“Mature, dark and gritty.”
I’m going to be up front about this: I don’t like this cluster of words, especially when applied to fantasy. Whenever I hear a movie or a game described in this way, I can’t help but cringe.
The reason why I don’t like these terms when they are put together is because they are always held up as some kind of standard of excellence for entertainment to live up to. In this article I want to explore why the thirst for “mature, dark and gritty” is misplaced, particularly when it comes to fantasy storytelling.
What is mature, dark and gritty?
In order to make my point, I’ll have to settle down and define what I think these terms are meant to convey. I’ll start with the easiest one: “dark”.
The term “dark” has been applied to everything from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas to realistic tragedies about drug abuse. It covers a huge range of moods and it can be applied to the plot, the characters or the setting of a story. On the whole, I think people use the word “dark” mostly to describe an overall oppressively unhappy mood. In fantasy, a dark story is usually told in a setting that conveys that darkness outwardly. In dark fantasy settings, the weather sucks, people have dirt on their faces and it’s often literally dark.
I love dark fantasy. I have absolutely no problem with it. In fact, I write dark fantasy myself. It’s only when “dark” is attached to “gritty” and/or “mature” that I start rolling my eyes.
“Gritty” is a tougher one to define, but I think it’s usually related to characters’ behaviour. Applied to video games, I think that Castlevania and Dark Souls are clearly dark, but they aren’t gritty, whereas The Witcher is perhaps less dark but definitely grittier. I’ve heard people describe a gritty setting as one where the darkness is more realistic, hits closer to home and is more relatable. I disagree. I can easily think of a few stories that deal with very real-world situations such as loneliness, death and disease in a realistic way without being gritty. The way I see it, gritty stories insist on showing things in a dirty, ugly light. They tend to include things that were traditionally shunned in high culture such as graphic depictions of sex and ugly language. They leave at least part of the audience with a general feeling of wanting to wash their eyes and ears afterwards.
I generally don’t like gritty fantasy. I think it pulls fantasy down, out of its naturally lofty sphere of myth-making and into the filth and muck of daily life. I’ll come back to this topic later, but first I want to address the final word: “mature”.
This is the most contentious of the terms because what exactly is a “mature” story? I think everyone will agree that mature storytelling is intended for mature audiences. Now the question becomes why it’s reserved for such audiences only. Is it because the themes discussed are too intense and complex for younger minds? Or is it because there are elements in the story that are so shocking that we want to spare kids from them? If it is the former, I think that the term “mature” is well chosen. If we mean the latter, I think we need a new word for that.
My biggest gripe with the word “mature” is that it is often used for things that try really hard to appear mature by including elements that are not family-friendly. Very often, they aren’t actually mature in the way they handle that content.
It’s not necessarily better
What annoys me most of all is when people say things like “Game of Thrones is like Lord of the Rings but it’s a lot more mature because it’s dark and gritty”. What they mean is that they think it’s better because it contains graphic sex, extreme violence, morally ambiguous characters and a nihilistic outlook on life. And they don’t mean better because they personally prefer the grittiness. They mean truly more elevated and closer to the Platonic ideal of a fantasy epic.
To my personal taste, The Lord of the Rings is better, in part because it does not contain such elements, but I also realise that this is not an objective criterion. If I want to uphold The Lord of the Rings as objectively better than Game of Thrones, I know I should use very different arguments, like Tolkien’s wise approach to human nature in his characters, his beautiful language or his powerful themes. The amount of content that is only suited for a mature audience has little bearing on objective quality. And that goes in the other direction as well. The film Devil’s Advocate contains a good deal of sex, profanity and violence, but I think it’s a great movie. I will not for a moment claim that the similarly themed Brendan Fraser comedy Bedazzled is actually better simply because it manages to avoid adult material. I also understand that the grittier elements of Devil’s Advocate were there to convey the film’s central themes.
But there is this attitude in the air that adding adult-only material to a story somehow increases its prestige and its legitimacy as serious art. This is totally unwarranted. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are perfectly acceptable for a twelve year-old to read, even if the average kid probably wouldn’t understand a lot of it. There is not much “gritty” about a celebrated film like Citizen Kane or a novel like Pride & Prejudice. Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan, two of today’s most beloved filmmakers, tend to avoid graphic sex and foul language in their films, even when they depict characters and situations where that would be appropriate, like the scummy villains in the Batman trilogy. I would say that in most cases, graphic sex, gory violence and cursing are really not necessary to make a work of art great. Don’t take this to mean that I feel it should never happen. I believe this is the artist’s prerogative. But I personally don’t care for it and in many cases, I feel it’s a cheap way to appear edgy and “mature” without doing the much harder work of having those qualities come out of the actual plot, characterization and themes.
As for maturity in fantasy, I will not say there is no place for it, but I believe fantasy is at heart a progression of the older genres of myth and fairy tales. These stories were powerful because they embodied the inner, spiritual world outwardly. The monsters and the magic are really portrayals of intangible qualities like moral virtues and vices. Because of that, a certain level of simplicity is appropriate. Tolkien’s Orcs should never have complex, understandable motivations because they are simply depictions of evil. On the other hand, Tolkien’s heroes include flawed, complex people like Boromir and Théoden. It is precisely the struggle of real, flawed men against pure, simple evil that makes The Lord of the Rings powerful, because we all have evils in our lives, so we can all relate. The Orcs are simply a way of showing that evil in a clear and recognisable way, and the battles that ensue show the courage and self-sacrifice that is needed to confront those evils. When confronted with our own vices, it helps to be reminded of Frodo’s heroic journey to muster the courage to deal with them. “Mature” themes in fantasy are usually understood to entail moral ambiguity and speaking of good and evil in murky, muddled tones. I believe there is already too much murkiness in our thinking about good and evil. Fantasy can help us make the distinction clear again.
