The Beauty of the Bleak

From 'The Americans' to 'The Banner Saga', find the joy in utter despair.
June 26, 2017, 1:45pm
courtesy Square Enix

One of my favorite TV shows of all-time is The Americans, a critical-darling FX spy drama about two deep-cover Soviet agents struggling to balance their mission with the needs of their family. In a different era, it would be a sitcom or at least a giddy espionage romp like the early seasons of Alias. In the current climate, The Americans is an ongoing descent into moral squalor, exhaustion, and dread that makes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy look like Austin Powers.

The most recent season was an in-depth study of the toll that four seasons of this shit have taken on the characters. It was not to everyone's taste: As Rob Harvilla wrote at The Ringer, "… The Americans now just feels suffocating, deflating. It is no longer any fun watching these people have no fun."

That is, of course, exactly why I love stuff like The Americans. I like seeing characters struggle with the weight of their own history, with burdens that cannot be lifted with a pep talk or a very good Very Special Episode. If it's fun, it probably means we're allowed to be at a remove from what the characters are experiencing.

But if the point is to locate the audience inside the story, to make the psychological participants and accomplices, then eliciting even vicarious satisfaction would be a failure. In four years of The Americans we still had plenty of moments to appreciate the terrifying competence of our antiheroes at even the worst of moments (there's a scene with a suitcase that's going to be with me to my dying day). Season five stripped that away and gave us nothing but the grinding monotony of despair. It was tough to watch at times, but every moment of it was earned.

It's harder satisfy my curious taste for hopelessness in video games. Games' participatory nature makes it hard to earn that emotional texture. The Last of Us can burden Joel and Ellie with heartache, but it also needs to serve up good stealth and combat encounters. Agent 47 can try to escape his sins however many times he likes, but once control reverts to the player he's a puppet in a goofy murder-simulator.

There are a few games that try and face despair head-on, like the superb Banner Saga and wartime survival sim This War of Mine. But they fundamentally can't ask you to hate what you're going through alongside the characters. You see the toll the story takes on your characters, and see their weariness reflected in their labored animations, but you're still "in it to win it" once the action starts. And there's always more action.

Which brings me to my obsession with the utterly bleak Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days. I loved this shabby, mean little series. But with Dog Days, Hitman series developers IO Interactive went in a bizarre direction that, to this day, I'm not certain they fully intended. They made a shitty shooter.

What I remember of Dog Days is a grotesquerie of pointless violence and snowballing calamity. Guns don't even shoot straight. You just spend hours behind cover, spraying gunfire in the general direction of anything with a badge. It's awful.

Aptly summing up the game for PC Gamer, Andy Kelly writes, "Kane & Lynch 2 is a deeply cynical, misanthropic game with absolutely no heart. And I think that's the point. It's a brazen, ghoulish murder-fest, as twisted and amoral as its heroes, and has no pretensions otherwise. And you're a voyeur, watching their wanton barbarism on YouTube, unable to turn away, complicit."

Not everyone loved the effect, and I think it's because games that go too far in this direction can't help but become meta-commentaries on the medium itself. But I've always admired that in a culture and medium that often romanticize both violence and suffering, Dog Days refuses to offer even a hope that they serve some kind of redemptive purpose. It may not be fun, but even in video games, not everything needs to be.

Does anyone else have a soft-spot for the bleak and the wretched in their entertainment choices? What's your preferred poison, and is there anything in video games that scratches that itch for you?