Max Payne sees Far Cry 2 scarring his face with a knife and daubing himself with mud and dust. "What are you doing?" Max says. "Isn't it obvious? I'm trying to appear gritty and mature like you. I've heard that's popular these days."
Gritty realism enjoys a vogue today, and film and game authors are putting it everywhere, even where it doesn't belong. They're even changing the style of entire franchises from the desire to make them appear more realistic. Games have polarized into Disney- and Nintendo-like rainbows-and-unicorns titles on one side, and grimly serious, po-faced ones on the other. Everything is either Fluffy's Magical Picnic or Chainsaws of War: Alien Massacre, with very little in between.There are almost no humorous games like Giants: Citizen Kabuto and MDK any more, or stylish and imaginative ones like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend. If something isn't a super-serious gritty shooter, publishers don't take it seriously.
There's nothing wrong with gritty realism, of course, when it's done well and put where it fits. Max Payne, The Witcher and Deus Ex are great games with real depth to them. But grittiness is often used just as window-dressing, as fake depth: instead of taking on more mature themes, film and game authors often use a surface coating of quasi-realism to try to fool themselves and their audience that what they're making is deep and mature. Just think of how many games we've played where scars and mud on characters' faces, along with some melodrama, were the whole extent of the game's attempt at realism. Many games are like a sheep in wolf's clothing: in their marketing they boast of maturity, but under their gritty makeup turn out to have story and characters on the level of Transformers and The Legend of Zelda; they boast of edginess but turn out to be tame enough for the diaper- and bib-wearing members of the audience.
Any Pixar film will always be more mature than a Michael Bay one, no matter how much grittiness someone taped onto the latter. Putting a sex scene into Harry Potter wouldn't turn it into A Song of Ice and Fire. No amount of f-words could make Gears of War mature. No amount of melodrama can turn Medal of Honor: Warfighter into anything more than a cliché military shooter. No amount of blood splattered onto characters' faces and armor can make Dragon Age mature (no matter how hard it tries to be), if its authors don't have the guts or the right sensibilities.
Besides authors using quasi-realism to give their games fake depth and to avoid making really mature games, the second problem with it is that it's often put into franchises in which it doesn't belong. Far Cry 2 threw away the tropical island setting and the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing protagonist of the original, putting us instead in the shoes of a malaria-infected mercenary in Africa, and giving us a choice between working for two equally crooked factions. The game had almost nothing in common with its predecessor, except for lush vegetation. Luckily, Far Cry 3 sobered up and returned to what the franchise was about.
According to the developers of Dead Rising 3, the game will bring a darker tone to the traditionally goofy series that mixed humor with zombies. Developers said the game will still have humor, and that they wanted to juxtapose a more serious world and story with silly things like ridiculous costumes and weapons. But if we can judge by the screens and the gameplay footage, DR3 looks like a usual gritty, brown game, and dressing the main character in silly costumes doesn't change that. Dead Rising creator Keiji Inafune said that this is different from the game he would have made. "I have seen the footage. It's not the direction that I would have taken it in. It's not the game I would have made. That's not to say it's wrong - I'm sure Capcom have their reasons, and they might well be right. But for me, as a creator, personally, it's a different direction."
Star Wars 1313, a third-person action game Disney cancelled after buying Lucas Arts, was to follow a bounty hunter, possibly Boba Fett, as he tries to unravel a conspiracy in the criminal underground of Coruscant. The game was supposed to take a more mature, gritty direction compared to past Star Wars games. But Star Wars isn't supposed to be gritty, no more than The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek are. Star Wars is about the hero's journey, about friendship, adventure, X-Wings and lightsabers. It's an epic space opera about the struggle between good and evil; it's not supposed to be a starkly realistic story about the struggle between rival gangs. Dark realism is great in Alien, Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica, but that doesn't mean Star Wars should be turned into them. I like A Song of Ice and Fire more than The Lord of the Rings, but I wouldn't want the film and game adaptations of Tolkien's work to be turned into dark fantasy, because that's not what they're about. Not everything has to be dark and realistic.
This tendency to put quasi-realism into everything, like putting salt and onions into every dish, even into desserts, has, of course, come from Hollywood, from such movies as the gritty reboot of James Bond. After Hollywood filmmakers had used their necromantic arts on this franchise so many times over the years, they didn't know how to again give it some semblance of life. They knew that James Bond movies no longer attracted much interest, but they didn't want to abandon them, for they still wanted to milk money out of this lucrative undead cow. Their solution was to make the movie quasi-realistic. They threw out all its stylized elements, such as engineer Q's gadgets - and by doing so they threw out everything that differentiated it from other spy films. If they wanted to do it this way, they could have made another film, with a different main character. The authors would probably call their reboot risky and brave, but it's actually cowardly. It's worse cowardice than continuing to make Bond films as they were before, because this new cowardice poses as bravery. Of course, the best thing to do with this franchise was to give it a mercy-killing. For a long time it has been begging, "Please... somebody kill me... pleeease."
Crystal Dynamics cited the James Bond film Casino Royale for the tone they tried to strike with their Tomb Raider reboot. Tomb Raider used to be an Indiana Jones kind of treasure-hunting adventure; now they've turned it into a gritty survival story. That would be like making an Indiana Jones film where Indy doesn't hunt for ancient artifacts, but instead, say, throughout the whole film tries to escape from a Nazi death camp. That could be a good escape-from-a-death-camp movie, but it wouldn't be an Indiana Jones movie.
If film and game authors feel shame or dislike for a franchise or genre they're working on, why not leave that franchise to someone who likes it, instead of trying to transform it into something different? Likewise, if authors want to work on something different from a shallow mainstream title they're working on, why not go and do it, instead of using grittiness to give false depth to superhero films and cliché military shooters? Gritty realism should be used when there's a real need for it, not when there's a need only for a mask for hiding shallowness.
Human experience is wide. There's a place in art for both tragedy and comedy, for historical fiction and fairy tales, for realism and romanticism, for pathos and burlesque, and for any mix of these and any shade between them. Gritty realism isn't the only thing that can be mature or valuable. It's just a currently fashionable recipe for making arty and po-faced popcorn.
If in a number of years games industry comes to rival Hollywood in the level of bankruptcy-phobia and stagnation, maybe we'll see a gritty origin story of Gordon Freeman, where he'll be struggling with drug addiction and trying to pass MIT exams. Well, maybe at least we'd finally hear him speak.
Branislav Gagic has written for Unwinnable and is a regular contributor to Svet Kompjutera (Computer World) magazine. You can reach him through Twitter @BranislavGagic.