‘2Dark’ Is Not Too Dark

In 2Dark, a cartoon aesthetic quickly alters the gravity of what would otherwise be some very heavy subject matter.

2Dark is about child murder.

Of course, this isn’t made immediately clear from the game’s description on Steam:

2Dark is a stealth adventure game developed by Frédérick Raynal, the pioneer of survival horror games and creator of Alone in the Dark®. Make your way through the lairs of psychopaths, unravel intrigue where madness mingles with horror, and, above all, save the kids!

“Child murder” is probably not an especially marketable phrase, which is fair enough. I don’t recall the content of the 2008 Angelina Jolie vehicle, Changeling, being described using such a phrase either, much, perhaps, to some viewers’ eventual surprise.

Curiously, I assume that most players of 2Dark wouldn’t be immediately likely to describe the game using this phrase either. The game is indeed a stealth adventure game that concerns guiding a detective around various environments in order to rescue abducted children. The implication of the game is that these children will become the victims of a group of psychopaths who intend most often to kill them. However, the aesthetic of the game doesn’t necessarily support the darkness of its content, making it easy to disassociate that content from this specific subject matter. This is because the game most often looks like a cartoon.

As a result, its violence is presented in an almost silly (though still macabre) manner, with retro looking 16- or 32-bit graphics supporting what would otherwise be a very grisly set of scenes if presented in some hyperrealistic fashion.

Instead, the game embraces an almost comic grotesquerie through its look and even its presentation of its characters. The villains in the game, the “level bosses”, are such excruciatingly unlikely people that it is hard to take them seriously: a clown who wants to train children to serve as an animal act in his circus, a woman who desires to collect (and transform) children into dolls, a doctor who plans to sell the organs of young children, or a gangster that wants to train children to fight one another as an absurd form of blood sport. Oh, there’s your “average” hillbilly cannibals in there somewhere, too.

Such absurdity removes the game from any kind of real footing in anything close to reality, as do the cartoonishly drawn cutscenes and other images in the game that represent the psychopaths and their nefarious deeds.

What this game, and others like it (perhaps, indie classic Limbo, for example), demonstrate is the power of aesthetic presentation to shape the tone of artistic material and to unseat it from its moorings in reality. Horrific violence against animals, for instance, becomes the subject of laughs when presented within the Saturday morning stylings of the cartoon worlds of Loony Tunes. Or, perhaps, this approach to horror and violence merely reveals the roots of the kind of disassociation that comedic aesthetics, especially those found in slapstick, can provide (The Three Stooges immediately comes to mind).

I don’t know if such comedy can arguably provide a form of catharsis from the real world and its evils, especially since catharsis is a term traditionally associated with tragedy. But then again, 2Dark, the grotesque, but still cartoonish and outlandish game and its world, probably plays more often like an absurd and unlikely tragedy than a slapstick comedy ever could anyway.

The game sounds sick, but it probably doesn’t look that way.