Misdirection is an art form that many creators take an exceptionally long time to master. The result is a sea of shock and awe in the films as the rug is pulled back from under the audience. But when it comes to video games, it can have a startling and even disturbing reaction as players strip layers of the experience into a more interactive medium.
There are tons of games that disarm the player with their charming graphics or simple designs, and then there are those that are more subtly sinister in the background. Regardless, many titles are much, much darker than they look.
hollow knight is dark in the sense that a Tim Burton film is dark, relying more on weird and unusual imagery rather than downright gruesome. That being said, it’s a Metroidvania with a cute bug-inspired art style, but a dark, gothic story set in the dark recesses of Hollownest.
The designs could recall The nightmare before Christmas, but the lore and environmental storytelling is as dark and mysterious as an Edgar Allan Poe story. While it’s not exactly a nightmare, it’s incredibly atmospheric and dark.
I am Setsuna
Taking a heavy influence from 90s JRPGs like Chrono Trigger, I am Setsuna is a beautiful but dark adventure through a snowy landscape. In the game, the player leads a party of adventurers as they escort the titular Setsuna to the final lands where she will be turned into a human sacrifice to protect her people from monstrous threats. To say the plot is anything but tragic would be an outright lie.
Behind its anime-inspired facade and enjoyable combat system, I am Setsuna is a tale of doom that’s guaranteed to strike a few heartstrings. It’s a game that pulls the player in with its nostalgia and design, but ends up leaving their heart and soul in pieces on the floor.
Super Mario Bros.
Almost everyone who has ever played a video game is at least vaguely familiar with the Super Mario Games. But as timeless as Nintendo’s breakout title is, there’s a dark secret behind the 8-bit wonder of the Mushroom Kingdom in the original NES title.
If someone called Mario a mass murderer, he’d be given some weird looks. However, in the original manual of Super Mario Bros., it is revealed that Mario isn’t just stomping on Goombas and Koopas. The manual states “The Mushroom People have been transformed into mere stones, bricks, and even field hair plants…” This means that every block Mario breaks is actually a helpless citizen of the Mushroom Kingdom.
The Pokemon series
It is true that Pokemon is easily one of the best-selling and most popular gaming franchises of all time and its fandom is one of the loudest in the gaming community. But behind all the cute and cuddly monsters scurrying through the tall grass, there’s a spooky world of pet fights kids have been exposed to for decades.
If Pokemon were traded for real animals like dogs or roosters, trainers would be looking at serious charges for participating in a blood sport. And players have been engaged in it for more than 122 titles.
History of the cave
It might look like a cute retro-style Metroidvania, but History of the cave plunges headlong into dark, depressing and heartbreaking material. It might have a few hints of fantasy scattered throughout its world of robots, mad scientists, and rabbits, but it’s a whole facade hiding the genetic experimentation, torture, and death that would make up a dystopian sci-fi novel. he was placed elsewhere.
Even if the player manages to complete the objectives and unlock the “Good” ending, they will still end up with a bittersweet story when the credits roll. Sometimes the player just can’t save them all.
Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion
A false sense of security is a great way to create fear in any medium. Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion is an unusual horror game, but one that plays with player expectations in an almost sadistic way. The cute cartoon art style may seem harmless at first, but there are worse than cardboard ghosts in this haunted house.
The deeper the player goes into the bowels of the mansion, the more unsettling and nightmarish the monsters become. With 13 specimens ranging from ghosts to flesh-eating monsters, explorers will really need to be on their toes unless they want to become another horror-bound fatality.
The very definition of a cult favorite, Subtitle is a game that doesn’t exactly tell the player everything on their first run. It follows RPG mechanics similar to something like Earthbound and features several nods and nods to the RPG genre as a whole, but it’s the story and secret morality system that really twists things.
The game is known for its cast of monster characters that the player encounters, but how they handle each encounter is up to them. While it’s highly preferable to just befriend every mob and creature Frisk encounters, there’s always the less friendly option of ripping and tearing a genocide mode. That being said, every action has a consequence.
braid is a nifty little indie darling that takes on the tropes and mechanics of platformers like Super Mario Bros. and gives them a different twist. It’s also an example of how the protagonist isn’t always the hero. While it can play like a typical side-scrolling platformer with a time-shifting mechanic, there’s a more disturbing narrative at play.
What begins as a story of a hero, a princess and a monster quickly turns into a story of obsession, kidnapping and abuse. Interpretations range from an abusive relationship to the creation of the atomic bomb, but there’s certainly more to it than this puzzle-platformer tells.
First, Minecraft is a charming, delightful, and addictive experience that millions of players regularly enjoy. However, the further one progresses through the game’s survival mode, the less charming and delightful this blocky landscape becomes, especially when the player is overrun by creepers, zombies, and other monsters, or perhaps digs a little too deep.
While it’s technically true that the game is as hard as the player makes it, there’s something not-so-friendly beneath the surface in its core mode. Players are encouraged to massively create Minecraft built, but there is always someone or something that wants to destroy everything all at once.
Anything that has a deal with the devil involved must have at least some measure of darkness. Cuphead and Mugman may inhabit a wacky and colorful cartoon world, but an evil plot after losing at Devil’s Casino quickly takes away some shade from the gambling’s bright and energetic palate.
Similar to the Golden Age cartoons that inspired it, there is an inherently dark undertone surrounding the otherwise cartoonish designs. While the inflatable and silly characters all live up to the course, the themes of gambling, booze, and shady business are motifs that never leave the game, no matter how many bright and sunny levels.
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