I do think there are places for dealing with morally complex issues in storytelling. But fantasy is precisely that genre that is least suited to it, in my opinion.
Why it’s worse in video games
The clamour for “mature, dark & gritty” has become huge in video games recently, and developers happily answer that call. Dark and gruesome settings full of extreme violence have been around for a long time and have become even more popular of late: Doom, Dark Souls, you name it. In the case of those games, though, there is no pretence of delivering a “mature”, thematic story that touches on real-world issues in a thought-provoking way. These developers know what their audience wants: a scary, challenging adventure that delivers the thrills of destroying all the horrible enemies coming at them. This is nothing new. What is new, is this strange mutation that has come up lately. Developers are now trying to find ways to deliver an emotional experience through their games, like a great movie or a book. Older roleplaying games started doing this by telling stories of sweeping, epic quests: Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic come to mind. These games often include moral choices. Originally, those moral choices used to be pretty straightforward: you could either become a cartoonishly evil Sith or a noble Jedi Knight. I’m going to say something very unpopular but I preferred it that way.
With the franchises of Mass Effect, Dragon Age and The Witcher, roleplaying games on PC and consoles have moved more in the direction of truly difficult decisions where the outcome isn’t always clear. In the first Mass Effect, an important mission goes haywire and you can only save one of your two team mates. The other one will inevitably die in a fiery explosion. When I first played that game, I thought it was absolutely amazing, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed that moment. I get that it’s not supposed to be enjoyable, but rather heart-wrenching. I did appreciate what Bioware did there and I thought it was a fine experiment in interactive storytelling. But it’s not something I wanted more and more of. Of course, that did happen. The Dragon Age and The Witcher series take the concept much farther. The world is bleak and depressing, people are nasty to each other, and you as the protagonist are constantly faced with gut-wrenching moral decisions where there really is no clear answer what the best choice is – sometimes there are only bad ones. Gamers laud this development as “realism”, but I wonder… At what point does this tangled moral mess stop being realistic and start becoming parody? It’s like the show Game of Thrones. At first, audiences were shocked to find out that this was a fantasy world where good guys could die and bad guys could proceed unpunished. Realism, right? But then it just went on and on, killing off likeable and villainous characters indiscriminately in a completely amoral, indifferent universe. I know a lot of people have stopped watching because after a while, it just gets dull. I also don’t believe it’s necessarily realistic. After a while, you just start feeling that life isn’t really like that. We know life is tough and bad things happen to good people, but it’s not pointlessly, relentlessly cruel all the time.
Going back to video games, there is a paradox when that kind of brutal naturalism is combined with the traditional trappings of gaming. In Dragon Age: Origins, you’re agonizing over the right choice in a situation where a possessed little boy with magical powers is an immediate threat to everyone around him. Can you kill a child to save a large group of people? Is there another way? Serious, brooding moral discussions… followed by video game combat where you’re blithely chopping off the heads of your enemies and cheering as you pick up loot from their dead bodies.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with viciously slaughtering your foes in a video game, because it’s super fun and in the end, it’s “just a video game” – a phrase many gamers hate. I understand why they hate it. They want the artistry behind their entertainment to be recognised and I agree with them. On the other hand, you can’t have that artistry be mostly about spectacularly cool fights with bad guys and then expect to be taken seriously as thoughtful, subtle drama at the same time.
It’s perfectly possible to appreciate the masterful craftsmanship that goes into the graphics, the gameplay mechanics and the questing of a video game without the need to justify it as “serious drama about real life issues”. I don’t think “serious drama about real life issues” is in any way more important or superior to fun, exciting escapism with some clever challenges and beautiful visuals.
My point is that video games don’t really need serious quests about the haunting mistakes of the past, the disappointments of life or the difficulties of choice in complex ethical issues. Non-interactive entertainment is usually a much better platform for that kind of dramatic storytelling. Is there room for it in video games? Well, I’m not going to say it’s not allowed, but this gamer is not that interested. Novels generally aren’t as good for blood-pumping action scenes as movies are. Movies are not as good at conveying the inner psyche of their characters as books are. In the same way, video games aren’t as fit for “mature” themes as other media are. Sex and romance in video games usually come across as puerile and pubescent and I don’t think the technical evolution of the medium is going to help very much to change that.
I’m not ashamed to say that I play video games for fun. I think they are a great platform for fantasy world-building and telling stories of survival, heroic conquest, fighting against insurmountable odds and other old-fashioned macho stuff like that, because you get to experience the thrill of accomplishment as the player. For this reason, I can enjoy some darkness in a game à la Diablo, Batman or the dungeons in Skyrim, but I don’t care for “mature” and “gritty”.
I’m one of the few players who don’t seem to want more complex moral choices. I liked it fine when the Star Wars games gave you the option to choose the heroic or the evil storyline. I love that I can choose to join the profoundly evil cult of the Dark Brotherhood in Elder Scrolls games, or I can become the noble chosen hero of the world. I don’t want to be presented with heartbreaking choices or social commentary in my epic fantasy world. That’s not what games are about for me, and there is nothing inferior or “guilty pleasure” (a term I hate) about that.
Aristotle said that entertainment and friendship are more elevated and valuable than work, because they are things we do for their own sake, whereas work is something we do for an ulterior motive. In the same way, I think appreciating a well-crafted fantasy world and having fun in it is more valuable than using it for the ulterior motive of confronting harsh reality or mulling over political philosophy. Besides, it’s fantasy. Why are so many people so adamant about pulling down the magic, grandeur and beauty of fantasy and have it wallow in the drab and ugly realities of the most downtrodden parts of real life? Don’t we have enough of that already?