11:30pm // 3.24.2024

Massacre Them For the Hell of It

There are few things more misunderstood and unfairly maligned in media than the concept of edginess. People look at a brooding protagonist with a chip on their shoulder and a penchant for uberviolence and assume that the work is without meaning. In many cases such edginess is just funny.

Take the game Hatred (2015) for example. You play as a character known only as "The Antagonist" who decides to destroy the world he hates and everyone in it, culminating with a self-sacrifice(?) where you blow up a power plant, killing millions of New Yorkers. It is just dour and depressing, without even anything interesting to say beyond violence is bad? I guess? And is it even saying that?

Hatred Screenshot
Hatred (2015)

Hatred was essentially a modern update of 1997's highly controversial game Postal. Postal, however, is rather fondly remembered. I've never played Hatred, so I can't comment on how that game feels to play, but Postal holds up very well today, with a cool art style, disturbing soundtrack, and a dark sense of humor. It takes itself seriously, but there is a wink and a nod, letting you know that they know exactly what they're doing.

Postal Redux Screenshot
Postal's 2016 remake, Postal Redux

Due to the mixture of a dark subject matter, humor, and the fact that you don't actually have to kill any innocents to proceed, Postal actually manages to be a more disturbing game than Hatred. You're an agent of chaos murdering entire small towns because it is fun to set them on fire and watch them die - not just because the game tells you to do so to get to the next level.

And yet, Postal's use of edginess and dark humor is a difficult balance to get right. Postal 3 and 4 are not particularly funny. Postal 2 mostly works by virtue of novelty and its nature as something of a time capsule for today's audiences. Even the original game is not all that funny, it's just irreverant. And irreverance means is not going to get any kind of strong emotional reaction beyond perhaps laughter and a sense of having fun.

So is it possible to do something like Hatred right? Is it possible to have something deeply edgy played completely straight? Or do we have to continue to rely on the "Get Out of Jail Free" card that is "dark humor". All is forgiven when you're in on the joke, after all! Right? Right!?

Here Comes Prototype

When I was a young lad I read a fair few PC Gamer magazines and a fair few other miscellaneous mags covering similar kinds of games. As a kid, I was always fascinated by the games that looked dark, edgy, and violent (naturally). So it is no wonder that Prototype (2009) sparked my interest and I read any of the articles I could get my hands on. The screenshots made it look so fun, after all! The angsty amnesiac protagonist, Alex Mercer, seemed so cool, after all! Shapeshifting and flying around Manhattan sounded like a great time. Of course, as an M-rated game, there was no chance that I was going to end up with a copy. So, I settled with Infamous (2009), which I got for free during the whole Sony hack fiasco, if you remember that.

But while Infamous allowed you to choose between an "evil" or "light" side with its binary morality system, Prototype was more than happy to let you play the anti-hero. Or, what basically amounted to a villain. At the very least, Alex Mercer is quite morally ambiguous. But with a superpowered parasite stuck to him that makes him the target of rampaging monsters, the military, and insane black ops mercenaries, who can blame him?

Prototype Promotional Image
A Prototype promotional image, perfectly conveying the tone and what the game has to offer

Alex has a whole suite of powers that allow him to wreak chaos all over the city. You've got multiple, distinct attack modes and a plethora of movement options allowing you to speed across the city while killing hundreds of random pedestrians just because it is so damn fun. In fact, the game basically encourages you to kill them considering consuming civilians restores your health. At a lower rate than consuming the many monsters you face or the military, but still. New Yorkers can't be tasty, but they come in handy if you need a pick-up.

This is all to say that Prototype is deliciously edgy, from top to bottom. You play the ultimate angsty, emo badass. He broods in his hoodie while tortured by the minds of all the different people he's consumed. You stand alone against an existential threat, but are challenged at every corner. You can't remember your girlfriend, and it looks like she might even be on the side of the enemy. Your own sister is frightened by you. It's great! Blood, guts, mayhem - it's all here. And yet, it's not tongue-in-cheek. It buys what it's selling 100%. And it is all the better for it.

Prototype Screenshot
Alex Mercer using his armor power, lifting a car in an infected zone. In this mission, you actually defend the military!

It is not embarrassed by itself, it indulges in the dark and provides a great power trip for the player. It lets the player make their own dark humor, without forcing anything on them. It wants to be taken seriously, but also doesn't have any pretensions at being an art game or something that it is not. It's telling an exciting, blockbuster sci-fi story with high stakes - it knows what its strengths are and plays to them very well. This is edgy, this is good.

So why does this work where Hatred doesn't? Because it is edginess with a heart <3! Alex Mercer is a sympathetic character. He's not a faceless psychopath who is purely motivated by killing (that's for the player to indulge in) - he has goals, people he cares about, and regret for the situation he's in. The edginess is derived from his capacity for violence and the bloody action, not from the game telling you at every corner "WOAH THIS IS EDGY AND SHOCKING!!!!!!". Importantly, it also lacks pretension. This differentiates the edginess of Prototype from that of something like the brilliant anime series Texhnolyze (2003).

In this way it compares favorably to other edgy media like the World of Darkness tabletop games. A cool art style, attempts at conflicted characters and morally complex situations, and streets bathed in either blood, shadow, or moonlight - or maybe all three. Bring back the edge. Don't be afraid of it - embrace it!

Post Script: For Some Current Edginess

For a recent edgy game (with a fair bit of humor), I recommend the criminally underplayed character action game Heartless & Dreadful: Return by 72 Hours (2023). Made by one guy, he pumps out a steady stream of updates to satisfy the small community it has.

Heartless and Dreadful Screenshot
Shamir, the protagonist of Heartless & Dreadful: Return by 72 Hours, lamenting his position
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