Or, why let prejudice and slaughter get in the way of a good joke?
Tone is kind of a curious thing in video games, when you stop to think about it. The ‘tone’ of something is (to put it in its simplest form) just how something is presented, with the most common two extremes being a serious presentation and a more comical one. There are a lot of different facets and ways to affect a piece of medium’s tone, from how each individual character affects the tone to how something as simple as the use of colour in the environment affects it.
However, videogames are in a weird place where their tone is partly dictated by the player. Because the player is the one controlling exactly how events occur, they are having a direct effect on what kind of tone is being presented. If, for example, you made an otherwise serious character run and jump repeatedly into a wall in an otherwise serious story, the tone would take a nose dive into the comical. This particular thing isn’t really something a developer needs to worry about, since each individual player will find whatever tone is best for them, but it is worth looking at how certain developers use a particular set of tones in their games. Mostly because, in a medium where they can never be 100% sure what tone the player is currently experiencing, looking at how a developer tries to insure a certain tone is being received is interesting in itself.
Take the tones used in the Drakengard and Nier games as some examples. Both series are the creation of Yoko Taro, a somewhat eccentric Japanese games director/writer, and both have this odd balancing act going on. Drakengard is a franchise known for its extremely gritty worlds and liberal slaughter, and the Nier games are known for their beautiful but also very melancholy stories, and yet both try to inject some levity between their more serious moments. Drakengard 3 is a tale of one woman’s quest to murder her sisters while desperately trying to stave off a disease that will kill her slowly and painfully, but is also the tale of one woman desperately trying to stop herself from strangling the life out of her silly, silly dragon.
Even Nier: Automata gets in some funny jokes, which is pretty impressive considering it’s a game that brings into question where mere artificial intelligence ends and sentience begins, and where humanity factors into the matter. Despite the fact you’ll be spending a lot of time questioning if you’re even doing the right thing, the game still has a couple of light-hearted moments to break things up. A memorable early example is when 2B and 9S (the game’s rather clinically named protagonists) are escorting a robot ‘child.’ Despite the fact that she’s actually bigger than both of her escorts, the girl is just full of questions like a real curious child…including one that 9S is really adamant about dodging.
It makes sense that such serious and tragic games have such silly and comedic moments: if something was serious or dark every second of its runtime, it’s pretty likely that the audience would quickly become overwhelmed by it. I’m an optimist, and I like to think that everybody is naturally caring and sympathetic to some degree, but even I know that a person’s charity can only extend so far. Just asking an audience to sympathise with a character’s crappy situation isn’t enough by itself, you have to give them a reason to root for those characters. By extension, if the tone of something is just unendingly bleak, then you’ll quickly run out of your audience’s good will. But if you sprinkled in some lighter moments throughout, the audience will become more disarmed; a heavy hitting and emotionally tragic scene is made all the more effective because the audience has seen the characters in question in better times. A good example of this comes from the very first Nier, with its unnamed primary protagonist and the supporting protagonist ‘Weiss’. These two really go through hell and high water before the game is over, but you’re already emotionally invested in them before that point because you’ve been won over by their pretty funny banter. If the game had lacked this component, it might have been somewhat harder for the characters to truly endear themselves to the player, and thus making the task of the writing all the harder.
It doesn’t just have to be comic relief that provides these lighter moments. The original Drakengard is pretty devoid of goofy humour (outside of that one time the main protagonist kicked a praying old man just to shut him up, that was chuckle worthy in context), but never the less has moments where it lightens up. In a world with very few ‘good’ people and where the main character is a murderous psychopath, his relationship with his dragon is actually engaging and nice to watch develop. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the game’s tone, but it’s hard to not appreciate how the two grow closer despite their initial hatred of each other. Although, that might only be because every other relationship in the game is in a varying degree between ‘screwed up’ and ‘oh god why why why.’
I’m not saying this is some kind of hard and fast rule that all pieces of entertainment that want to be taken seriously need to do, especially since it’s something that certain products aren’t even going to want to do. A horror game that has more light hearted and comical moments in it isn’t going to succeed in its primary task of freaking out the player. Imagine if Outlast took a break from its pants wetting terror so you could watch some asylum patients do some sort of funny gag, it would take you right out of the tension. While something like a horror product will have moments where it is less scary so it can properly build up to the really terrifying stuff, its tone shouldn’t move too far away from its oppressive and tense atmosphere.
As previously stated, video games are in a strange place where the creator can’t be 100% sure that the thing they’ve created is always going to have the tone they want it to, since a single glitch or exploit can turn an experience into a farce. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be an accident: some people don’t really care about the context of a video game and only want to see the gameplay, meaning they’re almost completely out of reach of the designer. However, Drakengard and Nier are good examples of the games where the player might not always know what kind of tone to expect. The games (quite rightly) sell themselves on their pretty grim and morally grey worlds, so it can be kind of surprise to come across their more light-hearted sides. I think it only adds to the appeal of the games, not only because it helps to bring out the darker tones, but because it adds such a strange but appealing variety to them. While he’s hardly the only writer who uses such techniques, Yoko Taro really is a pro at this kind of thing. That, and maybe some kind of wizard. That’s the only explanation I can think of for how he manages to be both a creative lead on multiple projects (despite none of his games making a huge amount of cash) and manages to nail it out of the park every time he does.
In any case, thanks for sticking with this little ramble of thought, which had mostly been born out of wondering why I never felt too overwhelmed by Nier and Drakengard’s bleak tones. Due to Neir: Automata’s recent release and the fact that I’m currently addicted to playing it, expect a few more pieces on the weird and wonderful world of Nier in the future. Thanks and take care!