Four cautionary tales for adults
by Paula Fernández
Image courtesy of Klei Games
Similar to The Adventure of Alice in Wonderland’s impact on children’s literature in the 19th century, establishing the idea of an independent and curious child facing the absurdity of the world on their own, representations of children in video games have opened the door for a different branch of the Dark Fantasy genre - one which explores an adult understanding of childhood.
The recurring theme of childhood linked to macabre motifs might now be perceived as a lazy choice of style, whether it is a Tim Burton-esque motif or a ghoulish girl at the end of a poorly lit corridor. It is seen as a stale topic, only appealing to those who yearn for a resurgence of the 2000s emo culture. However, these stories go beyond their disturbing façade. They delve into the psychological changes that occur during childhood and also foreground adults’ condescending simplification of a child’s mind. In most video games, the player is meant to impersonate a child facing a quest amid the nonsensical adult world (fictional or not). Thus, their perception shifts to the child’s perspective.
That is to say, these games do not only suppose a reversal of style (to an infantilised one), but also a narrative which implies a regression to an uncluttered and simpler mindset. They offer an immersion into the character's childhood, while also evoking the player’s by making them choose. Children in video games present the opportunity of experiencing an unfamiliar duality: a slip back into childhood, a delight in the youthful thrill of fearing the monstrous- all while holding onto a detached, grown-up perspective and playing as such.
Published in 2015, Killmonday Games’ Fran Bow portrays the aforementioned version of a narrative focused on the agency of the child, both against the adult and the uncanny. The game follows the story of a girl trying to unmask the identity of her parents’ murderer, including herself among the suspects due to suspicious amnesia. Throughout the game, adults are depicted as obnoxious, dull and patronising towards the child’s efforts in solving the crime. It is precisely because of the game’s use of narrative, one that unifies the character and the player, that we find ourselves no longer siding with the adults, but rather engaging in the child’s ‘I versus Them’ viewpoint instead.
Regarding the importance of style, one could name a million artists and demand their rightful credit for the appeal of such dismal atmospheres. Edward Gorey is among my favourites, but possibly Neil Gaiman’s Other Mother, seeking to gouge Coraline’s eyes out to replace them with buttons, is a more suitable candidate. The illustrations used vary substantially from game to game, but there are reappearing patterns of sober colour palettes, dim or chiaroscuro lighting and a captivating 1920s ambience. These motifs are usually complemented with the game’s puzzle-platforming style, including machinery, gadgets, levers and leathery briefcases to open or move around in order to reach the next stage. Likewise, the music serves as a guiding element that fully assembles these games’ murky atmosphere – from soft piano pieces, which are almost a constant reminiscence of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, to ironically cheerful tunes playing from a gramophone or a music box.
The 2013 indie, action-adventure Don’t Starve is a survival game designed in a dark-cartoonish style. Its story follows the adventures of Wilson, a scientist who finds himself trapped in a dreadful world, full of monsters and ghastly apparitions that try to haunt him to insanity. The player’s mission is to shield Wilson from monsters, madness and hunger for as long as possible. However, it is the game’s old-fashioned style which truly makes it pleasant. It evokes a nostalgia that merges perfectly with the darker parts of the story, resulting in a very charismatic design, equal in worthiness to HP. Lovecraft or Poe’s stories.
Nevertheless, no matter how grim, these video games are often distinguished by their subtlety of violence, keeping it off-screen. In order to build suspense, the stories draw from the bleak images and any other elements which harmonise their eerie ambience: the wind blowing through dripping shutters, creaking doors, careful steps, or the panting sound of the child’s breath as they run to hide. This technique results in a longer-lasting tension than a torrent of blunt representations of violence; it maintains itself throughout the narrative, or at least just until you fail to complete the task so many times that you become numb to the image of the child being taken out of the screen by a pair of huge, disfigured hands and other similar imagery. Little Nightmares, a 2017 game released by Tarsier Studios, introduces a child trying to escape an underwater mansion full of monsters, which stands on a narrow island. This game has a more realistic style which enhances the abhorrence of its monsters- gnarled and misshapen cooks butchering large pieces of meat - presumably made of children - and surrealistic stumps that drag themselves around with their abominable long arms. Yet, Little Nightmares finds the perfect balance between showing the grotesque but never really consummating its implicit promise of brutality. Instead, the game achieves its horrific nature by simply substituting violence for the anxiety-inducing rhythm of a berserk heartbeat every time the child is in danger – resulting in a fascinating uneasiness that stays with the player for the whole game.
Another game that includes all these features is Limbo, released in 2010 by Playdead. This game employs a greyscale expressionist aesthetic, set in a barren landscape full of twisted structures such as abandoned factories and desolate wastelands full of giant spiders. Its character has to resolve mechanical puzzles in order to go from stage to stage to finally find his lost little brother. Like the previous games mentioned, the images, sounds, and diluted violence absorb the player into the character’s journey. They take us back to a more enchanting version of our childhoods, a process that might be the modern version of children’s literature and its exploration of younger minds. Only this time, for a more mature audience, these tales are made suitable for adults’ need to see their past selves reflected somewhere.