A certain degree of grim seriousness is called for when you’re the Horseman of War. Organizations have an image to maintain. You can’t show up to the apocalypse in bright fluffy pajamas singing Broadway show tunes. It ruins morale.
But Darksiders is among those games that take it a bit too far. Its protagonist War is a muscle-bound brute clad in spiked bits from three separate suits of armor, carrying a sword the size of some small tree trunks and inlaid with skulls all the way to the tip. (Incidentally, he looks eerily similar to Arthas Menethil, but whether this makes him sillier or cooler is up to you.) He tromps through the burnt-out wreckage of long-dead human civilization, never speaking above a growl, massacring anything that challenges him- and quite a lot seems to think it can beat the embodiment of War in a fight, from the warlike angels of not!Heaven to the victorious demons of not!Hell now infesting the dead Earth.
Why? War was called down on a phony Apocalypse, and as a result the kingdom of Man is now so much ash. His “Charred Council” (really?) superiors aren’t too happy with him for that, so they send him down to bring justice to the perpetrators, apparently for the principle of the thing, since it’s not like the Earth can be restored or the balance repaired with the entirety of humanity dead and demons coming out the woodwork. If the world’s going to end, Apocalypse Form 27-B Page 3 Field 7 had better be filled out first!
There’s a word for stories like this, and that word, coined by fans of ultra-dystopian sci-fi franchise Warhammer 40,000, is grimdark. (For maximum effect grimdark should be growled one full octave below the rest of the sentence. If it sounds ridiculous, it’s supposed to.)
Grimdark is heavy metal without the ironic joie de vivre. Founded in an appreciation for grim and often gothic aesthetics, badass characters, and cynical, sometimes dystopian stories, this staple of 90s-era comic books applies these storytelling elements haphazardly, not necessarily for narrative coherence so much as aesthetic extremity. They often rely on aggressive, even nihilistic caricatures with simple motivations and a regular application of Murphy’s Law bordering on the diabolical. The defining traits of grimdark stories are grandiose scale and a callously cynical tone, painting gray-and-black dilemmas where idealism is useless if not actively harmful and innocents die in droves without comment.
Like many other grimdark tales, Darksiders is actually a fairly ordinary game beneath its coat of black paint and blood, and despite my misgivings it’s not a bad game by any means. A competently enjoyable Zelda clone stealing liberally from fellow grimdark brawler God of War, it’s very similar to any number of other heroic narratives- the mighty protagonist adventures across the land, exploring ancient ruins and battling evil wherever he goes. That the landscape consists of burnt-out wreckage populated by savage demons and moaning, withered undead is basically window dressing; grimdark heroes such as War or Kratos are too manly to waste time on emoting when there’s killing to be done. And lordy, is there killing to do in games like these: limbs and body parts pirouette through the air in slow motion; protagonists crush their victims’ bodies with a single clench of their mighty hands.
Not all games need to be soul-stirring epics, pondering the emotional weight and spiritual pollution of combat and desolation. Sometimes the player just wants to wreck things, and for all its narrative flaws, this aesthetic can also yield truly demented character designs, weapons, and vistas unchecked by sanity, common sense, or restraint.
Another advantage to grimdark stories is the escapist potential for the audience. Bombastic, charismatic villains in the Darth Vader or Doctor Doom mold have always been popular for their larger-than-life villainy and their grandiose schemes. Kratos would shame these comparatively civilized antagonists with his monstrous acts, and War, though not evil, shares their drive, their confidence, and their enormous might. No one tells a protagonist in such stories to waste time on crises of conscience or to submit to authorities greater than themselves.
But this excess of negativity has its price. The long-term appeal of grimdark is mostly superficial. The most chilling dystopias and the most horrifying surroundings require a counterweight, even a passive one, to strike a chord in the audience. Omnipresent, superficial horror and misery can become banal. A world without heroes is as tedious as a world where the heroes are utterly unchallenged- and few protagonists in such stories really qualify for heroism, much less when their attempts to resolve the conflict are doomed to failure. War, by the standards of his genre, is actually fairly decent, even though that may be because he rarely speaks much.
Furthermore, grimdark‘s fixation on the brutal and the blasted are often used as a smokescreen to hide relatively ordinary components. Is using skulls as keys and the souls of the dead as currency really any more exciting than using metal keys and coins for the same purpose? Is a climactic battle necessarily any more satisfactory because the “hero” dispatched their victim with eye-widening sadism? Is a female character necessarily sexier for her thrusting her body into the camera as blatantly as possible? And does a blasted world necessarily feel any more immersive for its nihilism? Often (though not always by any means) the answer is no.
Darksiders is not an extreme example of this problematic fad- that stained crown still goes to Warhammer 40,000- and is arguably far more innocuous in its negativity than the inexplicably popular, horribly violent God of War series. (I’ll save my commentary on that for another day.) Though not ground-breaking in any way, it’s occasionally epic and quite playable.
It is, however, emblematic of a trend: another perfectly decent game with an intriguing premise handicapped by its own desperate need to be seen as EXTREEEEEEME through the copious application of every “edgy” element a frustrated teen or young adult could throw in. Ironically, in its quest to achieve bleak maturity, Darksiders and games like it only succeed in backsliding into adolescence.