but at least you were a footnote in it.

I actually couldn’t play Cart Life for longer than an hour because the entirety of the experience is an actual terror I’ve come very close to living on a few occasions: being so destitute that if I don’t do everything in my power from day to day in order to make money, that I’m going to be in a desperate situation that I have no capability of escaping.

There might be a way to “optimize” your play of Cart Life to where you’re not in financial dire straits, but from a casual play session, you’re very likely going to fail and vicariously experience the situation that I still constantly fear every day.

That’s what I’d call a genuinely pessimistic game, once that drops you into the bottom of the hole that thousands of people in America occupy, where all you can do the bare minimum to survive, and trying to claw your way out will just result in less energy to survive the next day.

Dark Souls, for its uniquely bleak atmosphere, is still about the accumulation of power and accomplishing a heroic goal that you set out to do, even if the end result is not very optimistic for the world’s future.


#18

I understand what Cameron is arguing for, at least my interpretation of it, I just argue that once you look beyond the surface of your average game story the overall world view is relentlessly bleak. Other than the spoiler tag above, I honestly can’t think of the last game I played where I felt a feeling of positive change in the world as the credits rolled. To me personally, I find the notion of finding personal success yet not affecting the world at all to be even more pessimistic than not even finding the personal success in the first place. To have no meaningful progress or power is at least comforting in the sense that you are a cog in a greater machine who couldn’t stop it anymore than a pebble can redirect a river. It’s not a happy feeling, but it carries no personal weight. On the other hand, to struggle mightily, to shake the very pillars of power and to only find the world indifferent and unchanged, that is truly depressing. You were the One, you had power and resolve beyond that of everyone around you, and the universe didn’t blink. To me, that is the ultimate is pessimism.


#19

I’m gonna be one of the outliers and say I agree somewhat. Like, I do think there’s a lot to express or understand with hopeful works, and the vast majority of my favorite games are hopeful. But then there are the games I adore that go in the exact opposite direction, and it arguably says something equally as true that needs to be understood.

I think a lot of people here are mistaking pessimism with grittiness or “edge,” which is what we usually see from popular media made either by hacks who don’t know what they’re talking about or people using transgression or grittiness to seem more mature or cool. That’s not what seems to be argued or what I’d argue that means either.

I think better examples would be Spec Ops: The Line, Drakengard 1, Always Sometimes Monsters, Actual Sunlight, Little Red Lie, SUDA 51’s “Kill the Past” games (Killer7, The Silver Case, The 25th Ward, No More Heroes), ect. They aren’t games devoid of hope (except Little Red Lie which will kill your soul and leave it in a ditch because that is the most real piece of media ever made), but rather games that explore darker subject matter in a serious way to say something we should hear or make us think about something we normally don’t with constructive ends beyond style trappings.

Sometimes we need our ass kicked or to confront uncomfortable ideas to grow as people and better understand something. We don’t need that all the time, not at all, but to suggest that we have so many genuinely pessimistic works clogging the landscape isn’t right. We have garbage made by manchildren who think sexual assault and portraying violent hate crimes is an easy way to seem deep or meaningful. We’re used to shock jocks, not actual pessimistic art.


#20

You’ve hit the nail on the head for why I didn’t talk about Dark Souls. I don’t see them as pessimistic at all; they’re depressing, but every ending for each of them holds out for some kind of potential hope for some group (and the ending for 3 really drives that home).

For me, a down tone isn’t sufficient to be pessimistic, which is maybe why some people in this comment thread are finding some friction with it. Pessimism finds itself never coming to happy terms with the world. An important graf from the piece:

I want to consider the latter. Like Thacker, I think there’s value in pessimism. I think there is value in thinking of the world as a rotting thing that we’re trapped inside. Pessimism is the act of being sad and thinking about that sadness , dwelling on it, and interpreting the world through that sadness. Pessimism is, as Thacker says early in his book, “the crime of not pretending it’s all for a reason.”

Cart Life is absolutely in there, and it has been interesting to see some characterizations of Dishonored in the thread that see it this way (although the opportunity to kick a god’s ass for making life bad seems like a pretty amazing bit of hope to me). Also very interesting to see Elite: Dangerous talked about in this way, I’ll have to check that out.

Again, pessimism is a valuable philosophical angle because it approaches from the position of things not being for a reason, of being wholly arbitrary, of being unspecial, and I think games that tactically imagine their players and characters this way open up some pathways for interesting content. Being the Chosen Undead or Gordon Freeman, even if those things are almost cosmic jokes, don’t fit the bill.

Thanks for all the engaged discussion, yall.